There aren't many things that say "home" as emphatically as the smell of fresh-baked bread, warm from the oven. Bread baking is a satisfying activity, but finding time to do it regularly can be a challenge. Bread machines provide a partial solution, turning out loaves on demand, but they lack the beauty and often the texture of scratch-made bread. One alternative is to make dough ahead and freeze it, so you can thaw it and bake bread whenever you need it.
1. The Basics
Yeasts are in the air everywhere in the world, even in the frozen wastes of Antarctica or the blazing deserts of North Africa. Thousands of years ago, early civilizations in the Middle East discovered that yeasts flourished in the wet dough of their flatbreads, making the bread lighter and tastier. Modern loaves use wheat with lots of gluten, making a dough that rises and stretches beautifully to produce a light, airy texture. You can slow the yeasts by refrigerating your bread dough or send them into hibernation by freezing them, but you won't kill them off entirely.
2. Freeze Immediately
You can freeze your bread dough successfully either as soon as it's mixed or after the first rise. Freezing is going to reduce the effectiveness of your yeast, so double the amount if you're freezing the dough immediately after mixing. Prepare the bread dough as you normally would, either by hand, with a stand mixer, or by using the dough cycle of a bread machine. Knead the dough until it forms a smooth, elastic ball, then divide it into loaf-sized portions. Flatten each portion into an inch-thick disc and spray it lightly on each side with pan spray. Freeze the dough in individual heavy-duty freezer bags.
3. Freeze After Rise
You can also freeze the dough after it's risen once. That way, you can shape the loaves and simply drop them into your baking pans when you need them. Prepare your dough as normal, increasing the yeast by half. Let it rise in a cool place until approximately doubled or until it doesn't spring back when you poke it with your fingertips. Punch down the bread, then portion it and shape it into loaves. Spray each portion with pan spray to keep it from sticking to the freezer bags, and freeze them in a single layer.
4. Thawing and Baking
Thaw your bags of dough overnight in the refrigerator. Pre-shaped loaves can be unwrapped and placed straight into a greased loaf pan, where they can rise in a warm place until they're ready to bake. For unrisen dough, take it out of the bag and knead it briefly. Place the dough in a lightly oiled mixing bowl and let it rise until it's approximately doubled in size and the dough doesn't spring back when you poke it with your fingers. Punch it down, shape it into a loaf and put it in a greased loaf pan for its second rise. Bake the loaves normally.