There is a certain knack to making good bread, which anyone can master without slavishly following recipies or complicated instructions – once you have cracked that, there are fantastic ways of making really special bread, but just start with a simple brown or white loaf. If you are unsure of your ability, try a white loaf first – see later blog if I’ve put it up.
Making bread – like many other simple skills – is plagued by experts who have a vested interest in making it sound difficult. It isn’t. I rarely measure anything, or time anything particularly accurately, or known what temperature my oven is – its just a matter of getting to recognise when things look right. I started, like many people, with a breadmaker, but it didn’t last long as it never seemed to make very satisfying bread, and anyway is a bit of a cop-out when you have an AGA hot all the time.
What are the essentials?
Flour – strong bread flour, white and wholemeal. The most reliable I have used is Canadian Spring Wheat flour but most flour sold as ‘Strong Bread Flour’ should work. If its not sold as ‘Strong Bread Flour’ save it until you know what you are doing!
Yeast – I use ‘Fermipan’ dried yeast in 500 gm packets – it can be added dry to the flour and is much cheaper than the little packets of dried yeast – just search for it on the web. The little packets usually contain exactly the same stuff so can be used if that’s all you can get. For convenience, don’t bother with any yeasts that need to be started before adding to the flour.
Water – tap water is fine, tepid but not too hot to get the yeast going.
Salt – this really is optonal, for years I made bread without salt, I now add a little as tastes change and we eat unsalted butter. Breadmakers use salt to regularise the process time – you don’t need to use it for that reason, just for taste.
Oil/butter etc. I occasionally add a little olive oil but to be honest it doesn’t make much difference to basic bread.
Sugar – this is added for bread makers to regularise the rise of the dough, and is not necessary or desirable in hand made bread.
You DON’T need a breadmaker unless you are without an oven.
You do need a large bowl and a board or table surface and a warmish place to rise the dough.
You can use a hand mixer with a dough hook, it will work but it won’t last long. A proper old-fashioned Kenwood Chef is the best tool for lazy folk. If you have neither or prefer manual labour you can just knead the dough by hand.
You need a small very sharp knife to cut slashes in the bread, a Stanley Knife or blade is probably a fair substitute – if you have difficulty making a clean cut, wet the blade in cold water and cut quickly.
For wholemeal or brown loaves I usually use a bread tin – white loaves I shape by hand and bake on baking parchment on a stone in the bottom of the top AGA oven. Or just bake on a baking tray. Loaves should come out of the tin easily if they are cooked enough and the tin was wiped with a very little butter – they stick less if you avoid washing the tin – its not because I’m lazy, honestly! Grease a new tin with a little butter or use a non-stick tin . If you don’t have a tin, just shape the loaf and put it on a floured baking tray
The yeast needs time and warmth to start to convert the starch in the flour and generate carbon dioxide gas to inflate the bubbles in the dough. With wholemeal flour in the mix, if you leave it too long the dough will collapse under its own weight and generate a loaf like a pancake, but with white flour the longer it is working the better the flavour in principle.
The amount of water you use is critical to the dough consistency, which in turn is one factor governing the size of holes in the bread. Traditionally English bread is made with rather stiff dough and has a fine ‘crumb’ – i.e. small holes, whereas French bread is made with wetter dough and has larger holes. Getting it right is a matter of taste and experience, but it is easier to add more flour to a dough that is too soft than it is to add more water to one that is too stiff. You can make delicious white ciabata style bread with dough that is almost runny, and certainly too soft to knead, so don’t be afraid of soft dough – its the biggest step to better bread, particularly with white loaves.
Basic Brown Bread (Kenwood Chef method):
Mix 2 x 1lb. jamjars of wholemeal bread flour, one jamjar of white bread flour, a small pile of dried yeast in the palm of your hand, and a smaller pile of salt if desired. Dry mix them thoroughly in the mixer bowl by hand.
