Once you make water bread, you’ll never eat store bought white bread again.
In fact, you won’t be able to look at a loaf of “white bread” from the market and consider it bread, in any sense of the word, after you’ve taken a bite of the real thing.
Hot. Crunchy crust. Tender, flaky, soft interior. Slather it with butter, dab some margarine on it, I don’t care what you do, but hurry, make this recipe from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 13th edition.
You won’t be sorry.
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Water Bread Recipe from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 13th Edition
The recipe for Water Bread and Rolls is found on page 517 of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 13th edition.
I am reviewing a recipe from the classic Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 13th Edition. Out of respect for the original author, Fannie Farmer, and the editor of this edition, Marion Cunningham, I will not be posting the original recipe. If you are interested in making this bread, you may obtain a copy of the cookbook using the link at left or below.
Recipe Review – What Is Water Bread?
Before going into the review, let me start by saying there are two types of bread called ‘water bread.’ The first is a Puerto Rican specialty called pan-de-aqua. The taste is similar to the recipe I am reviewing, but the Puerto Rican recipe includes egg whites and cornmeal.
The original water bread recipe from the Boston Cooking school uses no eggs but two tablespoons of fat – one tablespoon of solid shortening and one tablespoon of real butter – to add softness to the dough. The fat, I have found, adds the softness missing from many white bread recipes on the market, and makes a lovely light interior crust.
The 1896 Recipe
This recipe, found on page 517 of the 13th edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, is one of the original recipes from the Boston Cooking School.
Miss Farmer was the founder of The Boston Cooking School, and created one of the first cookbooks with measured ingredients. I have not been able to find more than a few mentions of this bread recipe online, but I suspect it is an older recipe given the reliance on just a handful of simple ingredients – water (lots of it, hence the recipe name), sugar, salt, shortening, butter, and good bread flour – to create a delectable crust.
Making the Recipe – An Easy Bread if You Time It Right
First, the recipe calls for two cups of boiling water. Don’t skip this step and don’t try to rush it with hot water from the tap. Put the kettle on the stove and get it to a good, screaming boil.
Place the fats – the shortening and the butter – in your mixing bowl and fit those kneading attachments to the mixer. I have a Kitchen Aid all-purpose home mixer with bread dough hooks and I have found that starting any bread recipe in the mixer makes much better. Lighter, flakier, easier to knead by hand after the initial mix.
My metal bowl retains heat, and that’s where the tricky step comes in. The recipe begins by having you put the sugar, salt, butter, and shortening in the bowl, then adding two cups of boiling water. Then you wait until it cools to lukewarm.
Now, I’ve never been one to wait. So I have a trick up my sleeve. I pop the whole bowl into the freezer while I let my frozen yeast proof in some warm water.
Wait? Frozen Yeast?
Yup, frozen yeast!
That’s another secret for you novice bakers out there – put your yeast in the freezer if you aren’t using it all up within three months.
Yeast is a living organism, and even freeze dried, it can go bad, or die off. I slide my package of yeast into a ziplock plastic bag and put the entire package into the door or the freezer. When I need yeast, I spoon out a tablespoon at a time and mix it into the hot water.
That’s called “proofing your yeast.” After mixing the yeast into hot water, let it sit for five minutes, then add it to the rest of the ingredients. While the yeast proofs, put the whole bowl into the freezer. Let it sit there for 5-10 minutes. It cools it down enough to mix in the yeast without killing it by adding it to water that is too hot.
What Kind of Yeast Should You Use?
You know those small foil wrapped packages of yeast at the grocery store? Or the single envelopes you can buy?
Throw them into the garbage. They’re awful.
Now, go to the local health food store, or specialty food store, or online, and buy Saf-Instant Yeast.
It’s a big package, but it is the best yeast ever. I bought it by accident during the pandemic when the store was out of the foil packets I normally used, and I’m so, so glad I did! It has been the best yeast I have ever used. I am not paid to say this by the way – I just love the product.
Use Only Bread Flour
Another trick I have found to baking fantastic bread at home is to use only true bread flour. Bread flour has a higher gluten (protein) content and just bakes better bead. For the white bread and rolls recipe, I tested three types of bread flour:
- Pillsbury Bread Flour
- King Arthur Bread Flour
- White Lily Bread Flour
The clear winner: White Lily. Nothing came close.
With all three bread flours, I baked good loaves of bread. But the White Lily Bread Flour created a high, light loaf and rolls that were also light and airy. It was well worth searching for it in the market.
Making Water Bread
After boiling your water and adding it to the sugar, salt, butter and shortening, pop it into the freezer to cool off the mix after the fats melt into the water. Then proof your yeast.
Once you’re sure you won’t kill your yeast by pouring it into a boiling water bath, mix the yeast gently into the cooled water and ingredients. Then, using your kneading hooks, mix the flour in a little at a time.
Don’t pour the entire batch of flour into the mix or you’ll get a puff of white dust up your nose and a messy kitchen.
Mix, knead, then let it rest. Sprinkle flour on your wooden bread board and pour out the dough. It will be wet and sticky. Flour up your hands. Knead for ten minutes.
Warning: It’s Happy Yeast Bread
During the rising period (about an hour), my bread rose so high it overflowed the bowl. I used my biggest mixing bowl from Williams Sonoma and it still decided it had enough of the bowl and wanted to hang out in my proofing oven. So be it. It was messy, but cleaned up easily.
Shaping the Bread and Rolls
The interesting thing about this recipe is that it makes both a loaf of water bread and rolls. Why make both? I have no idea. I experimented with making the same amounts as called for in the recipe – half of the dough for the loaf, half of the dough for the rolls – and the bread rose very high over my biggest loaf pan.
On my next round of recipe testing, I decided to divide up the rolls first. I rolled 10 balls of dough about the size of lemons and put them into buttered cake pans, five rolls in each. Then I patted the dough down into a buttered loaf pan. It came out perfect. On my third and final test, I did the same, and again, the recipe came out great, so I think 10 rolls and one loaf is the right amount.
Freezing the Rolls
You can freeze the extra rolls easily by cooling them and then putting them into a plastic bag. Tie it tightly with a twist tie and put it in the freezer.
I found that microwaving a frozen roll for 1:30 on high warmed it up perfectly without ruining it.
Bake Bread on Sunday, Enjoy All Week Long
Sundays are now my bread baking day. Around 3pm I start the dough. I have time to rest, walk the dog, shape my rolls, and then the rolls are ready for a supper of homemade, from scratch low sodium split pea soup. It’s a great way to start the week, and my pantry has a loaf of fresh, homemade, preservative free bread.
What can be better than that?
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This post is part of Cooking with Fannie & Me, a series of posts about recipes from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. If you are curious about the recipe, please grab a copy of the book from your local public library or a bookstore and cook along with me.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.