The term "bread" encompasses a wide variety of staple foods eaten in many parts of the world, made mainly from flour and water which are combined and heated. All sorts of different flours may be used depending on the cuisine and its region of origin; wheat (including barley and rye), corn, rice, chickpea, mung bean, and cassava flour are each common in certain areas. Major methods of heating include baking, grilling, and steaming.
Breads can be roughly categorized based on whether they are leavened or unleavened. Leavened breads are made in such a way that gas is introduced into the dough during preparation and/or heating and the dough is designed to retain this gas, resulting in a material interspersed with holes and having a soft texture. Gas can be introduced by microbes, chemical reaction, or mechanical action. Unleavened breads do not employ this technique, and thus are generally dense, although they may be lightened by the release of steam when the dough is heated.
Bread may be rolled or pressed flat before heating, or made into bulkier shapes. Breads that comes in flat sheets are generally known as "flatbreads", and form a large class of breads globally, because they have a form that makes them convenient for picking up, wrapping around, or being topped with food. In most cases unleavened dough is prepared as flatbread, although there are also leavened flatbreads. A common pattern in flatbread preparation around the world is to press it thin enough that when the water inside it turns to steam during the heating process, the bread inflates into a ball, causing many thin layers separated by air to form inside the flatbread. This increases its pliability and gives it a softer, lighter texture, which is particularly advantageous when using unleavened dough. Because of the density of unleavened dough, it's uncommon to make it into bulky shapes.
It is something of a taxonomic challenge to distinguish between bread and noodles. Noodles are also made with flour and water. What distinguishes them is that they are almost always boiled, whereas bread generally is not, and have a strong tendency to appear in strands. They are also used somewhat differently in the cuisines where they exist, typically by being coated in a sauce that adheres to them or served in a soup. Bread may be topped with a sauce, but generally a thinner one (maybe even a soup) poured over the bread or a thicker one used as a spread, and is commonly served alongside soup for dipping into it or tearing the bread into the soup just before eating. These are all generalizations, but in practice the distinction between bread and noodles is almost always clear.
It is also challenging to distinguish between bread and cake. The main factor is the richness of the dough, particularly in terms of the fat content but also typically taking sugar into account. There is a continuum between bread and cake as a result of this, instead of a hard line, with doughs mostly or totally devoid of fat and sugar being definitively "bready" and doughs with a high fat and sugar content being definitively "cakey". In the middle are items like muffins and cornbread which can be breadier or cakier depending on the recipe. In line with this, breadier doughs tend to emphasize gluten development and thus are on the chewy side, whereas cakey doughs tend to minimize it and thus are more tender. Fat shortens gluten strands (hence the term "shortening") and thus helps to inhibit gluten development in cakes.
Gluten is a composite of proteins found in the endosperm of the caryopses of some agriculturally-significant grasses, particularly those in the Triticeae tribe such as wheat, barley, and rye. Oats also contain a form of gluten although its character varies by cultivar. Glutens provide the grains where they are found with some highly desirable culinary properties due to their propensity to form molecular networks of chains, which increase viscosity and stretchiness in materials where they are present. Leavened breads are made possible through these protein networks, which serve to trap gas in microscopic "cages" that prevent it from leaving the dough.
Gluten can be developed through mechanical action such as kneading. This increases the length of the molecular chains and their interconnectedness, which makes dough stretchier, chewier, more resitant to tearing and crumbling, and better able to retain gas. This is why so-called artisan breads have large holes and a robust, pleasantly chewy crumb, is part of what gives high-quality Italian pasta its famous chewy, springy, "al dente" texture, and is why vanishingly thin flour tortillas still have enough structural integrity to support burrito construction.
On the other hand, extensive gluten development is not desirable in baked goods where tenderness is prized, such as cakes and pie crusts. Fat is added to the dough in these cases, which "cuts" the molecular protein chains and keeps them from getting too long, thereby reducing the robustness of the gluten network. Also, the methods for preparing them often involve mechanically stimulating the dough as little as possible once the flour is introduced; many cake recipes involve beating large amounts of air into the liquid ingredients and then folding the dry ingredients in as gently as possible just before baking. Baked goods in this class are often leavened through chemical action, or even purely through mechanical action as in the case of a genoise. It's uncommon for them to leavened by fermentation, because the gas would mostly escape due to the comparatively slow rate at which it is introduced through that method (Belgian waffles are a notable exception to this rule). Even in these cases, though, the presence of gluten helps the dough to retain gas and thus stay light in texture as it bakes.
Knowledge of these dynamics is essential to technical understanding of wheat-based bread and pastry recipes. If you keep this information in mind as you work with glutenous doughs, your intuitive understanding of how they can be formulated and handled to produce certain effects will be deepened greatly. Perhaps this prospect thrills you; in that case, I recommend reading a baking textbook, such as Gisslen's Professional Baking.
It has become fairly common, at least here in the U.S., for people to avoid eating gluten on the premise that it is unhealthy in some way. This is true in the case of those who suffer from celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, and the like. However, there is nothing generally unhealthy about eating gluten; if there was, wheat, barley, and rye would not have functioned as staples for large populations since prehistoric times. I have heard people say that various aspects of the modern Western diet have caused gluten sensitivty to become more common as of late; this may be true, but even if so I doubt it casts aspersions on gluten itself, since many people in Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and so on substited largely on bread alone for centuries. In fact, wheat has the distinction of having the highest protein content of any non-legume staple food, making it particularly nutritious, and glutens are the majority of this protein.
