You've mixed and kneaded flour and water, salt and yeast, maybe a touch of sugar, some milk, butter, perhaps an egg...
You've shaped a loaf, put it into your pan, watched it rise over the rim. Tucked that precious loaf into your preheated oven, and watched proudly as it rises some more and becomes wonderfully golden.
Then, you reach into the oven for your perfectly glorious loaf of homemade sandwich bread, and...
Well, as they say on Facebook, what happens next may surprise you.
Your bread falls – or shrinks, another type of falling. You slice off a nice, hot piece, and your beautifully crowned loaf is suddenly misshapen. Or it just sits there looking dull... and becoming duller by the moment, as it loses its oven-hot "sheen."
What's a sandwich bread lover to do?
The following tips guide you through those crucial moments between hot-from-the-oven and cool-on-the-counter.
1. First, make sure your bread is done
In days gone by, seasoned bread bakers tapped the bottom of their loaf to listen for a particular sound – best described as a hollow ring – that meant the bread was done.
If you can reliably judge baked bread that way, more power to you. But I find it easier simply to take the bread's temperature at its center. For one thing, I don't have to tip my sandwich loaf out of its hot pan to tap its bottom, risking damage to a loaf that's not yet fully baked (to say nothing of a painful burn to myself).
And second, I trust my thermometer's accuracy more than I do my hearing.
Breads made with all-purpose flour (a.k.a. white bread) are generally considered fully baked once they reach a minimum temperature of 190°F. I like to let my loaves go a tiny bit longer, up to 194°F or so, just to make sure their fully set, structurally speaking.
Breads that are particularly dense/heavy – think hearty whole-grain loaves, or sweet breads packed with fruit and/or nuts – should reach 200°F to 205°F.
I invested in a Thermapen digital thermometer long ago; and make no mistake, it's an investment. At $98.95 (tempered somewhat by its free shipping), it's the Rolls-Royce of digital thermometers.
But it's been so worth it. I use it regularly for all kinds of cooking and baking, from homemade candy to hamburgers to roast chicken to bread. It's super-accurate; and very fast, which means if the bread isn't done, I can quickly return it to the oven, before it starts to cool and potentially suffer damage to its texture.
2. Don't remove your loaf from its pan too soon
This is a loaf of bread that I turned out of its pan immediately upon removing the pan from the oven. I watched in horror as it sank like a deflating balloon.
Now, in retrospect, this recipe needed some fine-tuning; the liquid/flour/fat balance had tipped too far towards liquid/fat, and this is a rather dramatic demonstration of a soft sandwich loaf where that happens.
But even if the bread doesn't collapse, the simple fact that you're handling it while it's super-hot and its structure is still pliable means that you can leave dents.
Or your cooling rack can leave dents. Get a load of the deep impression the edge of the cooling rack left in the bottom of this hot loaf.
So – hands off! At least until it cools just a bit. I give my bread at least 1 minute in the pan (perhaps using that minute to brush it with melted butter – see next tip).
And if the bread seems particularly soft, I allow it to rest in the pan for up to 5 minutes. Longer than that, the side and bottom crust starts to steam, which will make it leathery rather than tender.
3. For a satiny, tender crust, brush with melted butter
The easiest way to do this is simply to run a stick of butter over the top surface of the hot loaf. If the bread has cooled enough that butter won't melt on contact, then melt your butter and apply it with a pastry brush.
4. Resist temptation – don't slice while hot! Wait until it cools down
I know, it's SO tough not to simply slice off that golden, tender end piece, spread it with butter, and devour. But doing so allows much of the moisture in your loaf to evaporate. Think about it: there's liquid in the form of steam inside your loaf, and it likes nothing better than to escape through that enormous gaping hole you've just made by cutting off its end.
In addition, as you're slicing the bread you're naturally compressing it just a bit, both with your hand, and with the knife you're running through it. It'll set in this compressed/compromised state, never regaining its full height.
Trust me; it's far better to wait until the bread is cool, and then slice off its end. Pop it into the toaster very briefly, just to warm; you'll enjoy that same just-baked experience.
5. Stick slices in the freezer
Once the bread is completely cool, slice it up and freeze anything you won't be using within a couple of days.
Your home-baked bread doesn't include any preservatives or stabilizers, so from the moment it reaches its optimum quality (as soon as it's cooled to room temperature), it starts to go downhill.
But don't despair; the freezer (though NOT the refrigerator) is your friend. Slice the bread, and wrap two to five slices or so at a time securely in plastic wrap – however many you/your family is liable to consume within a day.
Slip those plastic-wrapped packets into a larger plastic bag. Squeeze the air out, secure with a twist-tie or clip, and store in the coldest part of your freezer, somewhere the bread won't be subjected to temperature changes from the freezer door opening and closing.
When you need bread, remove one packet and thaw, still wrapped, at room temperature. It'll be nearly as good as the day it was baked.
And if you toast it, I guarantee you'll never know it had been frozen!
Of course, the bread will gradually deteriorate in the freezer over time, principally by becoming dry. But guess what? That process happens MUCH more quickly in the fridge. Put your bread in the refrigerator, and I guarantee it'll become stale overnight.
I hope you've learned something today, and that your bread-baking takes a turn for the better. We love hearing from you – do you have any post-baking tips for preserving your homemade loaf's quality? Please share them in "comments," below.
Because, after all, I'm sure we all wish our loaves looked (and tasted) as yummy as this Vermont Whole Wheat Oatmeal Honey Bread!