Greetings from a nervous first time baker who has been toying with the idea of making her first loaf of bread from scratch for a while now but is overwhelmed by the number of recipes available. Any recommendations for a good first bread? I'm pretty good at other forms of cooking but I've yet to attempt bread so I'm not scared of a complicated recipe, I just have no idea if what I'm reading will result in anything tasty.
Bread is actually way more forgiving than almost any other kind of baked good. I don’t even measure ingredients anymore, I just eyeball everything. You can’t usually do that in baking.
A good starter recipe is the famous New York Times no-knead bread, which is how a lot of people learn. It’s very straightforward and fairly reliable, and it’s a good introduction to working with dough (you don’t really need to bake it in a cast iron dutch oven – it’ll bake just fine in a loaf pan, it just gets crispier in the dutch oven). When you’re ready to try kneading, if you’re not allergic to dairy or eggs I actually recommend my yogurt-egg bread – it’s a very high-protein bread which means that it’s super durable and it can survive a lot of screwing-up.
There is no single hard and fast rule for bread – even stuff like keeping the yeast warm by using warm water and room-temperature ingredients only applies most of the time, not all of the time. While you want to bloom your yeast in warm water, you will get a more flavorful bread if it rises very slowly, and the colder the environment, the slower the dough will rise. When I want a fast rise I put my bread near my gas fireplace; when I want a slow rise I put it near the window.
Once you feel comfortable branching out, you can do stuff like adding herbs to the oil that you use to oil the bowl when the bread does its first rise (rosemary is good but a little goes a long way). Or try making a simple foccacia or challah and then adjust the flavors to your taste. Or try kneading stuff into the dough –dried berries or chopped dried fruits are nice, and so are cheddar and chives.
Most breads are relatively cheap to make. There’s not a lot of expensive ingredients. Just get yourself some good bread flour (King Arthur brand is a favorite here in the US) and a jar of yeast, and remember that yeast is a living creature, and life is unpredictable. Don’t feel down if you fail now and again – I still have a dud loaf once in a while. Good luck and happy baking!