1) It's Not As Fragile As You Think It Is
Perhaps one of the most important things to remember when you begin your bread baking journey is that you do not need to be as gentle as you think when handling bread dough! Most often when I teach any sort of baking skill, I notice people are almost too afraid to touch what they're working on for fear of ruining the final product. DON'T BE AFRAID! Get in there, get messy, and handle that bread dough like a boss (more like a parent....you are guiding and pushing it to be its best self).
2) Read Instructions First!
Yes, this is annoying. But SO necessary. To be able to handle that dough like a pro, you need to know exactly where you're headed with it. Read the instructions at least once (if not twice)....that way you won't be looking back and forth from dough to paper trying to see if you're doing it right. You won't feel confident if this is happening, and the bread will sense it.
3) Make Sure You Have The Right Equipment
While bread baking doesn't really require any "right" equipment, there are certain tools you might find make a world of a difference in your final loaf. Read the directions and consider whether any special tools listed in them will help you significantly. The tool I find most useful is my digital scale....weighing ingredients ensures consistent measurements and finished product each time. A cup of flour typically weighs around 4.25 oz - try scooping with a measuring cup and weighing it, and see how drastic the difference is!
4) Mise En Place
The French term 'mise en place' simply means 'everything in its place'. Having all of your ingredients laid out before you on the same work surface (and necessary tools/equipment too!) will make the process that much easier. You'll also bake with more confidence if you aren't running around your kitchen looking for lost items.
5) Room Temp Ingredients & Warm Atmosphere
If your recipe mentions "room temperature eggs" or "warm water," pay attention and listen to it. Bacteria and yeast in the bread will grow best in warm atmospheres, so it makes sense that room temperature ingredients will aid in this process. On the opposite side, if a recipe calls for something cold, make sure it's cold. More often then not, your recipe will also let you know to proof the dough covered in a warm place. This is important too! It will rise faster in a warm environment and you'll be able to recognize this as you wait for the dough to double in size. Bread dough loves to be warm and cozy!
If you're making your dough the night before you want to bake, refrigerating overnight can help slow the process, allowing you to bake it fresh in the morning!
**Note: If you use active dry yeast, you may need to proof it before adding it to the dough! This means waking it up in warm water to make sure it's alive. Read the package of yeast for directions!**
6) Let Cool Completely
When it comes out of the oven, your kitchen will smell divine and your every instinct will tell you to slice right into your perfect creation. Don't do it! Slicing too soon can break the structure of beautiful gluten strands you worked so hard to build. I know you want your first slice to have that perfect texture and lovely open crumb.....waiting at this point will be worth it. Sit back and relax and enjoy the scent of freshly baked bread.
7) Take Notes For Next Time!
As you bake more often, you'll notice things you might want to change for next time. Needs a little more salt? Want to add sesame seeds to the crust? Keep a journal or list and take note of how the final product turned out and how you might be able to improve next time. Maybe you needed to knead the dough a little longer or give it some more time in the oven....you will thank yourself for taking these notes next time you step into the kitchen.
Need a recipe ? Here are two I love:
This no-knead recipe from King Arthur Flour is wonderful if you want a crusty, easy-to-make loaf to practice your skills on!
If you have sourdough starter and want to make a delicious loaf, try this one! Bon Appetit is one of my favorite places to go for reliable recipes.