I have personally known people who experience extreme digestive upset for hours after ingesting even miniscule quantities of glutenous foods, break into hives and even go into anaphylactic shock if they eat wheat, or are chronically anemic from damage to their intestines due to gluten sensitivty. These people are surely right to avoid gluten.
However, I've also encountered people who avoid gluten on the basis that they feel depressed, a sense of general malaise, have a runny nose, or similar after eating glutenous foods, or feel somehow generally healthier or happier after having stopped eating them. It's possible that anyone with such experiences does have a gluten intolerance, but I think in such cases it's really worth seeing a doctor about, ideally a specialist in immune disorders or the like, since avoiding gluten is an arduous and expensive task in the U.S. and you miss out on a lot of delicious foods and drinks. That sort of reaction could easily be psychosomatic or caused by another substance that's easier to avoid, and I think it's really worth pinning that down. Anyone is free to eat however they like within their means, of course, I just think it's worth considering for quality-of-life's sake.
As a side note, I once met someone who thought they had a wheat allergy because flour made their hands turn red and itch when they handled it. This reaction can happen to just about everybody, because flour is aggressively hydrophilic, and will dry out the skin on your palms by sucking the water out. It's similar to how people's hands turn red when making onigiri, partially because their palms are covered in salt which does the same thing. If this happens to you while you're baking, put some lotion on your hands once your food is in the oven and see if that helps; when I was working as a pastry chef's assistant I constantly struggled against eczema on my wrists because the skin there got so dry. On the other hand, if your lips swell, you break out everywhere in a rash, your throat starts to close, etc. when you eat wheat, then stay away for sure.
Lastly, if you're someone who has recently discovered that you must avoid gluten and you feel that there's practically nothing you can eat now, know that there's a universe of foods and even whole cuisines that don't involve wheat. Rice-based cuisines, of which there are many, present themselves right away, but even on this page breads are mentioned that do not rely on gluten. For example, corn tortillas, for which there is a recipe below, formed a pillar of the cuisines of many cultures in Central and North America before the arrival of Europeans, because wheat did not exist in the Americas before it was brought from the Eastern Hemisphere. Those people lived and died for thousands of years without ever encountering a single gluten molecule and devised a vast array of dishes and approaches to cooking anyway.
I am strongly of the opinion that breads should not be stored in the fridge regardless of type. Bread goes stale faster the closer it is to freezing, and therefor refrigerating bread accelerates staling. This does not mean the bread dries out faster, which is a different process. Staling is a family of chemical processes which cause bread to become tough and coarse in texture and blander and less pleasant in flavor, due significantly to starch molecules recrystalizing as well as oxidation and the like. It can be reversed somewhat by reheating the bread, but even if you like toast and such there are better ways to store your bread.
For long-term storage of fresh bread in a way that retains its texture, slicing (if bulky) and freezing it is the way to go, I think. This prevents staling and loss of moisture almost entirely as long as the bread is stored in a freezer-proof container—a thick plastic bag with the air pressed out of it, or even a vacuum-sealed bag, is ideal to protect against oxidation. You can then defrost individual servings as needed in a toaster oven, broiler, or frying pan. Gently defrosting will restore a texture like fresh bread, whereas more aggresive heating will give toast in the case of sliced bread and large crackers in the case of flatbread.
Alternatively, you can store fresh bread at room temperature in a breadbox, wrapped in paper, on a cutting board, etc. It will dry out under these circumstances, of course, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Cuisines based around bread generally have whole families of recipes for handling bread at various stages of drying-out, since refrigeration came around recently in history and bread kept in a sealed container at room temperature molds. Dried-out bread keeps for a long time, since mold can't form without moisture, and can be used to make a wide variety of dishes like bread pudding, croutons, migas, soups served over bread slices, etc. Just think of your favorite bread-oriented cuisine and go through the dishes that incorporate bread, considering which ones were probably designed originally for bread that had been out for a while. Make sure you have a nice sharp serrated bread knife if you go this route with bulky bread.
The only place I deviate from these guidelines is with rolls, which I sometimes store in an airtight bag at room temperature and eat within a day or two. This is because rolls dry out quickly when exposed to air, and from the outside in, so that they can become hard to eat whole over the course of only a few hours. Similar difficulties are encountered if you freeze them whole, because to fully defrost them, you often have to toast them some on the outside, so they get hard to bite into. The solution to this is to cut them in half before freezing, but then you have half-rolls, which are great for making sandwiches and the like but don't provide the same kind of satisfaction that biting into a whole roll can. Storing them in a bag at room temperature has one major downside, which is that the crust almost immediately becomes soft, but soft rolls are still pretty good.
This is an issue that is larger than just bread, extending to discussion of grain-as-food in general. However, it's certianly a factor that has a dramatic impact on people's bread choices, so I discuss it here as it relates to bread specifically. In particular, I restrict my discussion to wheat bread, which is the domain on which it seems to have the largest bearing. There is also the issue of white vs. brown rice flour, but I discuss that on the rice page. In general, whole grain flour has more fiber and nutrients than white flour, but how much this matters for you nutritionally depends on the rest of your diet. How much it matters for you culinarily depends on your tastes, of course.
Whole wheat flour includes the germ and bran of the wheatberry. The germ is a wheat embryo; the bran is the hard outer layer of the wheatberry, roughly analagous to an eggshell. Both include protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and oils. White flour is made from wheat that has been milled to remove its germ and bran, leaving behind the endosperm. The endosperm is mostly starch with some protein, and is roughly analagous to the yolk and whites of an egg, providing energy for a growing wheat embryo or for an animal that manages to consume the endosperm.
