This is essentially the sandwich bread recipe from the excellent book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, but since that is more a book of techniques rather than recipes, the various important steps are scattered over the course of the chapter on bread dough. I have also tweaked just a couple of things to make the recipe as easy as possible, with the idea that for a staple like bread, the more of a chore the recipe is the more likely you are to give in and get it from the supermarket. This makes the most freakin' awesome sandwich bread, perfect for toast with eggs or grilled cheese or a nice kid-friendly sandwich. For more crusty bread, I do a few things differently, and use a Dutch oven, but this makes a loaf that is nice and tender, and also very rectangular and uniform -- perfect for sandwiches.
You need a stand mixer with a hook attachment, a digital scale, a 9-inch loaf pan, and a cast-iron skillet. I must confess I've never kneaded bread by hand, so while I'm sure that would work fine, you're on your own with that. I strongly recommend the scale, not just because you'll get more accurate measurements, but because it also means you can measure everything out in the mixing bowl without getting your measuring cups dirty. This process is fast and easy and reliable.
Step 1: Put your mixing bowl on the digital scale, reset it, and add 15 ounces of bread flour. I use King Arthur bread flour.
Step 2: Reset the scale and add 9 ounces of water. Seriously, measuring ingredients by weight directly into the mixing bowl is the best thing ever. Once I started doing this, I started baking about ten times as often, because it's so incredibly easy. I sometimes use warm water with the idea that it will be better for the yeast, but I've also used ice cold tap water and had no issues (see step 5 below).
Step 3: Reset the scale again and add ~0.75 ounces of honey. This is one place where I deviate from the Ruhlman recipe; he says 2 Tbsp, but honey and measuring spoons make an awful mess together. I don't actually know how this compares volume-wise -- I assume honey is denser than water, but I don't know how much. Anyway, this amount works for me.
Step 4: Add 2 tsp of salt. Okay, so you do get one measuring spoon dirty, but it will only ever touch salt or yeast, so you can just rinse it under tap water and it will be perfectly clean.
Step 5: Add 1 tsp of active dry yeast. DO NOT PROOF THE YEAST. DO NOT STRESS ABOUT THE WATER TEMPERATURE. Okay, yeah, it won't hurt anything if you proof the yeast, but it's totally unnecessary. It does not require proofing to be "activated" or anything, and in retrospect I found that one thing that kept me from baking bread very often was that getting the water in the 100-110F temperature range and waiting for the yeast to bloom all just seemed like a big hassle. I promise that if you just dump the yeast in, your bread will come out fine, and you will probably bake more bread because you've just eliminated like three really finicky steps. The only reason to maybe proof the yeast is if you have a really old jar of yeast and you aren't sure if it is good anymore. But if you don't screw around with this unnecessary step, you will bake more, which means you will go through yeast more quickly, which means this won't be a problem. So just dump the yeast in and move on! (Huge kudos to Ruhlman for taking this bold stance on not blooming yeast -- this "lazy" step was his idea, not mine)
Step 6: Mix on the lowest setting until the ingredients combine, then mix on medium speed for about 15 minutes. The standard test to see if the kneading is done is the "window test", where you stretch a piece and see if you can make it translucent before it breaks. I dunno, I'm not very confident in this step. Just do it for 15 minutes or so, until it doesn't feel sticky any more and seems reasonably stretchy.
Step 7: Lift the mixing attachment of the stand mixer, and while the dough is still stuck to the hook, spray the mixing bowl with non-stick cooking spray. This is my own innovation. Ruhlman recommends to just let the yeast rise in the mixing bowl, which is an awesome time-saver, but the dough tends to stick. But check it out: While the dough is stuck to the hook, it's now temporarily out of the way and you can grease the bowl. Works like a charm!
Step 8: Pull the dough off the hook and into the mixing bowl. Spray non-stick cooking spray on a piece of plastic wrap, and cover the dough for about 1-2 hours. They say the dough is done rising when it offers some resistance when you poke it, but doesn't bounce back. Meh, I dunno. I've found my breads pretty tolerant to this step. If you have to leave the house or something, throw the mixing bowl in the fridge to slow the rising process.
Step 9: Once the dough is risen, spray your 9-inch loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray, put a cast iron skillet in the oven, and set it for 350F. Pick up the dough with clean hands, and squeeze it for a minute or two to get most of the air out. A lazy innovation from me: Any decent baker would tell you at this point to put it on a lightly floured surface and knead it for a bit before the second rise. I, however, am not a decent baker, and while I don't mind kneading on a floured surface when necessary, it certainly makes an awful mess to clean up. Since most of the point of kneading before the second rise is to purge any large air bubbles from the first rise, I find just squeezing it and feeling for air pockets seems to do a good job. Will your bread be better if you do this step "right"? Quite possibly. But it will still be totally kick-ass if you do it this way, and if cheating on the second knead makes you more likely to bake, do it!
The point of preheating the oven now (we won't be baking for another hour) is to make sure the oven temperature is really stable before you put the bread in. It is probably less important for this recipe, which bakes at a lower temperature than crustier breads, and if you are trying to conserve electricity you could probably cut the preheat time down to 30 minutes. But seriously, make sure the oven is well-preheated (as well as the skillet) before you put the dough in.
Step 10: Stretch the squished dough into a rectangle that almost fills the loaf pan, and put it in the pan. Cover with a clean dish towel for 60 minutes. Ruhlman said plastic wrap for the first rise, dish towel for the second rise. I'm not sure if this is important or not.
Step 11: With a sharp paring knife, make a deep lengthwise slice in the dough all the way from one end to the other. This is what gives it the characteristic "sandwich bread" shape, and it also means that slices of the finished loaf will be more like squares than semi-circles.
Step 12: Place the loaf in the oven, and simultaneously add 1 cup of water to the cast-iron skillet. This is a well-known but neglected technique that makes home ovens more like the steam injection ovens that bakers use. It is less necessary if you have a gas oven, but definitely worth it if you have an electric like I do.
Step 13: Bake for about an hour, just until the bottom is firm and makes a nice hollow sound when tapped. If you over-bake it, your bread will be delicious, but it will go stale faster. Caveat: If you intend to skip step 14, because you are impatient or really need bread right away or something, bake it a little longer. Also, you can optionally add an egg wash at around 20 minutes into the baking to get a nice attractive golden-brown crust on top. I like doing this, but have also skipped it with great results -- and it does dirty another bowl, so skip it if there is any chance it will make you bake less often!
Step 14: Don't eat it yet! Take it out of the loaf pan, place on a cutting board and cover with a clean dish towel (or put in a breadbox or something) overnight until completely cool. One problem with Ruhlman's otherwise excellent book is he doesn't have a lot to say about what to do when you are done with your recipe. He just gives the baking/cooking times and leaves you to figure out if the finished product needs to rest or anything. A little googling tells me that your bread will keep longer without going stale if you bake it a little less and then let it sit until completely cool to finish cooking.
Step 15: Keep it in a breadbox or a gallon freezer bag after slicing into it for the first time. Delicious!
Seriously, this recipe is absurdly easy, the only things to clean are your mixing bowl, the hook attachment, and the loaf pan (the cast iron skillet only ever had water in it, so you can just wipe it out with a paper towel), and if you are using a stand mixer there is like 10 minutes of active time in the whole thing. I make this while working from home. Totally worth it!