Versatile Bread Dough

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This post is to enlighten readers on the versatility of bread dough. I am not talking about the stuff that you buy in the freezer section of your favorite grocery store, but rather making minor changes to a master bread dough recipe to fit any of your needs. This isn't as complicated as it may sound, and knowing these tricks will change your bread baking experience forever.

I have been baking bread as long as I can remember (which is only about 8 or 10 years old). I started following recipes exactly, and needing a new recipe for every type of bread or roll I attempted to make. This is how most bakers start out: following recipes as written, making few (if any) changes. I baked like this until I read a Swiss bread cookbook, and my baking was changed forever.

What made such a difference, you may ask? Well, it was quite simple: the author used one bread recipe to make 8 different types of bread, another recipe for 6 types of bread, and a short "textbook" on bread-making in general. It wasn't until then that I realized that all bread recipes are basically the same, with a few minor modifications based on the target application.

The reason why this revelation changed my baking so dramatically was that it allowed me to focus on my bread-making technique instead of worrying about following the recipes. Now, I rarely look for a recipe when I want to bake. Instead I just take my master recipe and modify it a little to make what I want. What follows is my master recipe, followed by some of my modifications.


Master Bread Dough: Yields 1 loaf
500 g wheat flour
300 ml warm water
2 1/4 tsp instant yeast
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp sugar
Combine all ingredients in a stand mixer fitted with the hook attachment. Mix on medium-low speed until combined, then increase the speed to medium and knead for 10 minutes. Let rise until double, or 3 hours. Shape into a loaf, let rise an additional 30 minutes, and bake at 400°F until done.
This dough will make a really basic, but super tasty, loaf of white bread. This bread is best eaten fresh, since the lack of fat means it will dry out faster than store-bought bread. It will, on the other hand, make really good toast or French toast.

Pizza Dough: Yields 2 medium pizzas.
Add 1 1/2 to 2 Tbsp olive oil to the dough. After kneading, divide dough in half and roll each half into a tight ball. Let rise 3 hours, or overnight in the fridge. Preheat oven and pizza stone to 500°F. Roll out dough into pizza shape and transfer to a pizza peel sprinkled with cornmeal. Brush 2 inches from the edge with additional olive oil. Top and bake until done, 5-10 minutes.
Pizza dough is different from regular bread dough in that it normally contains some amount of oil, mainly for flavor. Also, allowing the dough to rise for an extended period (3 hours or overnight in the fridge) yields a better flavor and chewier texture. If you only want to bake one pizza, simply place the pre-rise dough ball in a zip-top bag and freeze. Thaw overnight in the fridge and let rise until double at room temperature.

Breadsticks: Yields ca. 12 breadsticks
Follow the same instructions for pizza dough. Preheat oven and pizza stone to 500°F. Roll dough 1/2 to 3/4 inches thick. Brush with garlic butter. Transfer to a pizza peel or baking sheet. Using a pizza cutter, cut into 1 1/2 inch strips, but do not separate. Let rise 20-30 minutes. Bake until done, about 10 minutes.
In my mind, breadsticks are just that: sticks of bread. There is not much to be said about them, other than I have ruined a lot of breadsticks by not having enough water in the dough or not letting them rise long enough. These are the perfect accompaniment to any number of dishes that call for a long stick of bread to soak up any tasty sauces lingering in your plate.

Pretzels: Yields 14 pretzels
Substitute milk for half of the water. Add 2 Tbsp softened butter to the dough. After kneading, let dough rise for 1-3 hours at room temperature. Preheat oven to 400°F. Divide the risen dough into 14 portions, and roll each portion into a tight ball. Cover and let rest 10 minutes, then roll into a long "snake" and shape into a pretzel. Dip each piece into a hot "lye" solution (1000 ml water, 100 g baking soda, 1 Tbsp salt: bring to a boil, let cool slightly) for 30 seconds per side. Place on a parchment-lined sheet and sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
Pretzels differ from bread dough mainly in the fact that they are dipped in an alkaline solution prior to being baked. The purpose of this is to alter the pH of the dough, causing it to turn a deep brown when baked without over-baking the interior of the pretzel (which should be moist and chewy). In Germany, whence pretzels originate, pretzels are eaten with a slightly sweet mustard, often as an accompaniment to a savory meal, like Weissw├╝rst.

Bagels: Yields 8 bagels
Increase the sugar to 3 Tbsp. Add 2 Tbsp softened butter to the dough. Knead and let rise like normal. Preheat oven to 400°F. Divide risen dough into 8 equal portions, and roll each portion into a tight ball. Cover and let rest 10 minutes. Pinch a hole in the middle of each ball and stretch into a ring 4-5 inches in diameter. Cover, let rise 20 minutes. Dip each ring into boiling water laced with 1/4 cup sugar for 1 minutes per side. Transfer to a parchment-lined sheet and sprinkle with desired toppings (poppy seeds, sesame seeds, salt, etc). Bake 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown.
The problem with most bagels is that many people view bagels as little more than a roll with a hole in the middle. This is not true. Bagels should have a thin, crisp yet soft crust and a moist, chewy crumb (interior). The only way to achieve this is to pre-gelatinize the starch of the crust before the bagel is baked. Hence, bagels are boiled prior to being placed in the oven. The bagels produced by this recipe may not be as pretty as those bought in the store, but they are certainly tastier.