The oils in the bran and germ easily and quickly become rancid after milling. This is one of the advantages that white flour has over whole wheat flour. As long as it is kept dry and in an airtight container, white flour can stay good for years. Whole wheat flour, in contrast, has a shelf life measured in weeks, after which the rancid oils will make it unpalatable. This process can be slowed somewhat by keeping whole wheat flour in the freezer, but it will still be vulnerable to oxidation in that environment and thus will still become rancid. If you're buying whole wheat flour off the shelf, see if you can find the date it was packed on the bag; it's not uncommon for bags of whole wheat flour to go rancid while sitting on grocery store shelves. If you're buying it in bulk, give the bulk bin a sniff and see if it smells like old oil—you'll have better luck at a store where the bulk section gets high turnover. You can also buy whole wheatberries and a home grain mill and mill it yourself as you need it, which I think is logical if you really love baking with whole wheat flour and have the time and money to spare. As a bonus, you can use the same grain mill to crack barley for homebrewing.
The other major advantage white flour has over whole wheat flour is that it makes more easily-handled bread dough, and results in bread with better oven spring and therefore lighter and airier crumb. Dough made with whole-wheat flour is sticky, which can make working with it frustrating, and the resulting bread is crumblier and denser—much denser in the case of 100% whole wheat bread, as you probably realize if you've ever bought a 100% whole wheat sandwich loaf and compared it to white bread. For these reasons, a lot of commercial "whole wheat breads" are made from a mix of whole wheat and white flour. I also do this with bread I make at home—usually I don't use more than 30% whole grain.
It seems to be fairly commonly felt, especially among those who focus on eating healthy, that eating any refined grain is bad and only whole grains are worth consuming. I think that if a large majority of the volume of food you consume in a day is grain, that might be true, but in that case your diet isn't very balanced. The main advantages of eating whole grain are that you get more fiber, more vitamins and minerals, and so on, but you can also get those things from eating fruits and vegetables. As long as you eat a good portion of fruits or vegetables along with your bread, and eat a wide variety of them, I think you can eat white bread without any concern. If you don't eat much in the way of fruits and vegetables, then I think it makes more sense to be strict about eating whole wheat bread, but if you're worried about eating healthy I think you'd be better off working them into your diet if you can. In times when I don't have much in the way of fruits and vegetables available to me, I often switch to eating all whole grain for the fiber, but otherwise most of the grain I eat is refined.
The other reason to eat bread made with whole grain flour is for its culinary appeal. Whole wheat flour has a nutty, almost chocolatey taste, while whole rye is tangy and rich. I really like these flavors, and I often work some of both into my bread recipes.
These are breads leavened through fermentation with a robust crust, chewy but airy crumb with big holes, and complex flavors. They often use only a few ingredients and thus can provide an opportunity for skilled bakers to showcase their skills, hence the term "artisan". You may simply think of these as "fancy breads".
As you can tell by the scare quotes I keep using, I feel weird about the term "artisan" in this context. It's industry jargon meant to distinguish these kinds of breads from the more common mass-produced sandwich loaves and the like, as well as quick breads such as muffins and scones, which is an understandable distinction to make. However, I feel like it gives off a kind of posh and elitist vibe, like you can't make these breads unless you're a cartoon French guy with a big chef's hat and a twirly moustache. You're easily capable of making these breads even if you don't consider yourself a "bread artisan". After all, their lineage goes back to the bread everyday people used to make as their staple food in the countryside in Western Europe, so they're really not such a frou-frou affair.
One of the fun things about them, though, is that they really give you an opportunity to expres yourself as a baker, because there's a ton of different variables you can tweak to your liking when making them—microbial culture, fermentation conditions, flour blend, additives like nuts and seeds, shape, baking temperature, baking time, and on and on. With some practice and experimentation, you can make bread that's distinctively yours and fits your preferences better than anything you can buy, even from a high-end bakery.
You can get great results with just a sheet pan. That said, if you get really into making them, acquiring a Dutch oven and a pizza stone or two will open up new possibilities for you. I don't have a pizza stone (although I wish I did) so I can't really comment at length on them; their primarily purpose is to more effectively retain and transmit heat to your bread than a sheet pan can, although you can also soak one in water and use it to generate steam. I do have a Dutch oven, though, and I think just about everyone should, since they can be had for quite cheap and they're extremely useful in lots of different ways. When baking bread, they do double-duty, transmitting and retaining heat well and holding in steam released by the bread as it bakes. You can make boules in a Dutch oven that can stand alongside the best bread available in your city.
Also, you really need a kitchen scale. Usually, I give measurements both by weight and volume, but in this case I'm only going to give them by weight, because measuring flour by volume is very imprecise. Flour has a lot of air in-between its particles, but it can easily be tamped down to varying degrees as you're trying to measure it, so a measuring cup that appears to be full of flour can have a wide range of actual quantities in it. There are things you can do to help mitigate this, like filling the cup in one go and gently scraping the top with a knife, but for recipes where the ratio between flour and water has a huge impact on the results, it's necessary to be more precise than that if you want your bread to come out the way you envisioned every time.
