I always thought of bread dough as a fairly forgiving creature. Who needs to check measurements? Just toss flour in until it feels right! Why follow recipes? Just pour in some leftover oatmeal from breakfast! Want to be healthier? Just substitute whole wheat flour! Unsurprisingly, this approach wasn't always met with success. I created loaves that were too dense, that crumbled under the bread knife, or that just didn't taste that awesome. As it turns out, I was only partially wrong in my approach.
Bread is, to some extent, forgiving. But there are rules to be followed. You'll find that professional bread bakers talk about a whole lot more math than you'd expect. In bread, it's all about percentages: the amount of water used to hydrate flour, and the proportions of salt and yeast. Knowing these formulas, and how they create the ideal bread, give you a template for successful tinkering. Of course, you can always forgo the math and follow a good recipe. Like this one.
When I bake bread, it's usually a crusty hearth loaf, like Jim Lahey's no-knead recipe. But when we need a sandwich loaf, this is our current favorite. It's healthy from the whole wheat, oats and flax, but has a light crumb and a slightly sweet taste. The addition of just a bit of gluten helps compensate for the whole wheat flour, which is high in bran and fiber at the expense of structurally-helpful gluten. If you do want to engage your inner math geek, I've provided the weights as well, which will keep you in line with the ideal percentages, yielding a more consistent result.
Honey Oatmeal Flax Bread
adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum
yields 1 loaf
This loaf also makes great burger buns--cut into 9 pieces (3.5-4 ounces each, if you're feeling mathy), shape into rolls, and let rise for a slightly shorter time. If desired, brush with an egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds before baking. I also leave out the milk powder, to no ill effect, but adding it creates a more tender crumb.
1 1/4 cups + 2 Tbsp (11.5 oz) warm water
1/2 (1.3 oz) cups rolled oats
1/4 cup (1.3 oz) cracked flax seeds (you can buy a packaged flaxseed meal like this, or else take whole flax seeds and blitz them in a coffee or spice grinder)
2 cups (11.3 oz) bread flour
3/4 cup (4 oz) whole wheat flour
2 Tbsp vital wheat gluten
1 Tbsp powdered milk (optional)
1 1/8 tsp instant yeast (or a scant 1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast)
2 Tbsp (1.5 oz) honey
2 1/2 Tbsp (1.2 oz) neutral oil, like canola
2 tsp salt
Place the water, oatmeal and flax seeds in your mixing bowl, and let soak at least 15 minutes to hydrate. Sift together the flours, gluten, and milk powder (if using), and set aside.
After 15 minutes, sprinkle in the yeast (if using active dry yeast, let soften for a minute or two, but if using instant proceed to next step). Stir in the honey and oil, and then add the flour mixture. Knead for 3 minutes, then let rest for 20 minutes. Sprinkle on the salt, and knead an additional 4 minutes. The dough will be quite moist and sticky, but will clear the sides of the bowl.
Scrape the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, swish around to distribute the oil on the bottom of the dough, then flip it over so the oiled portion is on top. Cover your container, and let rise until doubled (this will take about 1 1/4 hours in a warm setting (like a turned-off oven or microwave with a bowl of hot water), longer in cooler settings.
When the dough has doubled, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, shape into a rectangle, and let rest, covered, for 15-20 minutes to let the gluten relax. Shape into a loaf (there's a nice pictorial here),and place into an oiled loaf pan. It will be a little under an inch shy of the top of the pan. Cover the loaf (I place it inside a plastic bag), and let rise again in a warm spot until the dough is over an inch higher than the top of the pan, ~1 1/4 hours.
When the dough is about 40 minutes away from being fully risen, preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and place a baking pan on the rack under where the bread will be. Slash the top of the loaf if you like that look, or leave plain. Mist the loaf with water, place in the oven, and toss a few ice cubes in your preheated pan to create steam (I'm sometimes lazy and just toss a glassful of water on the floor of the oven, but the former creates a more sustained moist cooking environment). Shut the oven door (quickly!), and lower the heat to 375. Bake for 20 minutes, rotate the loaf, and bake another 15-20 minutes, until golden brown.
Remove the loaf from the oven, and tip out of the pan onto a rack to cool. The bread will continue to cook internally, so resist cutting it open until it is fairly cool.