5 Tips for Baking Bread on a Boat

I love making fresh bread, but if you’ve never done it before — or only with a breadmaker — you might be a little intimidated.  Here are 5 things I’ve learned to ensure success and make it a little easier (if you want really detailed step-by-step instructions, check out Yeast Bread Making 101).  By the way, homemade bread is a wonderful thank-you gift, and I’ve even traded loaves for fresh lobster and shrimp!

If you’ve never made yeast bread by hand before, start with a simple recipe for white bread.  While whole wheat is healthier, white is a little less picky about your technique.  Then, once you’ve gotten the hang of things with a few loaves of white, move on to whole wheat and other grains.

Tip 1:  Don’t Use Freshly Chlorinated Water

Many cruisers use bleach in their water tanks to keep the nasties at bay.  It’s  generally not a problem as the chlorine dissipates over time, but heavily chlorinated water can inhibit yeast action and keep bread from rising.

A basic rule is that if you can still smell the chlorine in the water, it will interfere with your yeast.  Don’t add bleach to your tanks right before making bread unless you have a tap with a charcoal filter (to remove the chlorine) or another source of water.

Tip 2:  Use Local Yeast and Take Care of It

Baking bread from scratch isn't all that difficult, and these 5 tips will make it even easier.My experience is that the more local the yeast, the better it works.  My guess is that imported yeast may sit in hot warehouses and not sell quickly in the local stores.

In most places outside the US, this means buying bulk yeast in vacuum-sealed “bricks” like the one at right.  Since most US recipes are written in terms of “packets” of yeast, the conversion is generally:

2-1/4 teaspoons of yeast = 1 package

Bulk yeast should be stored in a tight-lidded plastic container (I like the Lock & Lock containers) and kept cool — in the refrigerator is best.  Heat will kill it!  Read more about storing yeast.

Even taking care in storing it, you may find that yeast becomes less and less potent over time, so you can’t stock up too far in advance on it — I find that I couldn’t count on it being good much more than 6 months.  And that brings up the next tip:

Tip 3:  Always Proof the Yeast

In breadmaking, the term “proof” can be used to mean “rise,” but it is also used to describe the process of making sure that the yeast is still potent before adding all the flour and possibly wasting it.  Most cookbooks no longer even describe the process, but older ones do . . . and the pioneer women always used the technique.

To proof, mix together the required liquid, sugar and yeast.  Let sit for 10 minutes in a warm place and then check the mixture.  It should be foamy, or bubbly, as in the photo below.  If not, or there are only a few bubbles, the yeast is dead, your bread won’t rise and you might as well throw the mixture out and not waste any more ingredients.  If the yeast proofs well, continue with the recipe.

Baking bread from scratch isn't all that difficult, and these 5 tips will make it even easier.

Tip 4:  Don’t Use Artificial Sweeteners

Yeast feeds on sugar; without it, the dough won’t rise.  You can use other natural sugars, such as honey, molasses or corn syrup, but artificial sweeteners just don’t do the trick.  I’ve done lots of experiments — you really don’t want to know how many proofing mixes I’ve thrown out — and haven’t yet found anything labelled “no calorie,” “low calorie” or “sugar free” that works.

The basic rule of thumb is that you need approximately the same amount of sugar as yeast, so if the recipe is for a particularly sweet bread and calls for much more than that, you may be able to substitute some artificial sweetener (Splenda or others) for part of the sugar, but there still must be at least as much sugar as yeast.

Tip 5:  Knead the Bread in the Bowl

When we first moved aboard, my biggest problem in making bread was the mess it made when I’d knead it.  The flour would get in the crevice of the counter lip, if the boat rolled a bit, I’d end up with flour on the flour . . . and worst of all (when it was HOT outside) I’d have to turn the galley fan off or there was flour everywhere!

Simple solution:  knead the dough in the bowl!

  • Wash your hands, then lift the dough up and sprinkle some flour under it.
  • Take your hand and fold one side of the dough to the center of the bowl and push down with your knuckles or heel of your hand.
  • Turn the bowl a quarter turn.
  • Keep working around the bowl until the dough is no longer sticky – you may have to add more flour.  You don’t want the dough sticky, but you don’t want to add so much flour that the bread is dry and crumbly.  You are generally better off erring on the side of too little flour.
  • Typically, the dough should be kneaded for 5 to 7 minutes.
If you really don’t want to knead the dough, no-knead breads are a great alternative.   A great introduction to them is Kneadlessly Simple, a wonderful book devoted to the topic.  Despite what the author says about needing a cool location, I’ve used the technique successfully when it’s been 90+ outside by using slightly less yeast.  And I didn’t have a cast iron pot, so it may not have been “perfect” — but it was darn good!

However you make it, as the scent of freshly-baked bread fills the anchorage, don’t be too surprised when other cruisers — or the local fishermen — “just happen” to stop by your boat!

  • Tara
    Posted at 06 May 2011 Reply

    Not sure where or if you’ve already incorporated these tips somewhere, but here goes:

    Having an instant read thermometer has been indispensable to me when baking bread. I never knew if the bread was done all the way through, and I’d usually end up with a slightly moist loaf using the “browned and hollow sounding” method. The inside of a loaf should be between 190F and 200F when you take it out of the oven. Using the thermometer I’ve always had beautifully cooked bread. It is also helpful for figuring out if the ambient temperature is just right for each rise. I don’t have a place that gets consistently warm/cool enough, so my bread seems to rise in a different spot each time.

    Tenting the loaf for the last 10 minutes with tin foil will help the top from getting too brown. And of course the baking stone is key to not having a burned bottom!

    I’ve spent way too much time perfecting a true (no white flour or other bad stuff) whole wheat loaf. It is very similar to store bought and uses ingredients that are relatively easy to find/store. If you want the recipe to share, I’m happy to send it.

    Thanks for the interesting tips on this website! I really could have used a resource like this when we started cruising!

  • Louis Cohen
    Posted at 15 March 2013 Reply

    Artisan bread is made with flour, water, yeast, and salt – no sugar or other sweeteners. Enzymes in the flour (amylase etc) break down the starches in the flour and convert them to shorter chain sugars that the yeast can eat. Active dry yeast (the kind that comes in little packages) needs to be rehydrated in warm water before mixing, but you don’t need to add sugar.

    The above applies to bread baked onshore. On a boat where conditions might not be ideal, maybe the sugar provides a margin for error.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 15 March 2013 Reply

      My tips were for making “regular” bread . . . maybe I should have said that.

  • Jerry Wayne Wells
    Posted at 02 August 2013 Reply

    I’m not on a boat, but I am a beginner in a very small kitchen in a city. Your tips were very helpful. Thank you!

  • Dave Skolnick
    Posted at 04 June 2016 Reply

    The most important benefit of kneading bread in the bowl (which is more work than on a counter) is handing it up to the person in the cockpit to take care of. Tasks delegated are tasks complete. *grin*

  • Laine Common
    Posted at 04 June 2016 Reply

    I miss having an oven.. And a functioning house in general… Regretting buying such a fixer upper. 🙁

  • Tina Gonsalves
    Posted at 04 June 2017 Reply

    First time operating the on board oven. I set it to 350 degrees and waited 10 minutes. Oven thermometer reached 325. Waited another 5 minutes. Still 325. Should I assume that the oven is 25 degrees shy of what is dialed in when baking in the future?


    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 04 June 2017 Reply

      That’d be my guess. Next time, set it to 375 and see what it does.

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