(Steve Luxenberg/The Washington Post)

For too many of us, making bread belongs in the same category as public speaking and bungee jumping. The condition could be listed in a diagnostic manual of phobias: Bread-Making Failure Disorder, characterized by an extreme aversion to kneading dough and/or a fear of producing loaves with the texture of rubber, the weight of granite and the aroma of burnt fiberboard.

Okay, even if the comparison to bungee jumping is a leap, the dread over bread is real. In this modern age of too little time and too many tasks, working with dough has acquired an almost mysterious air, something that seems better left to bakers with an artisanal touch.

But I am here to say: Rise up, fellow doughphobes. There is nothing to fear except a waste of flour, yeast and water. At least for me, my demons were banished with the aid of — snob alert! — the dough cycle of a bread machine.

In my younger days, my first few forays into the yeasty arts left me with no appetite for trying again. Suffice to say that one of my efforts had enough ballast to stabilize a ship, but it was not something to anchor a dinner.

Then, some years later, a bread machine made its way into our stock of kitchen appliances. Although we enjoyed the results, they were rarely as successful as really good bread. Even the shape of each loaf, tall with a small square of a top crust that had no crunch, reminded us that we were settling for something . . . different.

Our two children, then at the age when they were taking sandwiches to school, declared their preference for multigrain breads from the store. Their votes carried extra weight. The bread machine migrated to a basement shelf.

Last year, though, I decided to bring it out of retirement. Determined to do better this time, I sat down with several cookbooks for bread machines, reading not just the recipes but the chapters on ingredients, chemistry and using the dough cycle only, baking the bread in the oven rather than in the machine.

Don’t be afraid, one book urged, to intervene during the first few minutes of the kneading phase, if you need to nudge a wayward dough into line. “Our grandmothers developed a feel for dough through experience,” wrote authors Linda West Eckhardt and Diana Collingwood Butts in their 1995 “Rustic European Breads From Your Bread Machine.” “They knew when the dough they were kneading by hand on a board was too dry or too wet . . . . Turn the kneading over to a bread machine, and you can only develop this feel by opening the lid and pinching the dough as it kneads.”

That was a revelation. The bread machine’s manual had implied that lifting the lid would invite disaster. But intervention only made sense. As Eckhardt and Butts pointed out, variables such as humidity, altitude and ingredients make it impossible to guarantee a consistent dough.

Generally, I’m comfortable around the kitchen. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly willing to improvise if I don’t like or have a particular ingredient. Until recently, though, none of that sense of adventure applied to bread.

But the more often I lifted the machine’s lid, the more I confident I became. Touching the dough taught me how it should feel; experience taught me how it should look. If the moisture level was off, it was apparent within the first few minutes. I looked forward to testing the dough for dryness or stickiness, adding small amounts of water or flour in search of that certain sheen and elasticity that I had come to recognize.

Perhaps this is where I should apologize to the serious bread bakers. For them, kneading is an essential part of the process. For me, I’ll take convenience over pride.

Here’s my best defense: On the dough cycle, the bread machine is nothing more than a mixer with a timer that signals the end of the knead and first rise. My flour-dusted hands still get their chance during the next phase, when the dough needs one more massage on its way to the oven.

Consequently, I’ve managed to reduce the total time for most bread recipes to about three hours. Start the process by early evening, and bread can be ready before bedtime. When I’m jammed for time, it becomes a weekend activity.

About half the time during the dough cycle, I don’t have to do anything except look. The mixture comes together just as it should, forming a tight ball by the end of the cycle’s 20-minute kneading period. If I do interfere, I have learned not to overdo it. As little as a teaspoon of water can cure a crumbly mess. It’s rare that I add even a tablespoon of liquid, and I can count on one hand how often I’ve had to use that much flour to fix a too-wet dough.

Then comes the fun: extracting the dough from the machine’s pan, punching it down to push out the carbon dioxide that formed during the initial rise, pressing it into a ball, letting it rise again for a half-hour or so, shaping it, and then making strategic slashes in the top of the loaf to allow for expansion during baking.

Instead of spending money on dough knives designed for making those slashes, I use a razor blade. But I have invested in a good baking stone ($25 to $30), a pizza peel (about $20) and a squirt bottle (a dollar-store model should do).

The baking stone is a must. It distributes heat evenly and is porous, so it wicks away unwanted moisture that, on a metal pan, can get trapped underneath the loaf, causing problems for the bread’s crust and internal texture.

The pizza peel does double duty. Dusted with cornmeal, it serves as a surface for working the dough. The cornmeal’s grit then helps the risen loaf slide easily from peel to stone.

The squirt bottle plays a vital role in putting crunch into the crust. Spritzing the dough a couple of times during the first few minutes of baking produces a distinctive crisp exterior. But do so with restraint: Spray too often and/or too late into the baking cycle, and the crust can end up rock-hard and too dark.

French, Italian, whole-wheat and whole-meal, 11-grain and rye: All have graced our table. We sometimes deal with a larger-than-expected loaf by freezing half of it right away, with good results.

Another trick, from the Eckhardt-Butts book: Stand the loaf on its cut end after slicing, right on the cutting board. The inside stays moist, and there’s no need to bag up the bread. It works.

On a recent visit, our now-adult children were drawn to the kitchen by the smell of a still-warm whole-meal bread. Their votes still carried weight.

They tore into it. One slice, then another. Just before it became three, I moved the loaf away.

Fear not.

Luxenberg, an associate editor of The Post, will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon.


Whole-Meal Bread