To give credit where it's due, much of what I know about baking breads like these comes from three sources: Ken Forkish's Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, Gisslen's Professional Baking, and Gina Petitti's Buon-A-Petitti YouTube channel. I also have a lot of general baking knowledge from my time working for the late, great Virginia Wood, although she was focused on pastry. I've absorbed information from a lot of other random sources as well, but these are the ones that have really made an impact on me.
I'm going to go into a technical disussion of how breads like this work and what you can do to make them your own. However, I think it might be more satisfying to go straight into a recipe first, so here's one I designed that can be made just with basic baking equipment. I'll give enough information that you can go right into it without reading at length about technique, so if you want to just go ahead and start baking, you can. You can also read on past this if you have your own bread you're dreaming of and want to figure out how to make it.
I designed this recipe so that it could be made daily, in a kitchen without a lot of baking supplies, and produce rolls that are both nutritious and tasty enough to eat on their own. My partner Lily is only able to eat a small group of foods, but bread is one of them, and during a very tight financial period when we had recently moved and had none of our own kitchen stuff at hand, I put these in the oven every time I got out of bed so that she would have a staple food to carry her through the day.
Quantity: 10 rolls
The most widely used flours for these sorts of breads come from the common wheat plant, also known as bread wheat for this reason. However, rye flour is also in common use. Other wheat species, particularly spelt, make an appearance now and again, as does barley. Even within a species, a wide variety of cultivars may exist with significantly different properties; common wheat in particular is grown in many varieties that vary in their protein amount, protein composition, color, growing season, and flavor. Not all of these are commonly used for bread, as low-protein cultivars will not form a suitably robust gluten network and are better suited to pastry applications. Even so, you have lots of different flours to choose from when baking bread, and even flours that would be unsuitable to use as the bulk of a bread's flour blend can add nice flavors or textural properties when used in small quantities.
One of the most significant attributes a wheat flour has is its protein content. If you read the section on gluten above, you know that glutens make up the bulk of the protein in a flour. Therefore, roughly speaking, the things that gluten does will happen more dramatically in a flour with higher protein content; there are lots of exceptions to this but it's a decent rule of thumb. Protein content can vary from as low as 6% to as high as 16% in commonly-available wheat flours for baking. Pastries tend to be made from flour on the lower end of this scale, because tenderness and softness are highly prized attributes of many pastries. Breads tend to be made using flour with a protein content on the higher end of this scale, for good gas retention and satisfying chewiness.
Another significant attribute of wheat flour is the manner and fineness with which it is milled. Flour sold for baking is generally milled pretty fine, but there is still a range of coarseness; in my experience here in the U.S. cake flour seems to be milled particularly fine, for example, while whole wheat flour is often on the coarser side. Of course, much coarser flours and even just cracked grains are available and sometimes added into bread dough or used to coat the outside of the bread. If you get a flour that has coarser particles than you would like, you can strain it through a very fine mesh to remove the larger particles, or grind it finer if you have good means for doing so.
Also, different milling methods generate different amounts of heat, and heat can change the starch in the flour. For instance, plate/disk milling, such as traditional stone milling, generates more heat than roller milling because of the friction between the disks, so disk-milled flour will behave somewhat differently than roller-milled flour. Specifically, it will absorb more water, make a stiffer and stickier dough, and have a sweeter taste, among other differences (see here for more on this). Atta flour, a very fine disk-ground high-protein whole wheat flour, is used in the Indian subcontinent to make roti, and these properties are considered advantagous for that application. In the U.S., roller milling predominantes. To the best of my knowledge I've only used disk-milled flour in small quantities in a recipe, so I can't comment from personal experience on how it behaves when used as the bulk of a bread's flour blend. If you're in the U.S. and you want to try working with disk-milled flour, you can buy it online from a variety of sources and sometimes in high-end groceries.
White flour is available both bleached and unbleached in the U.S. "Bleaching" covers a wide variety of different chemical processes; some alter the flour's color and baking properties while others alter just the color. Chlorination, one of the most common bleaching techniques, allows flour to absorb more water, bind more effectively with sugar, and make doughs that set faster while baking. These properties are particularly significant for cake production, because they allow cake recipes to get by with a lower percentage of flour than they would be able to otherwise and thus a higher percentage of sugar. The resulting cakes also lose less gas while rising and therefore have a lighter crumb. For these reasons, much of the cake flour available in the U.S. is chlorinated. However, chlorination also decreases gluten strength, which is great for cakes but not so great for bread, and it can add a slight bitter taste to the flour. Other bleaching agents can reduce volume in the final result, require intensive mixing processes better-suited to mass-produced sandwich loaves and the like, etc., none of which is desirable in this context. Since we're not very concerned with getting a perfectly white interior, and these other effects mostly work against us, I think it makes more sense to use unbleached flour for home breadbaking.
Flour varies a lot from country to country, which makes it somewhat difficult to discuss its categorization in general. As a result, I have to limit my discussion to flour in the U.S., much as I would like to talk about the situation in other countries, because it is the only country in which I have done any baking. The variance mainly comes from differences in the varieties of wheat available and the milling practices that prevail in a given country.
Here in America, everyday grocery stores will generally carry all-purpose white flour, whole wheat flour, possibly bread and cake flour, and maybe white and whole rye flour.
