“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.” —M.F.K. Fisher
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”–James Beard
It is a family tradition spanning over three to four decades. I am not sure if I started baking it in my 20s or 30s, but baking beer bread for Christmas, and other special events, has been, and continues to be, a long-held Hill household custom. From where the recipe came, I am not certain; however, I suspect I found it in the owner’s manual/recipe guide of the very first bread machine I ever owned.
Not long after John, my husband of over thirty years, and I were married, my grandparents gave us a bread machine as a Christmas gift. It was an Oster, white in color, and it was highly popular in the late 80s. In fact, even up until last Christmas (2019), I was still using this same Oster to help me bake bread.
This former bread making machine, for which I used to knead and rise bread dough–the loaves were baked in the oven rather than the machine–faithfully helped me bake beer bread every single Christmas after its original receipt. When my daughter was still school age, I baked loaves for her teachers at Christmas. Even now, I will still bake extra loaves at Christmas to give away.
Christmas after Christmas, I go through pounds of flour, yeast, and of course, copious bottles of beer. Typically, during the two weeks leading up to Christmas, the aroma of freshly baked bread seems to emanate from every pore of our house. A week or two leading up to Christmas, my kitchen is typically covered with a fine dusting of flour, and a measuring glass filled beer often sits at the back of the counter in order to come to room temperature before mixing the dough.
Unfortunately, by last Christmas, this antique machine was bouncing across the counter, vibrating the entire length, in an exerted effort to mix and knead the dough. After each batch, I would find feathery grains of black metal beneath the machine as if it were sacrificing its own blood in order to continue to help me produce bread. I knew I “kneaded” to gently close its lid and carry it to its final resting place, but saying goodbye is never easy–especially to one that has faithfully served our family, Christmas after Christmas, and one special event after another. To add further grief, it was a gift from my grandparents–setting this machine on its final rest cycle would feel as if I was breaking an unspoken contract with them. (Although we still have the white Toastmaster toaster they gave us as a wedding present in 1989.)
However, by New Years Day of 2020, another day in which I typically make beer bread, it was clear, the little Oster could go on no more. It was like an appliance doctor had steathfully snuck into the house and gently sent my loyal kitchen companion to its eternal reward. I am certain, if there is an appliance heaven, that good ol’ Oster is walking the streets of homemade bread alongside other trusted tools of the trade.
While I now have a new bread machine, the kitchen doesn’t quite look or sound the same when it is operating. It appears to be the strong, silent type that likes to work without drawing attention to itself. Black in color, oblong in shape, it is the complete opposite of its predecessor. While the former appliance, if set to bake dough, formed bread in the shape of a chubby stove pipe chimney; however, the newer machine, were I to actually use the baking function, will bake bread that is fashioned in the traditional shape and length, but is still rather tall. Nonetheless, it does perform the necessary functions of mixing, kneading, and rising the dough–ready to dump into a prepared bread pan and bake in the oven.
The recipe that I share can be varied slightly, but certain ingredients must go into the mix in order to bake and taste properly. To begin, I have used a wide variety of natural sweeteners including sugar (as originally called for), molasses, honey, agave, as well as real maple and date syrups. If choosing a liquid sweetener, it will influence the color of the crust as well as the dough. Additionally, I have played with a variety of types of flour, including whole wheat, and I have even added ½ cup of wheat germ, but I have found that using bread flour works best. Furthermore, I prefer to use jar yeast that is specifically designed for bread machines.
Regarding the beer, I have used both high end beer and bargain beer over the years. It really doesn’t matter. However, what I do find is that the darker the beer, the richer the flavor–but only for the most discerning of taste buds. Most won’t notice the difference between light or dark beer. Also, if you don’t typically drink beer, you can buy single cans of beer.
Another tip I have learned over the years is to cool and store the loaf in an airtight plastic bag or container before slicing it. The reason I make this suggestion is because if you slice it while it is still warm, the bread is not firm enough and tends to collapse in on itself. Additionally, crumbs from the crust go everywhere. However, if you allow it to properly cool, and then store it for several hours in an airtight container, it will slice nicely for those social media worthy pictures.
As a final tip, it should be noted that you may need to adjust the amounts of each ingredient and/or order in which the ingredients go into your machine, depending upon your machine’s requirements. This is where the owner’s manual of your own machine comes in handy–to help you tweak and adjust amounts as needed. (I know my new machine’s manual has several pages of tips for successful baking and recipe adjustments.)
Furthermore, it should also be noted that I have only used this recipe in a bread machine. I put the ingredients in the machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer and allow the machine to take care of the mixing, kneading, and rising. Once through the rising process, I place dough in a prepared loaf pan and bake. Sadly, this recipe is NOT gluten-free; and therefore, I now choose to not consume it–even at Christmas. It was a recipe I discovered years before I knew I had celiac disease. Therefore, I bake only for the consumption of loved ones and friends to enjoy.
For those of you with bread machines sitting around waiting to be used, I hope you will enjoy this recipe. It fills the house with an irresistible, aromatic scent, and tastes wonderful toasted, at room temperature, or slightly warmed. Use it for breakfast, sandwiches, snacks, or even toast it for homemade croutons. I hope that this recipe will bring your family as much joy as it has mine over the years.
From my home to yours, I wish you happy, homemade, and heavenly baked goods for the holidays!
⅓ warm water
1 cup beer (room temperature & flat)
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar (or other natural sweetener)
3 cups bread flour
1 yeast package or 2 ¼ teaspoons yeast
Place all ingredients in the bread machine according to manufacturer directions, making any adjustments needed to amounts as per manufacturer directions.
Set machine for dough setting if baking in oven; otherwise, set for white bread setting.
Once dough is nearly finished with its cycle, preheat oven to 375 degrees if baking in the oven.
If baking in the oven, remove dough from the pan once dough has gone through the entire dough setting cycle, and place dough in lightly greased loaf pan.
Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown on top.
Store in an airtight container or sealed storage bag.
Stays fresh, when properly stored in an airtight container at room temperature, for over a week.