Get to know your machine. Read your manual carefully before attempting to make bread in it. Pick one white bread recipe and one whole wheat recipe to experiment with, and make each recipe at least 2 times without deviation. Stay relatively close by during the machine’s progress and become familiar with the cycles and all the different sounds associated with each cycle.
Most manuals have charts of the different baking programs, listing the times for each cycle. The difficulty is that sometimes you’ll get a range of time rather than an exact time. For example, the kneading cycle may be indicated as 18 – 25 minutes. So you don’t know exactly when the kneading cycle will end. Set a timer for the lowest possible number of minutes. When the timer beeps, listen carefully to your machine to determine if the kneading has stopped. If it hasn’t, keep close by for the next few minutes so you will know when kneading has really ended and rising has begun. Remember basic bread programs differ from whole wheat programs and dough-only programs. So you may have to determine times for at least three different programs. This may seem like a hassle, but knowing exactly how long the kneading cycle takes will be important when you need to make adjustments to the dough. You don’t want to be adding a tablespoon of liquid one minute before rising begins.
It took me a couple of uses to get the information I wanted about my machine’s white bread, whole wheat bread, and dough programs. I made notes on how long each cycle seemed to be and what weird sounds my machine made as each cycle progressed. Now I know when every cycle is going to take place and how long each cycle will take. That means I can set a kitchen timer at the perfect time to check my dough’s consistency during the knead and check to make sure the dough isn’t overproofing during the rise.
Make small loaves until you're completely comfortable making low sodium loaves in your machine. Use recipes for the smallest loaves your bread maker can handle. You don’t want to run the risk of the dough over-proofing and spilling over the bread pan and onto the heating elements or sticking to the lid. Also, the smaller the loaves, the quicker they will be used up. So you’ll be able to get more practice and experience using your machine. You’ll become more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of baking low sodium breads. And, if the bread turns out poorly, you won’t have wasted a large quantity of flour and other ingredients. Plus smaller loaves means that the bread will not be hanging around long enough to go stale or get too dry.
Start with plain white bread loaves. If you’re new to yeast bread making, it might be wise to make several white bread loaves in your machine before tackling more complex recipes. That way you’ll get a sense of what good quality bread dough feels like and what it looks like. Don’t complicate things by adding nuts or fruit or grains until you’re comfortable with your machine and with plain bread dough. Then gradually start making more complex white bread recipes. If you want, add some recipes with 50% white flour and 50% whole wheat flour. After you feel confident using your particular machine and in analyzing bread dough, experiment with 100% whole wheat bread recipes. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself time to learn your machine and experience success with it.
Use flavor components. Low or no salt versions of lean, rustic breads like French baguettes and ciabatta aren’t very tasty. That stands to reason since their main ingredients are just flour, water, yeast and salt. Eliminate the salt, and you basically get baked paste. So consider using recipes that call for buttermilk, yogurt, or sour cream. The acid/sour component adds a flavor kick that low sodium breads lack. Sweeteners, fats, eggs, and dairy all add flavor to low sodium bread, so try to use recipes that have some of each.
Additions of spices and herbs (dried or fresh) can make bland low sodium breads more flavorful. Dried onion flakes and chopped chives are great, as are coarsely ground black pepper, dill seed and rosemary. Additions of nuts and seeds (especially if they're toasted) add both flavor and textural interest, again something that's often needed with the blander low sodium breads.
Consider using a biga, poolish or other pre-ferment/starter to add flavor to your low sodium bread. Find recipes made especially for bread machines so you can follow the correct techniques. Lean, french type breads really benefit from a pre-ferment or starter. The starters not only add flavor but help keep the loaves from drying out and going stale.
Sourdough starter is another good choice because you don’t need to use any yeast at all. As a result, you can really cut the salt content without too many adverse affects. And the tangy, sour flavor doesn’t really need salt to taste good. (When I make sourdough bread, I let the machine do the kneading. However, I put the dough in a bucket for a long, slow, cool rise. The machine is too warm to use for sourdough rising.)
Consider using some whole wheat flour in the dough. Because whole wheat flour is courser that white flour, it produces a denser, heavier loaf. Even a little bit of whole wheat flour helps offset the tendency for low sodium loaves to balloon and overproof. Whole wheat flour is a bit tricky, though. It absorbs liquid like a sponge, so sometimes it’s hard to determine whether or not you need to add more fluids. The perfect whole wheat dough consistency is still a bit tacky, so you may be tempted to add more flour. But adding more flour could result in dry, heavy loaves.
Don’t be afraid to experiment or of the occasional failure. Even the most experienced bread maker has had failed loaves. Every time you use your machine, you'll discover something new. It’s a never ending learning experience. You’ll eventually figure out the idiosyncrasies of your particular machine and discover which recipes work best for it. You’ll get a feel for which helpful hints will work and which should be ignored.
Even your so-called failures can be useful. Use the less-than-perfect loaves to make breadcrumbs. Those can be used in meatloaf and meatballs, for breading baked or fried fish or chicken, and for casserole and vegetable toppings. I keep dried homemade breadcrumbs in my pantry and a plastic bag of fresh crumbs in my freezer. You can also cube up the bread for making croutons or your own homemade stuffing. Make bread pudding or strata. Or feed the birds!
Invest in a couple of good bread machine cookbooks. You will find helpful information about using bread machines in general, and you may find some great recipes too. Right now I’ve got three bread machine cookbooks: Beth Hensberger’s The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook, Bread Machines for Dummies, and Betty Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook. For overall information on working with bread machines, I’d recommend the Dummies book. Beth Hensbergerger’s book has both wonderful information about using bread machines and a large selection of recipes, including several for artisan breads. The Betty Crocker book has a lot of bread recipes with different flavor combinations, something useful when dealing with lower sodium breads. King Arthur Flour recommends Bread Machine Baking - Perfect Every Time, by Lora Brody.
The biggest downside to most bread machine cookbooks is that they were published, for the most part, almost a decade ago (or more). Bread machine companies have discontinued models, added new models, added or changed features, changed parent companies, etc., and bread baking science has changed too. Just keep this in mind because along with the helpful hints and tips you may find some out-of-date information and techniques.
Keep notes on your bread making. Note even the smallest changes or additions you made with each recipe you use and jot down problems or successes. If you had to add 2 tablespoons of liquid because the dough seemed too dry. If the dough rose too quickly. If the baked loaf collapsed. If you added an extra tablespoons of gluten. All the small bits of information are important. Not only will they guide you when you follow the same recipe again, but they’ll give you ideas about what will work or not work with other recipes.
I keep a small notebook in my kitchen drawer. Every time I make a recipe using my machine (for bread or for dough) I note the date I made the bread, the source and page number (if from a cookbook), the loaf size, any changes I made, if I needed to add liquid or flour, a critique of the finished loaf, and finally, any suggestions for next time. I’ve found these notes particularly helpful when I make the recipe again and have forgotten what I did the first time and what I wanted to try the next time. The notes help keep failures to a minimum.
Next Post: Baking Low Sodium Bread - Keeping It Fresh - Part 4
Baking Low Sodium Bread Series:Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Beginning Basics
Part 3 – Getting Started
Part 4 – Keeping It Fresh
Part 5 – Without a Bread Machine
Part 6 – Favorite Bread RecipesPart 7 – Favorite Buns and Rolls
Low Sodium Bread – Demystified