If you ask me, yeast breads are the gold standard of baking. Everyone I know who pursues baking excellence measures themselves and those around them by their yeast breads. My little brother explores sourdough starters and rye flours. My mother is the family champion of sweet doughs. My personal field of expertise is potato bread. But even after I mastered the pre-bake mechanics (yeast-proofing, beating, kneading, shaping, rising, etc.), I continued to struggle with the actual baking part of bread baking. To make my beloved Cooking Light Monday Morning Potato Bread I had developed a complicated process involving aluminum foil (ten minutes with top and bottom covered, ten minutes with only top covered, ten minutes with no cover) and even then my crusts were sometimes near black and tough as hell. A chewy crust is all fine and good if you’re making a rustic loaf to rip apart with your stew, but I’m kvetching about sandwich bread here. Well, at long last, my suspicions are confirmed. It’s not me. It’s my oven.
For the duration of the now six years that I have been using the cheap and ugly electric range/oven that came with our questionable house purchase, I have set the temperature 25ºF lower than called for in the recipe and I generally underbake by 5-10 minutes. This usually works satisfactorily. However, when we got a free turkey from one of Matt’s turkey-tired co-workers over the holidays and its button popped up halfway through the recommended cooking time, I was suspicious. Chalking it up to a defective button and ignoring the fact that the bird looked phenomenal (and the juices ran clear!) I continued to cook as directed by the Plaid Book*. You guessed it: it was charred. Even the stuffing was dry. The seed of doubt was planted, and when my most recent ham was blackened in record time I put my foot down. That ham used to be attached to one of my pigs! I did not dig through two feet of snow three times a day to slop and water an ungrateful 250 pound omnivorous monster only to have my oven desiccate half of a hard-won five pound smoked ham!
So I bought a cheap oven thermometer and I popped it in the next time I was making a casserole. I set the temperature to 350ºF as called for in the recipe, rather than my usual 325ºF, just to make things easier on my math-challenged mind. After the preheating light clicked off I waited about five minutes and ducked in with a flashlight to take a look at the dial (my bargain-basement oven has neither window nor interior light). 450ºF and climbing! No wonder everything burns – this is no Easy-Bake, it’s a frigging crematorium! (Although that does explain why I have never had to scrub an oven that has no self-cleaning feature . . .)
Tuesday, armed with the knowledge that my oven is at least 100 degrees hotter than advertised, I turned out two beautiful loves of buttermilk bread with crusts so golden and soft you could use them as pillows. I actually had some for dessert it was so good! I smeared two lightly toasted slices with honey and butter and ate them with a handful of sweet red grapes on the side. (This combo is one of my favorite snacks, incidentally.)
So if you’re having trouble with breadmaking go get an oven thermometer from the housewares section of the supermarket. Maybe it is you – but maybe you have a legitimate scapegoat in that powdercoated heap of scrap metal masquerading as a modern household appliance.
* Our pet name for the ubiquitous Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.