I wrote this piece a while ago for another purpose, but I think it’s very applicable to this time of year when so many of us are dreaming up holiday baking projects! Whether you are planning ambitious holiday gifts of homemade potica, or just craving homemade pizza, the essay below includes some tips I’ve developed for better baking in cold weather. I hope you find it helpful, and enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving!
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I used to think that bread, or any yeast-related baked good, was just really difficult to make. Often I tried recipes that just didn’t work. Many times I tried to throw away super dense, awful loaves of bread that my husband wanted to eat anyway (usually, I won, because they were gross). I’m no professional chef, but as a pretty competent home baker it was frustrating to have this one thing so out of reach.
So I started doing a lot more reading about bread. And then a few years ago I became obsessed (as everyone should) with The Great British Baking Show on PBS. The show is a weekend competition for crazy talented home bakers, and the things that they make are absolutely magical. And the more episodes of the show I watched, the more I realized what my baking was missing (besides an enviable British accent and metric tons of talent):
A PROVING DRAWER
In America, it’s known as a “proofing drawer” (or a “warming drawer”) and is found in professional kitchens. It provides a warm, contained, draft-free area for dough to rise.
One of the biggest barriers to baking bread successfully in my kitchen is that it happens to be the coldest, draftiest room in the house… totally the opposite of what bread needs. I have devised a few ways around this (until I get a new kitchen with a built-in proofing drawer, of course).
- If you happen to have a load of wet laundry, place your dough, covered with a damp towel, on top of the dryer while it’s on. The humidity and slight warmth provide a great environment for rising.
- If you have a microwave, you have a draft-free location! (the same is true about your oven!) If the room is cold, place glasses of warm water (I use the hottest tap water I can get) in the corners of the microwave, then put your dough, covered with plastic wrap or a towel, in the middle, and close the door. This almost always works perfectly.
- Use a heating pad. I got this tip from King Arthur Flour when I recently followed their directions for making a sourdough starter. The starter, wrapped in a towel, cozied up against a heating pad on the lowest setting and tucked into an unplugged crockpot received just the right amount of warmth (note: I did experiment initially with my crockpot on the “keep warm” setting and I essentially murdered my first starter).
- Bake only in an un-air-conditioned house at the height of summer (this method is horribly uncomfortable, but wow, a bowl of pizza dough placed on my enclosed sun porch practically climbed up the sides and out a window when I made it this past July).
The other thing I learned was to know a little bit about yeast. When I was especially motivated to make bread a few years ago, I bought a giant bag of yeast and thought I could just stick it in the cupboard and use it until it was gone. Nope. It doesn’t stay active forever, and purchasing yeast in small quantities is best for all but commercial bakers. Yeast is best stored in the freezer. There is some great information about yeast at this website.
Truly, since I’ve learned to take better care of the yeast and have hacked my kitchen’s drafty climate, I am having much more success with baking bread and other doughs. Baking bread requires precision and patience, but is very possible for those of us lacking magic powers and professional appliances. Here are some of my successes from the past few weeks:
While it is very justifiable to blame baking problems on your kitchen, it doesn’t mean you are destined to failure!