All-purpose flour, as you might imagine, is a white flour designed to be middle-of-the-road, with a protein content high enough for bread but low enough for pastry. It's usually made from a mix of flours of different common wheat cultivars depending on the prevailing agricultural and economic conditions. As such, it varies widely in protein composition from brand to brand and even batch to batch, and there's no legal regulations or anything to precisely define what this category means. The protein content seems to vary from as low as 7% on White Lily's bottom end, which is really not suitable for bread, to as high as 12% on Bob's Red Mill's high end, which is fine. King Arthur is nice enough to guarantee that the protein content of their all-purpose flour will always be 11.7%, which means that it can be used in bread recipes successfully and with predictable results. White flour with a protein content around 12% or a bit lower will give a dough with a nice balance of flexibility and gas retention.
Whole wheat flour is also made from a variety of different wheat cultivars but generally of the hard red type, and thus tends to have a higher protein content than all-purpose flour. For example, King Arthur's has 14% protein and Bob's Red Mill's has 13–15% protein. However, it doesn't form gluten networks as effectively as you might imagine given its protein content, because the bran in it cuts up the gluten strands, leading to a more fragile dough and a denser loaf. It also absorbs more water than white flour, so you have to increase the hydration somewhat in recipes where it is used.
Bread flour is a white flour with a generally higher protein content than all-purpose flour. King Arthur's is 12.7% and Bob's Red Mill's is 12.5–13.5% (if you're wondering why I keep using those two, it's because they actually publish the protein content of their flours). This website claims to have contacted White Lily and Gold Medal and discerned that the protein content in their bread flours is 11.7% and 12.2–12.7%, which actually makes me curious to give White Lily's bread flour a try. Anyway, this higher protein content will generally lead to a stiffer dough with a denser crumb, which is not exactly ideal for "artisan" breads which are supposed to have airy crumb. I think it's better for things like sandwich loaves and bread machine bread and the like, so you may want to get some if that's what you're looking to make.
Cake flour is a low-protein white flour intended for pastry applications, so it's not relevant here. Low-protein whole wheat flours are also sold, generally as "whole wheat pastry flour".
Rye flour is made from milled rye berries; rye is a member of the wheat tribe but is a different species from common wheat. The properties of rye flour differ somewhat from common wheat flour. Most significantly, it forms a weaker gluten network than common wheat flour does, which leads to a denser crumb. It also makes for a very sticky dough, which can make working with it a challenge. These descriptors are doubly applicable to whole rye flour (pumpernickel flour is whole rye flour ground on the coarse side). It thrives in poorer soil than common wheat and tolerates very cold conditions, so it historically was the major bread grain used in an area of Europe stretching from Nothern Germany into Russia.
Bread made from 100% rye flour is very dense and crumbly, so this is generally not done in "artisan" breadbaking in the U.S., although bread made from 100% pumpernickel flour is traditional in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Such bread is higher in fiber than 100% whole wheat bread, making it prized by some health food enthusiasts. Even in the U.S. culinary mainstream, the rich and slightly tangy flavor of rye is deeply valued by some people (like me), so it is sometimes used in the flour blends of "artisan" breads in portions up to 50% or so.
What is commonly known in the U.S. as "rye bread", such as the bread used on a classic Reuben, is made from a mix of refined wheat and refined rye flour, and has whole caraway seeds added to the dough. "Pumpernickel bread" is also made partially from refined wheat flour, but with a portion of pumpernickel flour instead, and is often colored with molasses or dye to resemble the 100% pumpernickel breads of Europe. If you want to make bread that has an airy crumb with big holes, the maximum amount of rye flour you can fit into your flour blend is probably around 20% or so, although 50% rye flour blends still produce a reasonably light and chewy crumb.
There are lots of other flours available from specialty suppliers and gourmet groceries. This is one way you can experiment as a home baker—lots of flours can be incorporated into the flour blends of bread recipes and will add interesting flavors or textural properties. Even just in terms of common wheat, there are six classes and many varieties grown in the U.S. alone, varying in protein content, flavor, and the like. You can also get flours made from the kernels of other wheat species and even other kinds of grain entirely.
In terms of milling, you can consider what parts of the kernel were retained and in what proportions, the coarseness of the flour, and the type of mill used. Flour can be described in terms of its ash content, the stuff left behind when the flour is burned at around 900°C, which is mostly minerals. A higher ash content can indicate that some of the bran and germ are present and/or a high protein content. White cake flour falls at the bottom of the scale at around 0.35%, high protein white flours fall at around 0.45–0.6%, and beyond that are flours incorporating some amount of the bran and germ, going up to 2% in some specialty whole wheat flours. So, there's really more of a spectrum from white to whole wheat than a binary division.
Commercial bakeries think more in these sorts of terms when buying flour. A glance at the website of a flour wholesaler or commercial supplier reveals a far more specific and varied selection of flours than what is normally found at a grocery store. If you feel intrigued by the options presented from these sorts of sources, suppliers that mainly cater to commercial entities will sometimes sell 5 lb. bags of flour to home bakers. Some companies that cater to home bakers also have a much wider variety of flours for sale than might be apparent from what's on the shelf at your local supermarket. Their website will usually make this apparent, and you can call or email them if not.
Bread dough is made largely from a mixture of flour and water, and their proportion plays a large role in determining the qualities of the resulting bread. The term "hydration" is generally used when discussing this, because flour absorbs the water added to it (up to the point of saturation, at least). The hydration of a dough is given by a percentage, connoting how much water is in the dough relative to the flour by weight; for instance, a 75% hydration dough might have 750 g. of water to 1 kg. of flour. Gluten must be wetted in order to develop, so flour must be fully hydrated to maximally utilize the gluten it has.
