Is there anything more welcoming than the smell of piping hot bread right out of the oven? There's something special, perhaps even mystical about making bread. The more you get into the science of bread, variety of grains, flavors, shapes and enhancements and your choices of unique leavening agents, the more fascinating the subject becomes.

The good news, good basic breads are simple and require surprisingly few core ingredients; yeast, water, flour, salt and sugar. The ratio of about 2 1/2 cups of warm water to 6 cups of flour is the approximate proportion for many types of bread.

The first recipe is a delicious basic and relatively quick bread, leavened with fast rising yeast. It can be enhanced with sourdough starter if available and some olive oil. An egg wash will give it a nice brown exterior. Making bread is much simpler than you probably thought. Enjoy.

Before offering the first recipe, next is a brief discussion about sourdough starters and how they frequently are used in sponges, a process for leavening dough usually over days.

Sourdough Starters

Long before processed yeast was available, family bakers developed starters, their way to create wild yeasts and bacteria for leavening. They combined natural fermenting agents (water, crushed grapes, milk, potatoes, pineapple, sour cream, or any number of available plants and liquids) with flour. Over days and through a process of re-energizing the mixture, they made a reliable leavening compound to raise breads.

Once the sourdough starter was ready, they would begin the process of making bread a few days ahead. It took several days to activate and ready the dough for baking. Only a portion of the starter was used. They would mix more flour and liquid to the remaining. Not only did this replenish the amount of starter used but would "feed" the natural enzymes to keep them happy, active, available and ready.

Today, it's amazing that some starters were passed down from generations. You can purchase starters on line claiming its origins are 50 or more years old. Others might also certify their starters are from recognized and treasured locations like San Francisco, ground zero for US sourdough bread production.

My first starter was a gift from my friend Ralph who initiated me into bread making. His starter traced back 20 years earlier. You can buy sourdough starter from many sources including from King Arthur Flour on line or if lucky, a proven starter free from a friend that's willing to share.

You can also make your own sourdough starter. Mine was made with whole grain rye flour, water, and a pinch of sugar and quick yeast. It took about a week of slight pampering and feeding with unbleached wheat flour and more water to ready it for baking. There are plenty of easy recipes and procedures on line and in books. Some ingredients will create sourdough that's more poignant than others. Once established maintenance is easy and will give you years of service.

Lastly, I am surprised to see volumes of discussion on line about the benefits of using sourdough cultures to slowly add leavening to bread dough over several days. Claims are the longer the dough is processed, the easier bread is to to digest. Since quick yeasts were commercialized, some claim that quickly readying breads in hours for baking doesn't properly prepare wheat gluten for human consumption. I'm certainly not an expert but wonder if that has contributed to the proliferation of gluten intolerance.