The basic ingredients for bread are flour, oil, salt, water, and a leavening agent. The easiest way to leaven bread is to purchase dry yeast granules, which you can activate when you are ready to use them. To make a very basic loaf, start by mixing one tablespoon of active dry yeast with one half cup of warm tap water in a large metal or wooden bowl. The water should be lukewarm to the touch, or it will kill the yeast. Add one tablespoon of sugar for the yeast to feed on, and let the mixture sit for approximately 10 minutes. This is called “proofing” the yeast; if the yeast is good, a rich foamy layer will have formed on top of the bowl when you return, and if you lean your head next to the bowl, you will be able to hear the yeast foaming. If this does not occur, discard the yeast and start over.
Next, add one tablespoon of salt, one half cup honey, or another sweetener of your choice, such as brown sugar, and two cups of lukewarm liquid. Tap water is excellent, but you can also scald milk for this purpose, as long as you remember to allow it to cool before mixing it in. Next, start adding white or wheat flour, or a mixture, in small increments. An exact measurement is difficult, because the amount of flour needed will change, depending on a lot of variables. Add approximately one cup at a time, mixing thoroughly between each cup with a strong mixing spoon, and after the first cup of flour, add in one quarter cup olive oil, melted butter, or another oil of choice.
Keep adding flour until the dough starts to come together in a mass. It will still be highly sticky at this point, and may be slightly lumpy. Cover a large clean, flat surface with a dusting of flour and turn the dough out onto it, allowing it to rest for several minutes before beginning the next stage. After the dough has rested, start kneading, rolling the dough into itself and working it around the kneading surface. Keep adding a dusting of flour as the dough absorbs it, and keep kneading the dough. It will start to turn smooth and elastic after approximately twenty minutes. The dough will spring back when pressed, and will also have no trace of stickiness, remaining smooth and soft to the tough. It is ready for the first rising.
Place the dough into a large oiled bowl, and cover it with a damp kitchen towel or a piece of oiled plastic wrap. Allow the dough to sit in a warm place for approximately one hour, until it has doubled in size. The yeast inside the bread is starting to do its work now that you have relaxed the gluten by kneading it, and it will start to slightly ferment the dough, forming carbon dioxide bubbles which will give the finished product a familiar texture. After the dough has doubled in size, punch it down, and make loaves. This recipe makes one large loaf, but it can also be used to make smaller loaves or rolls. Allow the loaves to rise 30 to 45 minutes, until doubled, and then place them in a 375 degrees Fahrenheit (191 degrees Celsius) for 45 minutes. When fully cooked, the bread will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, and is ready to be cooled on racks and then eaten.
Using this base recipe, you can create a variety of breads by experimenting with ingredients once you have made basic recipe successfully several times. Try adding nuts, herbs, fruit, eggs, or spices. For dense whole wheat bread, use only whole wheat flour. For more moderate version, mix white flour in, and for pure white bread, use only white flour; white flour is great for making a cinnamon loaf. You can also experiment with other grain flours, or a mixture of flours. Once you have mastered this type, you can also explore sourdoughs and other starter breads, which use a different leavening style.