Here is the important point, for the bread may be perfect thus far and then be spoiled in baking. No definite rules can be given that apply equally well to every stove and range; but one general rule must be observed, which is, to have a steady, moderate heat, such as is more minutely described in the directions for baking large cakes. The oven must be just hot enough; if too hot, a firm crust is formed before the bread has expanded enough, and it will be heavy. To test the heat, place a teaspoon of flour on an old piece of crockery (to secure an even heat), and set in middle of the oven; if it browns in one minute the heat is right, An oven in which the bare hand and arm can not be held longer than to count twenty moderately, is hot enough. The attention of stove-makers seems never to have been directed to the fact that there is no accurate means of testing the heat of ovens, but it is to be hoped that in the near future some simple device may be found which will render unnecessary such inaccurate and untrustworthy tests as must now be used, and thus reduce baking to a science. To test whether the bread is done, break the loaves apart and press gently with the finger; if elastic it is done, but if clammy, not done, and must be returned to the oven; or, if the loaves are single, test with a straw plucked from a broom. Break off the branches and thrust the larger end into the loaf; if it is sticky when withdrawn, the bread is not done, but if free from dough it is ready to be removed from the oven. The little projections on the straw, where the branches have been broken off, catch and bring out the dough, when not thoroughly baked.
The time required for baking is not less than three-quarters of an hour, and bread baked a full hour is more wholesome and is generally considered more palatable. "The little fairy that hovers over successful bread-making is heat, not too little nor too much, but uniform."
When removed from the oven, take the loaves out of the pan, grease the entire outer crust with melted butter, and tilt them on edge, so as to secure a free circulation of air. It is better not to cover bread while warm, unless with a light cloth to keep off flies. Thoroughly exposed to the air the surface cools first, insuring a crisp crust and the retention of the moisture in the loaf. There are those, however, who follow successfully the plan of wrapping the bread, as soon as it is removed from the oven, in a coarse towel or bread-cloth. Never put warm bread next to wood, as the part in contact will have a bad taste. Spread a cloth over the table before placing the bread on it.
Good bread-makers differ widely as to the number of times bread should rise, some insisting that the rule of our good grandmothers, who only allowed it to rise once, insures the sweetest and most nutritious bread, and that in all subsequent fermentations, a decomposition takes places that is damaging to the wholesome qualities of the "staff of life."
If by accident or neglect the bread is baked too hard, rub the loaf over with butter, wet a towel and wrap it in it, and cover with another dry towel. In winter, bread dough may be kept sweet several days by placing it where it will be cold without freezing, or by putting it so deep into the flour barrel as to exclude it entirely from the air. When wanted for use, make into bread, or, by adding the proper ingredients, into cake, rusk, biscuit, apple dumplings, chicken pie, etc.
When the bread is cold, place in a stone jar or tin box, which must be thoroughly washed, scalded and dried each baking day. A still better receptacle for bread is a tin wash-boiler with a close cover, kept for this purpose alone. When small, single loaf pans are used, the bread may be removed to cool, the pans washed and dried, and the loaves afterwards replaced each in its pan, and then set away in a box or boiler. The pan helps to keep the bread moist and palatable for several days.
The best pan for bread is made of Russia iron (which is but little more costly than tin and will last many times as long), about four by ten inches on the bottom, flaring to the top, and about four and one-half inches deep. The pan should be greased very lightly for bread.
Attention to neatness, important in all cookery, is doubly important in bread-making. Be sure that the hair is neatly combed and put up (which ought to be done before the dress is put on every morning), and that the hands, arms and finger-nails are scrupulously clean. A neat calico apron with bib, and sleeves of dress well-tucked up and fastened so that they will not come down, add much to the comfort of this the most important task of the kitchen queen.
There are three critical points in the process of bread-making: the condition of the yeast, which must never be used if sour; the temperature where the bread is set to rise, which must not be so hot as to scald; and the temperature of the oven, which must be uniform, neither too hot nor too cold.
In cutting warm bread for the table, heat the knife, and, whether hot or cold, cut only as much as will be eaten. It is better to replenish the bread-plate once or even twice during a meal than to have slices left over to dry up and waste.
When using coal, put into the fire-box enough to finish the baking; adding more during the process is apt to render the oven-heat irregular. When wood is used, make a good hot fire, see that the stove has a good, free draft, and let it cool to an even, steady heat before putting the bread in the oven. The finest bread may be completely spoiled in baking, and a freshly-made fire can not be easily regulated.
The patent iron shelves, made to be attached to the pipes of stoves and ranges, are very convenient places for placing bread to, rise. They give the necessary warmth, and the height is convenient for watching.
The proportion of gluten in wheat, and consequently in flour, varies greatly in different varieties. Flour in which gluten is abundant will absorb much more liquid than that which contains a greater proportion of starch, and consequently is stronger; that is, will make more bread to a given quantity. Gluten is a flesh-former, and starch a heat-giver, in the nutritive processes of the body. Flour containing a good proportion of gluten remains a compact mass when compressed in the hand, while starchy flour crumbles and lacks adhesive properties. Neither gluten or starch dissolve in cold water. The gluten is a grayish, tough, elastic substance. In yeast-bread, the yeast, in fermenting, combines with the sugar in the flour and the sugar which has been added to the flour, and carbonic acid gas and alcohol are produced. The gas tries to escape, but is confined by the elastic, strong gluten which forms the walls of the cells in which it is held, its expansion changing the solid dough into a light, spongy mass. The kneading process distributes the yeast thoroughly through the bread, making the grain even. The water used in mixing the bread softens the gluten, and cements all the particles of flour together, ready for the action of the carbonic acid gas. In baking, the loaf grows larger as the heat expands the carbonic acid gas, and converts the water into steam and the alcohol into vapor, but it, meantime, loses one-sixth of its weight by the escape of these through the pores of the bread. Some of the starch changes into gum, the cells of the rest are broken by the heat, the gluten is softened and made tender, and the bread is in the condition most easily acted upon by the digestive fluids.
There is a great difference of opinion as to the comparative merits of bread made from fine flour, and Graham, or whole wheat flour. The latter is undoubtedly best for persons who lead sedentary lives, as the coarse particles stimulate the digestive organs, causing the fluids to flow more freely; while for those who follow active, out-of-door pursuits, the fine flour bread is probably best, as being more nutritious and economical, because wholly digested.
There is an old and true saying, that " she who has baked a good batch of bread has done a good days work." Bread-making should stand at the head of domestic accomplishments, since the health and happiness of the family depends immeasurably upon good bread; and there is certain to come a time in the experience of every true, thoughtful woman when she is glad and proud of her ability to make nice, sweet loaves, free from soda, alum, and other injurious ingredients, or bitter regret that she neglected to learn, or was so unfortunate as not to have been taught, at least the first requisites of good bread-making.