Doughs intended to produce tender items, such as pie crusts, are often hydrated to the minimum extent possible in order to cut down on gluten development. But for a bread dough with good gas retention, high hydration is desirable. What's more, yeast need water to reproduce, so a wetter environment will lead to more enthusiastic gas production and more flavor from the fermentation process. What "high hydration" means depends on the flours used.
The higher a flour's protein content, the more water it is able to absorb. Therefore, a dough made with 11% protein flour will need less water to reach high hydration than a dough made with 15% protein flour. The level of hydration needed for "artisan" bread with airy crumb and big holes will usually fall somewhere between 75–85%, particularly depending on how much of the flour blend is whole wheat or rye.
Whole wheat flour is generally higher in protein than the white flour used in these kinds of breads. As a result, it absorbs more water, so a higher level of hydration will be needed to make the dough "wet", likely over 80% for a dough in which whole wheat flour makes up the majority of the blend. Rye, on the other hand, tends to be lower in protein—even whole rye flour generally tops out around 10% protein and is frequently below that. So, adding rye flour to your blend will reduce the amount of water needed for a wet dough. Any other flours used will have their own effect, and even seasonal variation in a given flour can have an influence.
Luckily, as a home baker, you don't have to strictly follow a recipe and trust that it will turn out the same every time. You have the luxury of being able to work by feel whenever you mix up a bread dough. A very wet bread dough feels almost liquid at first, sort of like pancake batter. As you work the dough and the gluten in it develops, the dough will stiffen, such that it can be shaped. You can get a feel for what effect different levels of hydration have on bread dough by taking a recipe you like and making it several times with the same batch of flours, adjusting the hydration up and down by a few percentage points. This understanding will allow you to tweak hydration on the fly if a recipe you're making isn't turning out the way you would expect, or if you're formulating a new recipe.
One thing to note, though, is that bread dough at the levels of hydration I'm advocating for here is more challenging to work with than dough with a more moderate level of hydration. Lots of bread in the world is made with significantly drier doughs, 60% hydration or even lower, which makes for easier handling. High hydration dough is slacker and stickier than those doughs. If you're new to baking in general, you may find it frustrating to work with such wet dough—it may stick to your hands badly, or seem to resist being shaped. In that case, you may prefer to cut your teeth on drier dough. It's possible to get nice, open crumb at even 65% hydration with proper gluten development and extensive fermentation, although achieving that may be a technical challenge in its own right.
Another thing to note is that if you mix up a high hydration dough and immediately start trying to work with it, you probably won't get very far even if you're quite experienced. This is because the gluten is undeveloped at this stage, and the dough is so liquidy and slack that it will fall apart if you, say, try to pick it up. A commercial machine mixer can work with it, but you probably don't have one of those. Instead, what you can do is let the flour and water sit for 20–30 minutes after you've mixed them before adding any of the other ingredients (including the salt).
This technique was introduced by Raymond Calvel, who called it "autolysis", a bit of a confusing term since "autolysis" also describes the process of yeast death in the brewing world. The overlap is reasonable, though, because in both cases "self-digestion" occurs through the release of enzymes. In a bread dough autolyse, enzymes in the flour change the structure of the protein in a way that makes the dough more extensible. They also convert some of the starch in the flour into sugars, making food for the yeast (this is how beer begins, in another resonance with brewing). The improved extensibility will make the dough much easier to work with. What's more, the gluten will begin to develop on its own, just from being wetted.
If you use a preferment, this process will occur in it. As such, you probably won't need to conduct an autolyse when mixing the main dough, especially if the preferment makes up a significant portion of it. More on preferments later.
Yeast, particularly Saccharomyces cerevisiae, are the leaveners in these sorts of breads. They produce carbon dioxide as a respiration by-product, just like we do, and they do so with great enthusiasm. It's pretty amazing to look at a vigorously fermenting dough or preferment—you can watch bubbles as large in diameter as a half-dollar forming and popping on the dough's surface. (If this sort of thing pleases you, consider making a Belgian ale to see some truly explosive yeast activity.)
In addition to leavening, yeast also contribute flavor to bread. They're complex organisms (being fungi, not bacteria), and the range of different flavorful chemicals they can produce is remarkably wide. It is common "folk knowledge" in both the brewing and baking worlds that the bulk of these chemicals are generated during cell growth and division, and therefore that starting with less yeast and giving them more time to replicate will give a more flavorful end result. For example, Ken Forkish states this in FWSY, as does Wyeast Labs in their pitch rate guide for homebrewers.
Despite the dramatic economic significance of S. cerevisiae, the pathways by and conditions under which they produce one flavorful compound or another tend to be so arcane that research in this domain is a very active area of microbiology even today. As a result, it is possible that this belief incompletely or innacurately characterizes the manner in which yeast introduce flavor compounds into their substrate. That being said, it is suggested in the article I just linked as well as this 2010 review that esters, perhaps the most desirable group of flavor compounds that S. cerevisiae produce, are generated during fatty acid synthesis. In other words, if true, yeast produce them when building cell walls, which would lend a measure of support to the idea that desirable flavor compounds are introduced mainly during periods of growth.
Whatever murky scientific waters this belief may swim in, my own personal experience as both a baker and a brewer does suggest that it's true enough to be reliable as a guide for doing culinary work with yeast. In bread's case, if you want to find out for yourself, you can try the following. Pick a simple white bread recipe that just uses flour, water, salt, and yeast, scale the recipe to 500 g. of flour, and use 0.3 g. of dry instant yeast. The dough will take a long time to fully rise, around 12–14 hours. A few hours before you plan to put this bread in the oven, prepare the same recipe but use 14 g. of dry instant yeast. This dough will rise in an hour or two. That way, they will come out of the oven at similar times, and you can compare them. For greater rigorousness, see if you can get someone else to do this while you're not around, so you can try the loaves without knowing which is which.