Bread Bowls: Yields 2 large or 3 medium
Make no changes to the master dough recipe. After the initial rise, divide dough into 2 or 3 equal portions and shape each portion into a tight ball. Place on a sheet lined with parchment and cover lightly with plastic. Preheat oven to 400°F. When the balls have doubled in size, brush with a mixture of 1 egg white mixed with 1 tsp water. Sprinkle with desired toppings (coarse salt, pepper, garlic powder, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, herbs, etc) and lightly slash the tops with a sharp knife or razor. Slide into preheated oven and bake 15 minutes, then remove and brush with egg white mixture again. Bake until done, 10 minutes for medium bowls or 15 minutes for large bowls. After baking, let cool slightly, then slice the top 1-1.5 inches off the top and hollow out the middle.
Bread bowls are not as complicated as they may seem. Really, all they are are over-sized rolls. The key is to use a dough that has enough water to fully hydrate the starch and gluten, but not too wet that it will not hold its shape during the rise. The egg white wash helps to crisp the crust, enhances the color, and provides a great way of getting the toppings to stick to the dough. I find the large bread bowls will easily hold 8 oz of soup, while the medium ones will hold 4-6 oz.

Pita Pockets: Yields 10 pockets
Add 1 Tbsp oil to the dough. Knead and let rise like normal. Place pizza stone in oven and preheat to 500°F. Divide dough into 10 portions and roll each portion into a tight ball. Cover lightly with plastic and let sit 10 minutes. Roll each ball into a 5 inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Bake 3 at a time, directly on the pizza stone. Bake 4 minutes on the first side, then flip and bake 2 more minutes.
Pita is a middle-Eastern bread which has a convenient pocket, perfect for stuffing. The trick to this is to have a very elastic dough which can trap the steam produced. The pocket is produced when the thin dough is placed on a very hot surface and the water in the dough turns to steam, expanding the bubbles produced by the yeast.

Tortillas: Yields 20 tortillas
Replace yeast with 2 tsp baking powder. Add 2 tablespoons lard or shortening (not butter-flavored) to the dough. Knead as normal, then let dough relax for 15 minutes. Divide into 20 equal portions, and roll each portion into a tight ball. Let rest 10 minutes, then heavily flour each ball and roll into a 10 inch circle. Preheat a heavy skillet on medium-high heat. Place tortilla in the ungreased skillet for 30 seconds on a side, or until they look done.
Tortillas are different from normal bread in that they, obviously, contain no yeast. The dough needs to be elastic enough to be rolled out thin, but should not be tough when cooked. The addition of fat will help this resolve this apparent dichotomy. The wonderful thing about this dough is that it can be frozen in ball form for up to 3 months. To use, simply thaw and proceed as is using fresh dough.

Dinner Rolls: Yields 1 dozen rolls
Increase sugar to 1/3 cup. Add 1/3 cup butter to the dough. Reduce kneading time to 5 minutes. Let rise like normal. Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide risen dough into 12 equal portions, and roll each portion into a tight ball. Arrange on a parchment lined sheet pan, or in a 9x13 baking dish. Cover and let rise 30 minutes. Bake until golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Brush tops of warm rolls with additional butter or cream.
Ah, dinner rolls. I remember my mother making similar rolls for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter or any other dinner when she wanted to impress the guests. To this day I have not been able to duplicate her rolls, but I feel that these are  a good substitute. Typically, dinner rolls are slightly sweet, and very tender, hence the higher sugar and fat content. Also, dinner rolls have very thin, soft crusts, which is the reason behind the lower baking temperature.

I hope that these recipes have shown you the versatility of bread dough. To tell the complete and honest truth, the master bread dough will work for most types of breads out there. These variations simply take into account the desired characteristics of whatever it is you are making. If there was one lesson I would hope to be able to teach, it would be that bread is not as scary as some cookbooks would have people believe. In fact, I think it the most forgiving form of baking out there. Unlike cakes, cookies, or pastries, which fail dramatically if you get the proportions wrong, bread can take a little bit of abuse. If you found you added too much water, just add flour a tablespoon at a time until it looks better.
Bread baking is fun. Trust me. Just master the basic technique, and the world is your oyster...um...loaf?

Bread Bowls
Cinnamon Rolls (just use your favorite filling, roll, slice, rise, and bake)
Pita Bread
Master Bread Loaf (Substitute 200g of flour for whole-wheat flour)

Bagels: not my best representation, but it's my only picture
Roll made according to the pretzel receipe

Zopf: master dough recipe, then braided, brushed with egg wash, let rise, and bake
Pizza with mushrooms and olives: again, not my best, but my only current picture.




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