Cooking on the Cheap–Bread

06Jul09

When you look at it, bread is probably taken for granted more than any other food.  It is also extremely versatile and can be the epitome of comfort food.  When you walk past a bakery and smell the fresh bread baking it pulls you and makes you at the very least slow down for a moment.  That is if you can resist going in and purchasing one of those fresh baked treasures.   Most families buy it every week on their grocery trip.  At a little under $3 for a loaf of standard white bread (maybe $2 if you go for the store brand) it doesn’t feel that expensive.   One bakery near my house sells excellent loaves for $4-$5.  But can it be done cheaper?

Some people cringe in fear at the thought of making bread from scratch.  They have the impression that it takes all day to make a loaf with all the careful measuring, proofing of yeast, mixing, kneading, rising, punching down, rising again.  They have heard that everything needs to be precise.  You’ll hear many cookbooks tell you how important PRECISE measuring is when it comes to baking because of all the CHEMISTRY going on.  In reality, there is a fair amount of leeway available in any given recipe—you just have to know what those differences will do.

The list of ingredients for a basic loaf of bread is actually very short.  Really all that you need is flour, water, yeast and salt.  There are recipes that also call for sugar, honey, egg, butter, milk, or buttermilk.  I’ve even seen one that uses beer.  But the short list is the important part.  All the other things are just used for variety, although you can get a lot of variety just by different shapes.   Usually only a couple tablespoons of sugar or honey is used for a little flavor and for a little more tenderness in the crust.  The fat from butter or milk will result in a softer loaf.

Now to the nuts and bolts of it. Just how much does it cost to make a loaf of bread at home?  My favorite basic recipe is from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.   They have developed a method which eliminates many of the traditional steps and still produces good quality bread.  When calculating costs, I use the cheapest name brand I can find at a regular grocery store in what I feel is a “normal” size.   I also do not use sale prices or coupons.   Yes, I could impress you with an even cheaper price by buying a 25 pound bag of flour at a club store (and I actually do), but that won’t do you any good if you aren’t a member and don’t have room for a bag of flour the size of a four year old child.

Ingredients (enough to make 3 loaves) Cost
6 ½ cups all-purpose flour $0.86
3 cups warm water (about 100 degrees) Negligible
1 tablespoon table salt $0.02
1 ½ tablespoons instant yeast $0.84

Total Cost

$1.72=57.3 cents per loaf

The cost per loaf is about 58 cents which saves you $2.42 per loaf.

But what about the time factor.  Being able to save a couple bucks every loaf of bread is all well and good, but if you’re going to save six or seven dollars and it takes you all day to do it, is it really worth it?   That is where the technique and considering the actual active time you put into it comes in to play.

First, you put all the ingredients into a mixing bowl; don’t worry about what order—it doesn’t matter.  Mix until it is nice and uniform.  Ideally you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook, but this can be done with a wooden spoon.  Your dough will be quite wet and sticky.  Transfer the dough into a large container with a lid—but not airtight.   If your container is airtight the gases escaping from the fermenting yeast will blow the top off.  This is a great use for that big Dutch oven you never use; my favorite dough bowl has been a plastic storage container designed to store produce (it has a couple little vent holes near the top to control the air flow).   Now just ignore it for two or three hours—it should start to flatten on top.  You can cut off a piece and bake it at this point (I usually do because once I start making it I want fresh bread NOW) but it will be easier to handle if you put it in the refrigerator for at least three or four hours.  If you prefer, once you transfer the dough to your storage bowl you can put it straight into the refrigerator for 24 hours or so.  Again you want to look for the flattening top which will take a lot longer in the cold.

When it comes to baking time, start with a light dusting of flour across the top of the dough in your bowl.  Cut off about a third of it (about the size of a cantaloupe).  Take one side of the blob of dough and gently stretch it around to the bottom.  Rotate a quarter turn.   Repeat three more times.   Place the dough on a cornmeal-dusted pizza peel and let it rest for about a half hour.   (If you don’t have a baking stone, skip the pizza peel and put your dough on to a cookie sheet or into a loaf pan.)  At this point preheat your oven to 450 degrees with a baking stone (if using) on the bottom rack and a broiler pan or other shallow pan on a rack near the top.  Once your oven is hot, slide the dough onto the baking stone, pour about one cup of hot tap water into the broiler pan and quickly close the oven door.  The steam will help give you a wonderfully crisp and crackling crust.  Bake for 30 minutes, until you get a nice dark brown outer crust.  Remove from the oven and let cool (if you can stand to).

So how much time did all this actually take?   Mixing the batch of dough took about 10 minutes.  The shaping takes about five minutes. Add maybe another minute or two for the in and out of the oven and you have a total of around a half hour of time spent on all three loaves together.  The only portion of the whole process that is critical as far as timing goes is when the bread is in the oven.  Make a double batch of the original recipe and you have about 45 minutes spent to save you around $14.  Plus you have the added bonus of a house that smells like that bakery that slowed you down on the street.  Give it a try, come back and let me know what you think.  If you like it go buy the book for more recipes and ideas.

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2 Responses to “Cooking on the Cheap–Bread”

  1. 1 Bruce

    Thank you. I agree completely on the bread baking economics and simplicity. The four ingredients are the key, and even one of them (yeast) can be dispensed with for some breads. I am awful at following directions, partly through incompetence, partly through stubbornness – I can’t accept certain directions. Over time I’ve learned I am sometimes correct. Sometimes.

    I’ve been playing around with bread baking for a couple of years, and though I bought it, I am not a fan of the five minutes a day book. I don’t want to take away from anyone’s enjoyment of the book, but I found more than a few problems with it: The great idea (baking in next to no time) relied on the unoriginal idea of economy of scale and some curious math; the bread is okay, but hardly “artisan” and many of the recipes had errata. If you are curious about the details, I have a review on my website (http://Iwuzthinking.blogspot.com).

    • I haven’t come across any issues with the recipes yet, although admittedly I haven’t looked at every one. I’ve had pretty good luck with the ones I have used (the brioche recipe turned out really good caramel rolls). I will grant that a more traditional method could create better bread, but when my son’s favorite breads are this recipe and Wonder, I’m going with this one any day.


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