Tortillas are a flatbread of North and Central America, made with corn back into the misty depths of time and also with wheat flour since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. I'm from Central Texas, so to me corn and flour tortillas coexist with some overlapping and some distinct applications. As far as I know, this is true throughout the Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico, although there are some regional variations even within that area. Further to the south than that, I have heard that corn tortillas heavily predominate, although I haven't witnessed this firsthand.
If you're having trouble with the techniques involved in preparing these, spending a while on YouTube watching people make them can be helpful. Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert has some of the best information on making them I've found in text.
I'm strongly of the opinion that they should be eaten shortly after cooking, instead of bought in a bag off the shelf and kept in the fridge to eat later as they are often handled in the U.S. No matter how good they are when fresh, they become dense, inflexible, and tasteless after they cool, and they get even worse in the fridge. If you do want to store fresh tortillas for later consumption, I recommend wrapping them individually in wax paper or tin foil as soon as they're room temperature and freezing them inside of a freezer bag, then placing them briefly on a hot skillet to defrost. In the case of corn tortillas, you can also let them dry out on the counter and then use them to make migas. To keep fresh ones hot in the short term, wrap them stacked in a thick cloth or clean dish towel. You can serve them at the table this way.
Following the logic that they should be eaten shortly after cooking, it makes sense to learn to make them yourself if you want tortillas worth eating on command. I've included recipes here for both corn and flour tortillas so you can do just that. In periods of my life where I'm eating a lot of tortillas, I keep a bag of masa harina, a bag of all-purpose flour, and a jar of lard always on hand and make them as I need them. If I'm generally short on time, I make them in large quantities, freeze them as described above, and reheat them as needed, which isn't quite as good as having them fresh but comes fairly close. If I'm serving guests, I always make them fresh.
In recent years, I've seen uncooked but pressed flour tortillas available at the grocery store in Texas that you keep in the fridge and can then cook and eat as needed. I tried making these at a friend's house recently, but I didn't care for them as much as flour tortillas made from scratch, although they were way better than pre-made and bagged flour tortillas. They had a kind of gummy texture that turned me off somewhat, and they were rather on the bland side. The ingredients list was pretty different from just flour, lard, salt, and water, probably to cut costs and help the dough stay fresh in the fridge, which I guess requires some sacrifices in flavor and texture. Still, they're a much better option than regular bagged flour tortillas, so if you don't have the time or the chops to make them from scratch those might be your next best option. I encourage you to try making them from scratch, though; if you're short on time you can always make a lot on the weekend or something and freeze them. Also, I haven't seen corn tortillas for sale this way, so for those I think making them from scratch is still your only reasonable option.
A lot of people I've met state a preference for flour tortillas over corn ones in all cases. I think this may be due to how poorly corn tortillas fare when stored long after cooking; flour tortillas fare badly in that circumstance but corn tortillas fare dismally. Unfortunately, even a lot of commercial food establishments will buy pre-made corn tortillas and reheat them in a steamer before use, which is always apparent from the blandness, mushiness, and fragility of their tortillas. When I encounter a truck or restaurant that makes their tortillas fresh, I consider it a strong sign of general high quality, but it's not nearly as common as it should be. As a result, I think a lot of people in the U.S. have rarely or even never had truly fresh corn tortillas, so they think they're bad. If you're one of these people and you otherwise like corn, go ahead and give the corn tortilla recipe here a try—it might just change your life (by way of your tortilla preferences).
Corn tortillas are made from masa, a dough or flour of ground hominy. Traditionally, dried corn kernels were boiled and soaked in limewater overnight, then manually ground in the morning to make dough which was patted into tortillas by hand. Today, they are most commonly made using dry masa that comes in a bag, which is mixed with water and flattened using a tortilla press. In any case, they are cooked on a very hot griddle called a comal, and flipped twice, in a way that causes steam to inflate the tortilla into a round ball shortly before it is removed from the comal. This results in many fine layers forming inside the tortilla, making it light, tender, and flexible. They vary in diameter depending on the region and desired application.
The process of soaking corn in an alkaline solution is known as "nixtamalization", from the Nahautl word "nixtamalli", a compound of "nextli", meaning "ashes", and "tamalli", meaning "unformed corn dough", which is also where the word "tamale" comes from. This process is advantageous for both culinary and nutritional reasons. It chemically changes corn flour in a way that allows it to be made into dough, whereas this is not possible with unnixtamalized cornmeal; cornbread recipes always include a portion of wheat flour for this reason. It also makes niacin, a form of the essential nutrient vitamin B3, available to the body, whereas it is unavailably bound to other substances in unnixtamalized corn.
Europeans arriving in the Americas did not grasp this latter fact, but did take to using corn as a staple food, and as a result the nutritional deficiency pellagra was endemic into the 20th century among European and U.S. populations largely dependent on corn. Ironically, this deficiency was not corrected by switching to a diet based around nixtamlized corn, but by the introduction of fortified flours once the significance of niacin (and other nutrients) was understood.
