Q: What is the secret to baking perfect bread that is chewy and has a crisp crust? A: These days, excellent bakeries and specialty stores...
Q: What is the secret to baking perfect bread that is chewy and has a crisp crust?
A: These days, excellent bakeries and specialty stores abound, and we’ve become accustomed to wonderful breads with great flavor and texture. Achieving those results at home, however, isn’t easy.
This is primarily because home ovens aren’t designed for bread-baking. Most are made of a relatively thin metal rather than being lined with stone, so maintaining consistent high temperatures can be difficult. Also, they don’t have built-in steam injectors to keep the moisture at the optimum level for that perfect bread.
Fortunately, there are ways to imitate those conditions in your own oven. Always be sure to preheat the oven well. To keep the temperature as steady as possible, avoid opening the oven door during baking. Use a baking stone — once preheated, it will hold heat in and provide the ideal surface.
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Another choice is to line the bottom of the oven with unglazed tiles to help retain heat.
To create steam, either set a pan with a cup of hot water on the bottom shelf of the oven, or use a spray bottle to spritz inside the oven several times during the first few minutes of baking. Do this as quickly as you can, and aim for the walls and floor of the oven, avoiding the bread itself and the oven’s light bulb.
The humidity will keep the crust from setting and thus stop the expansion of the bread too soon, while at the same time it will help to crisp the crust.
Baking requires precision, so if you don’t already have one, buy a kitchen scale to weigh your ingredients. A cup of flour should weigh four ounces exactly — any more and your bread will be too dense and heavy.
And always proof your yeast — test that it is still alive — by dissolving it in warm water (105 to 115 degrees) and waiting about 10 minutes for it to become creamy before mixing the rest of the dough. This can mean the difference between a light, airy loaf and a doorstop.
Q: What do I need to do to ensure that my dried sunflower seeds can be planted for next year?
A: Sunflower seeds, like most seeds, remain viable for one to three years when stored under proper conditions. Moisture, heat and fluctuating temperatures are any seed’s worst enemy, so don’t simply abandon your leftover seeds to the elements by leaving them in open packages.
Instead, place packets or bags of seeds in an airtight container, such as a canning jar with a new, tight-fitting lid. Then make a few moisture-absorbing sachets to store with them by wrapping two tablespoons of powdered milk or untreated cat litter in a double layer of tulle.
Close the jar, and put it in a cool, dark place, such as a closet or a kitchen pantry. According to Aaron Whaley of Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), this is the best way to ensure your seeds will be usable next year.
When it is time to plant the seeds, perform this simple test: Place 10 seeds in a moist paper towel, fold the towel over, place it in a resealable plastic bag and label the bag with the seed type and date. Leave the bag in a warm spot.
Check after several days to see how the seeds have germinated — more than 70 percent means they are still viable. If the results are between 40 percent and 70 percent, sow the seeds thickly. If fewer than 40 percent germinate, you will need to buy new ones.
Questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10036. Sorry, no personal replies.