* As a handy tip, if you plan to use a bread tin, then if the dry flour about half fills the tin then the properly risen loaf will be nicely rising up out of the tin, making it easy to judge when its ready to bake.
(You will probably have around 450 to 500 gm of flour, about 6 to 8 gm of yeast and maybe 3 to 4 gm of salt – you can change the proportions of wholemeal and white flour as you like – 100% wholemeal works OK but gives a fairly dense loaf).
Start the mixer with the dough hook in place at slow speed and pour in tepid water very slowly down one side so that it is mixed in as you pour – don’t worry if it gets a little wet as its easy to add a bit more flour, the other way round is a pain!
Knead at a speed of 1 1/2 to 2 for 8 to 10 minutes. You can stop to judge the consistency of the dough – it should be quite soft and the mixer shouldn’t have to work too hard. If it is sticking to the bottom of the bowl its a bit wet for wholemeal bread. When you lift the mixer hook out, the dough should sag slowly but stay on the hook. You will probably find that you need about half as much water as flour i.e. 225ml of water to 450gm of flour – maybe a bit more or less but learn to judge the consistency of the dough.
Scoop the dough out onto a floured surface and gently knead it a a few times (this is for the good of your soul) by placing the heel of your hand on the dough and pushing gently down and away from you, then curl you fingers under the extended edge of the dough and fold it back over the rest of the dough, then rotate the whole lot through 90 degrees and repeat – its a very natural and quick action and serves to let you feel the state of the dough. If you don’t have a mixer, this method will suffice for the whole kneading operation after you have mixed the ingredients in a bowl – probably much better for the soul than watching a machine!
Shape the dough into a flattish ball, and hold it in both hands with your fingers underneath. Work your hands so that you stretch the dough at the top of the ball and feed it round to the underneath. Place the ball back in the mixer bowl (or any convenient bowl) cover the top with clingfilm or a tea towel and place in a warm spot – Aga owners have the advantage here. Time depends on heat, but on the AGA its about 40 minutes, probably 1 hour or more in a warmish room.
Conventional instructions tell you to rise the dough until it has doubled in size, but as an engineer I find it difficult to judge this, because my eye is bad at assessing volume. Its one of the things you will learn to judge, but in the meantime let it rise til its is substantially bigger, and when you come to knead it again you will be able to judge how much gas it has in it.
Return the dough to your floured surface, claw/scrape it out of the bowl as necessary as it will probably have stuck to the sides unless it was very dry. Most books tell you to ‘knock the dough down’ and to be quite violent with it to expel the air. I don’t find this helpful, and I always handle the risen dough gently, folding it and shaping it, and letting it relax for a minute or so if you want to re-shape it much. A few minutes gently working should end up with the shape you want – you can leave joins and folds in the underneath, and if you are baking in a bread tin you only need to worry about the top. Put the shaped loaf in the tin, or on a lighly floured baking tray and make half a dozen diagonal cuts in the top with a sharp small knife to let the loaf expand as it rises. The cuts to some extent control the final shape of the loaf – the bread will expand in its diameter more than its length, so make your cuts along the loaf or diagonal – cuts across the loaf have little effect.
Now leave the loaf in a warm place, covered with a tea towel, to rise back up to full size. This is the tricky bit as wholemeal bread will collapse if left too long, but will be a bit heavy if not risen enough. You can judge the state of expansion from the amount that the cuts have opened. By the Aga my bread takes 40 minutes for each rise. White bread will finish rising in the oven – called ‘oven spring’, but brown loaves come out the same as they were put in.
Put the loaf into a pre-heated oven – in the AGA I put in the top sheet to cut down the heat a bit – in a conventional oven I guess about 190C and cook for about 30 -35 minutes. Wholemeal bread looks cooked before it is, and I often take a loaf out and then decide that it wasn’t cooked enough when it cools a bit and the crust has softened, and put it back for another 5 minutes.
Place on a rack to cool before cutting and eating.