This recipe uses dried masa flour bought off the shelf. I've never tried making my own masa, so I don't really want to comment on how to do that at length. There's information out there on it if you're curious. In the event I do try it, I'll write about it. A cashier at Fiesta once told me that he thought fresh masa had a better flavor—sweeter and closer to fresh corn—which does intrigue me. Corn tortillas are still very good made from masa harina, though, and it takes way less time and effort.
The instructions given here are for corn tortillas of what I want to call "normal" dimensions, like those you might get at a taqueria; this is roughly ⅛ in. thick and 6–8 in. in diameter. However, this is based on my own experience; you may have different experience, personal tastes, or applications in mind. In that case, feel free to experiment with things like the size of the individual balls you form and the size of your tortilla press until you get what you desire.
If you don't have a tortilla press, you should probably get one if you want to make this recipe, but in any case you have a couple options. One is to press them all the way out with your hands, which is what people used to do a long time ago, but this apparently takes a lot of skill to get right, much more than using a press, and in any case I haven't attempted it so I can't really comment. You can also put the tortilla between two sheets of thick, non-sticky plastic or parchment and roll them out with a pin. This may result in more misshapen and unevenly-thick tortillas than would come out of a press, because the dough is not as amenable to being handled this way as glutenous dough, but they should still be edible. The thinness is the most important part, although tortillas with a very jagged edge can be difficult to use for things like tacos.
Of course, it's worth noting that you can do all sorts of things with these once you have them other than make tacos—you can use them to mop up sauce, dip them in soup, use them for enchiladas, toast or fry them for tostadas, snack on them, and so on and so on. They're a staple for a whole family of cuisines, after all.
Quantity: 6 tortillas
Quick (unless you make a lot of tortillas), cheap, vegan, gluten-free
"Flour" in this case means wheat flour, but for whatever reason these tortillas are just referred to as "flour tortillas" even though masa harina is also a type of flour. White flour is most commonly used, although whole-wheat ones can be found or made as well. Their preparation is fairly different from corn tortillas—the dough has fat added, traditionally lard although vegetable shortening is also used, and is rolled out with a pin. I strongly prefer lard because shortening is flavorless.
The diameter varies with application and region as with corn tortillas. The thickness varies by region and application as well; further away from the border in the U.S., flour tortillas tend to be thicker and used to make breakfast tacos and the like, but closer to the border and in Nothern Mexico they often come paper-thin and are used for burritos. They are cooked in the same way as corn tortillas.
In an interesting example of parallel evolution, they have a lot in common with roti, which are also unleavened wheat flatbreads that are cooked in a manner that causes them to puff up, and that sometimes have fat added to the dough depending on the type.
The flour tortillas I'm familiar with tend to be larger in diameter than the corn tortillas they coexist with; in the case of burritos, they can be much larger. They also have a wider lattitude of permissible thicknesses. Flour tortillas for breakfast tacos are often too thick to easily fold—they're just shaped into a sort of open tube, with the filling held in at the back end by a finger pressing up on the tortilla or some tin foil. Flour tortillas for burritos, on the other hand, can be almost ethereally thin, but made of strong, elastic dough that doesn't tear even at that level of thinness. This culinary dynamic may be particular to the region I'm from, but it's what I know, so it's what I'm going to discuss.
Unlike corn tortillas, they are rolled out with a thin dowel, so you can adjust their thickness hands-on. Once you get the hang of working with them, you can experiment with different thicknesses for different applications and find out what suits your fancy.
My recipe uses lard by default. You can substitute vegetable shortening, but I think the only good reason to do that I know of is if you have dietary restrictions that keep you from eating pork products. Shortening is flavorless, so it makes the tortillas blander, whereas lard provides savoriness. I think there's also a good case for lard being healthier as it has a higher unsaturated fat content, plus vegetable shortening can contain significant quantities of trans fats. If you avoid pork, but do eat other meats, use another rendered animal fat that's solid at room temperature, like beef tallow, duck falt, schmaltz, etc.
White flour is specified here, but you can also make whole-wheat tortillas by substituting half of the white flour for whole wheat flour and resting the dough for at least an hour (ideally overnight) before rolling out. If you want to make a 100% whole-wheat flatbread, consider making roti instead.
Quantity: 6 tortillas
Cheap, vegan (if vegetable shortening is used)
For a while, I struggled with the technique for cooking tortillas, and as a result mine were dense and inflexible. I was lucky enough to have amazing fresh corn and flour tortillas available at an exceedingly good taco truck around the corner from my house at the time, so I had a convenient point of comparison and knew mine could be better. Eventually, I realized that the secret is to ensure that the skillet is hot enough, avoid using too thick a tortilla, and flip them not once but twice.
The method is the same for corn and flour tortillas, and actually this technique can be used for a wide variety of flatbreads cooked on a griddle or skillet. The number-one goal is to have the tortilla completely inflate, which will make it light, tender, and pliable. The less it inflates, the less good it will be, although the thickest flour tortillas may not inflate as much and that can be okay depending on the desired application.
It's important to use a cast iron or clay cooking surface. A comal is the ideal tool, but a cast iron skillet or griddle will also work very well. It's also desirable if your cooking surface is close to the same diameter as your tortilla, but if it's larger that's okay. Do not use teflon, because the high heat risks causing it to decompose. Aluminum and steel cookware are possible to use, but they don't retain heat as well as iron or clay; depending on your stove and pan, an aluminum pan may actually release heat too quickly to get up to the desired temperature.
Quick, cheap, vegan (if vegan tortillas are used), gluten-free (if gluten-free tortillas are used)