I remember the first time I baked bread. It was a pizza, and I was nervous as I followed the recipe exactly, wondering if the yeast will work at all and if the dough will rise. Fast forward a few years, to this bread I baked last week. I warmed some water, added a bit of sugar and oil, then eyeballed the quantity of yeast that went in. My kitchenaid made short work of kneading the dough after I added flour and salt, and then it was just a question of waiting for the dough to rise, shaping it and popping it in the oven. So what's changed between then and now, you're thinking, that makes me so confident I don't even need a recipe. It's really just some basic rules and things to keep in mind when you set out to bake breads. So if you are just starting out or still scared of yeast, here are my top tips:
Every yeast is different: Recipes are really just guidelines for baking breads. For everything from how long to wait for the dough to rise to how long it should spend in the oven, please be guided by how your yeast behaves. In India, in general, the rise time will be much shorter than what's mentioned in a recipe written by someone from a colder climate. Also, while it's completely okay to add instant yeast to flour and add liquids later, I prefer 'proofing' my yeast by first adding yeast, sugar and oil to warm liquids and waiting a few minutes until the yeast gets bubbly. I then add everything else to this mixture and knead it into a dough.
Wet is good: When I first started baking bread, I would want a perfect dough and add way too much flour. I've realised over time that my best breads are the ones where I felt that the dough was too wet and shaggy. So resist the temptation to add that extra handful of flour. Keep kneading and eventually the dough will get smooth and come together.
Add salt in the end: If you drop salt right on top of the yeast, it might kill the action. So add your flour first, mix it in and then add the salt.
When in doubt, line the pan: Ever since I lost a fantastic loaf of ciabatta because it stuck to the baking tray, I make it a point to line my baking sheets and loaf pans with parchment paper. Never mind that you have a nonstick pan, just go ahead and add a layer of parchment rather than risk losing the bread.
Add texture: While it's perfectly great to bake a plain white loaf, the beauty of homemade bread is that you can add all the seeds and nuts and dried fruits that you like. While seeds can go on top or mixed into the dough when you shape it, you may not want to add sugary stuff like raisins or cranberries on top because they will burn too quickly so add them when you put the dough out for its first rise.
Wait: Yes, you are really eager to eat that bread but this is something that takes time. Do not take the bread out of the oven until it's really browned and do not cut into a loaf until its completely cooled. Can't wait and want to eat warm bread? I usually bake smaller rolls so I can eat them when warm.
Good luck, then! You may still have an occasional failure (we're dealing with yeast after all) but don't let that stop you from baking some more bread. There really is nothing nicer than the smell of bread baking in a home.