Here’s how to start baking bread (and much more) during quarantine

Baking bread is all over social media right now. Here, master baker Godfrey McKenzie of Dolce & Ciabatta Bakery in Leesburg offers his home-baking tips for all.

hands with bread dough on floured surface
Photo by Nadya Spetnitskaya

There’s an infinite number of times the words “vaccine” and “cure” have been Googled this week during the widespread COVID-19 pandemic. 

But even though we’re all searching for answers, we’re also searching for great ways to spend our newfound free time, and one of the winners is as simple as it gets: Baking bread. You’ve probably seen your friends on social media posting photos of their warm loaves fresh out of the oven. So much so that grocery stores in the DMV are not just seeing shortages of toilet paper and Clorox wipes, but also artisan flours and active yeast packets

If you’re one of the interested participants in this growing trend, you might be wondering where to start. Questions like “What’s a sourdough starter?” and “Can I bake a loaf in my dutch oven?” are totally normal, but before you jump in head first, we wanted to help. 

We spoke with Godfrey McKenzie, master baker at Dolce & Ciabatta Bakery in Leesburg for some expert tips. Here’s what you need to know about organic flour, leavening and so much more. Highlights from our conversation below. 

Right now, we are in really uncertain times around the world. Bread, however, is a staple that seems so simple and necessary at times like these. What does it mean to you to be baking bread and nourishing your community right now?

It feels more important than ever to do what I do best, especially in times like these. I am very thankful for our community, our loyal customers for all the love and support that we have been getting. I am grateful for my team who works with me to create our products and make our patrons day just a little sweeter and brighter. 

Since more people are spending time at home, they are venturing into making their own bread and we need your help. Let’s start at the beginning: Where should home bakers look to for resources, recipes and more?

Let’s start with the main ingredients. 

  • Flour: For bread making, it is best to use high-gluten flour (it can be found online, or locally in Wegmans or Whole Foods). High-gluten flour has a higher protein level that will complement the yeast during the proofing process.
  • Yeast: I recommend using fresh/cake yeast because of the yeasty flavor, and it is not as aggressive in nature in comparison to instant dry yeast. When using fresh yeast, the dough rises slowly, which allows the flavor profile to develop. If you have to use dry instant yeast, its best to cut volume to half the weight of fresh yeast.
  • Water: It is important to use cold water. If water is too warm, yeast will be activated rapidly and as a result bread will have no flavor, as it did not have time to go through any fermentation.
  • Add-ins: Locally grown dried fruits and nuts can make a great addition to your bread. If using nuts, be sure to toast or roast them—it will enhance the flavor of the finished product.
  • My go-to flour brand is King Arthur Flour for its high quality and consistency. I would recommend checking their website for recipes and ideas.

For someone who has never baked bread before, what advice would you give them?

Bread baking may seem to be a very easy task, since it only has a few simple ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. But it is important to remember that bread can’t be rushed, it is a process that takes time. One thing to remember is that all of your patience will be paid off at the end and it’s totally worth it! 

Do you have any other product recommendations for home bakers?

I have partially covered this above with King Arthur Flour, but I want to stress the importance of using high-quality ingredients as they do affect the final product. For example, butter, if you notice, has different fat contents in a variety of brands. You should always pick the one with higher fat content (since that means that there is less added water). I also recommend using unsalted butter, that way you can control the amount of salt in the recipe. Don’t forget about a good nonstick pan liner and nonstick pan spray.

What types of bread do you think would be the best to try to bake at home?

Brioche loaf or rollsit is a very versatile bread, it has a delicious, rich, butter flavor. Great choice for burger buns, sandwiches or toasts, and leftover brioche will make killer croutons! It is also easy to work with since it doesn’t require steam or a special oven, so you can easily make it at home.

Other than bread, what other home baking projects would you recommend readers to try in order to pass the time, or help them learn a new skill?

Cookies, especially now, since there is no school. Cookie-making projects can be fun for both kids and adults. You can make a basic cookie dough and then use your imagination to what you can add to it (candy, Oreos, marshmallows, chocolate chips and nuts are all great options). From one batch of dough you can make a wide variety of cookies!  

What’s something that continues to give you hope in times like these, especially as a chef, but also just as a person?

Our patrons that come to the bakery every morning to support us and to satisfy their sweet tooth. We have developed very special relationships with our regulars that we value and we will do our best to continue providing authentic breads and pastries for our community.

Is there anything else readers should know about home baking and baking bread?

Here are a few more technical pieces of information that may help. They are small but important. Make sure you oven is preheated, before you start baking. If you are making a crusty bread (like baguette or Italian rustico), it is important to use steam. Home ovens don’t have steam, but there are a couple of ways to create steam. For one, you can put a pan (with no water) in the oven three to five minutes before the bread is ready to be baked. Load the bread into the oven, pour a cup of water in the hot pan and shut the oven. Another way is to use a spray bottle, load the bread in the oven and then spray the walls of the oven with the water. Steam slows down the baking time of the crust, giving the interior of the bread time to develop and create a crustier loaf. 

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