Monday, September 12, 2011

A fool-proof, frugal food

It's hard to ruin bread.

I learned to make bread by following recipes, diligently waiting the 1 hour specified and then punching it down, and then repeating the rising/kneading time precisely as directed.  If you read most cook books, you get the sense that you have to be home during the day to have fresh-baked bread in the evening.

Then I went to England for one summer while I was working on my math doctorate.  I stayed with a woman named Nicki who would often mix up a batch of dough early in the morning.  But she wouldn't stick around to babysit her dough; she'd abandon it all day long to go to her office.  When she got back home at night, she might punch it down or not, and then she'd bake it.  It always came out great.

Nicki did a lot of experimenting.  She'd throw all sorts of things into her dough -- different kind of flours, or handfuls of spices, eggs, nuts -- and (I repeat) it always came out great.  Since then, I've tossed in even stranger things, including mashed potatoes, olives, cheese, tomatoes, and apples (but not all at once).  The people I share my bread with always gush, and then they say they wish they could make bread.

Perhaps it's true that paying attention to rising time makes the difference between a great loaf of bread and an awesome one.  But it doesn't seem to be easy to make bad bread.   In fact, just about any homemade bread you can make will taste better than store-bought.

Homemade bread costs a lot less than comparable store-bought bread.  A standard loaf that I make is a variation on this theme:
  • 1 1/3 cup warm water (body temperature)
  • 1 Tbsp yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • about 4 cups of flour (close to one pound)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
Individual packets of yeast are horrendously pricey (75¢ to $1).  Buy yeast in bulk to save -- it will keep indefinitely in the freezer if you seal it.  I keep a large sealed bag of yeast in my freezer, and transfer smaller amounts to a jar in the fridge for every-day use.  

Flour prices vary a lot, depending on whether you go for non-nutritious white flour or more expensive but wholesome wheat, rye, and oat flours.  If a 5 lb bag of flour costs $5 (very high!), then the cost of the flour in your bread is just $1.  If you bake several loaves at once, or if you bake the bread while other food is baking, the heating costs are minimal.

Overall, it's super easy to make a delicious, nutritious loaf of bread for less than, say $3, and with only about 15 minutes of hands-on time.

Comparing this price to store-bought bread is only half the story.  Home-made bread tastes so good that it's easy to have it take the place of much more expensive foods.  Even my boys, both avid carnivores, love soup-and-bread dinners.  

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