I love white bread.
I know I'm not supposed to love it. Either I should love only artisanal whole-grain breads with beautiful leaf motifs carved into their crusty tops, artfully dusted with flour — and I do actually love that kind of bread — or I'm supposed to eschew all bread entirely and ban gluten and carbohydrates from my diet. But I can't. Give me all the carbs.
When I say I love white bread, I particularly mean white sandwich bread — but not Wonder Bread (and if you love Wonder Bread, I'm not judging you). I have the fondest childhood memories of Pepperidge Farm sliced bread, popping out of the toaster, yeasty, slightly sweet, perfect for raspberry jam or a smear of Nutella. I especially loved the loaves of extra-thin sliced white bread, which I would spread with cream cheese and shaved cucumber to make delicate sandwiches for tea parties with my stuffed animals.
When I was too sick to go to day care, my mom would take me on the train from Manhattan out to my grandparents' house in suburban New Jersey, where my grandmother Teddy would wrap me up in a blanket and make me sit on a metal lawn chair in the middle of the backyard to soak up some sun, even in the middle of January. The only thing that got me to stay in that chair was knowing that when I went back inside, Teddy would be standing at the stove frying a paper-thin hamburger in butter, which would then be sandwiched between two pieces of buttered white toast. I almost enjoyed being sick.
At 18, I was working in a restaurant kitchen where my task each day was to poach pears in red wine and make Key lime pies, but I was always sneaking a glance at the bread station, where a guy stood all day churning out miniature loaves of crusty white bread that were sent out to the tables accompanied by little crocks of chive butter. So, one day I bought a couple of Kaiser steel loaf pans, determined to make my own bread in the cramped confines of my tiny apartment kitchen. Once I started, I was hooked.
The first bread recipe I made was from the back of the bag of flour, and it came out fine, although it took practice for me to understand how to knead and shape the bread.
A good sandwich bread should have a nice tight crumb, so the dough needs to be kneaded until it is quite shiny and smooth, barely sticky at all. I learned over time that being too gentle with the dough after the first rise did the bread no favors — it should be pummeled to remove every bit of air, shaped into a fairly tight loaf for the second rise, then the top of the bread generously slashed just before it goes into the oven.
With a sandwich bread, you don't want to create an opportunity for big air pockets to open up inside the loaf while it's baking; it's that uniform surface that makes the bread perfect for toast and sandwiches, where every crumb can evenly carry the load of peanut butter and jelly or mayonnaise and mustard.
After a few years of trial and error, the recipe that I eventually came up with has become a mainstay in my kitchen, and it's so user-friendly that I pretty much just dump all the ingredients into the bowl without the kind of meticulous measuring usually associated with baking.
To me, it's a throwback to the bread that I imagine our ancestors made, in log cabins surrounded by pine trees and tenement apartments above crowded city streets - a simple, fast loaf that fills the home with its buttery scent, welcoming the family back at the end of a long day.
These days I often make my sandwich bread with whole wheat white flour — a kind of white flour that retains the bran and germ for a higher nutritional content — and the same recipe works quite well with a traditional whole wheat flour.
But on the days when I feel a cold coming on, I think of sitting in Teddy's kitchen filling up on hot buttered toast, and I break out the bag of plain white flour.
White-Wheat Sandwich Bread
If you love a basic white sandwich bread but worry that it lacks nutrition, then this is the bread for you. White whole-wheat flour is made from white wheat (as opposed to red wheat, which whole-wheat flour comes from), giving it the same nutritional value as traditional whole-wheat but with a milder flavor and color. Craving a classic white loaf? Just swap in white all-purpose flour for the white wheat.
While this recipe is written for a stand mixer, which makes the process faster, the dough can also be done by hand. And though it's hard to not cut into that heavenly smelling bread immediately, let it cool completely for the best texture. The bread will keep, tightly wrapped and at room temperature, for up to 3 days.
1 1/2 cups (360 grams) water, heated to 115 degrees
3 3/8 teaspoons (about 1 1/2 packages) active dry yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons (19 grams) granulated sugar
4 to 4 1/2 cups (500 to 562 grams) white whole-wheat flour, divided
3 tablespoons (43 grams) unsalted butter (plant-based or dairy), softened
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Vegetable oil, for greasing
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the water and yeast and let sit until the yeast dissolves, about 1 minute. Add the sugar and stir well. Let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes.
Add 1 1/2 cups (173 grams) flour, along with the butter and salt and turn the mixer onto the lowest setting. Mix well, then increase the speed slightly and begin adding the remaining flour, 1/2 cup (58 grams) at a time, until the dough starts to come together into a smooth ball that is elastic but not sticky. You may not need all the flour.
Let the mixer continue to knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until the dough springs back slightly when you press a finger into it, and you can stretch a piece of the dough between your fingers until it is thin without tearing.
Remove the dough from the mixer; lightly flour the countertop or lightly oil a large bowl. Place the dough on the counter or in the bowl, preferably in a warm spot in the kitchen. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Stick two fingers into the center of the dough all the way up the second knuckle and remove them. If the indentations remain, the dough is ready to be punched down. If not, then let the dough continue to proof and give it the knuckle test again before moving on.
Lightly oil a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan.
If the dough is in a bowl, turn it out onto a lightly floured counter. Punch the dough down until it is essentially flattened. You don't need to be gentle about this because you want to knock all the air out of the dough to prevent large holes in the baked bread. Shape the dough into a loaf roughly the size of the pan, tucking the edges tightly underneath so air pockets won't form during baking.
Place the dough in the loaf pan, cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise in a warm spot until it is just slightly above the edge of the pan, about 30 minutes.
While the dough is rising, place a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 375 degrees.
When the dough is risen, slash the top of the loaf in three diagonal cuts with a very sharp knife and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden-brown on top and the bread registers an internal temperature of 190 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. If you don't have a thermometer, remove the bread from the pan, tap the bottom of the loaf and listen for a hollow sound.
Once baked, turn out the bread onto a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.
— Recipe from food writer Kristen Hartke