Baking bread is a science and an art. Once mastered, gives you immense pleasure, and there is no going back to the mundane supermarket bread. I am self taught, and still learning and enjoy every time, the whole process – dough, bake and eat!
There is nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting around the house. It is the most comforting of all smells. Then there is the taste. Though you get excellent breads from many bakeries, there is nothing to beat a home baked loaf. Even the lowly plain white loaf, which I am starting with is better baked at home. Bread baking is the most satisfying thing you can do in the kitchen.
The history of how bread baking came to be is very interesting, as is all history. The discovery of farming wheat and other cereals as a more reliable source of food is probably the catalyst of people living in a fixed place, together and hence our civilisation. It is conceivable that ground cereals were initially eaten unleavened as flat breads. Accidentally leftover dough, fermented by wild yeasts, proving to be softer and better would have started the ball rolling and in the present time we are lucky to have an enormous variety of breads from all over the world and most importantly access to the knowledge of making them.
A few points about the basic ingredients:
Bread is a simple combination of basically 3 essential ingredients. Flour, water and yeast. Every other ingredient, including salt, sugars, fats alter or improve the texture and taste but are not essential.
Both water and yeast, nature provides us but we choose to purify water to make it safe and culture yeast so we can get reliable results time after time. However Flour is literally man made, with a little help from nature of course. The airy, cell like structure of bread is made and maintained by a protein in wheat flour called gluten. The more the gluten in the flour, better the structure of bread, so you need high gluten flour, also called “strong” white flour meaning high gluten flour.
If you are going to take the trouble of baking your own bread, buy the best quality flour you can get. Period. No point in saving pennies in buying cheaper, lower grade flour and spending energy and effort to make your own “so so” bread. You might as well pickup a loaf from the supermarket and it will be cheaper with no effort spent.
For the yeast, you can use either commercial yeast or grow your own!!! Really, but that is for another post. Commercial yeast is either fresh, lasting only a few days or dried, lasting to more than a year. Dried yeasts are the spore forms of yeast available as active and rapid forms, how you use varies, so follow instructions on the packet. Active dried yeasts need activation prior to use, which is done by mixing the yeast with a little sugar and water and setting aside for 10 mins till it becomes frothy. I use rapid/easy bake yeast which can be added as dried granules to the bread mix without prior activation.
Water has to measured, however every batch of even a single brand of flour differs in water requirement. So retain about 50 ml from any recipe for a single loaf, mix in the rest and titrate little by little, as you mix. And rarely you may even need a bit less or more depending on the flour. You learn with experience when to stop depending on the type of bread you are making.
Water temperature is very important consideration. Yeast grows optimally at about 35˚C. So the dough will rise fast if you add lukewarm water and keep the dough in a warm place. However, the taste is better if you raise it slowly. So it depends on how fast you want your loaf.
Salt gives taste and I find even halving the salt given in many recipes does not make much of a difference. Forgetting the salt altogether does, though. Butter gives a nice taste and also aids in the structure of bread. Too much salt will kill the yeast and your bread will be dense.
Home baked White Bread
A brinskitchen recipe
Basic White loaf Ingredients:
500 gms High gluten / Strong white bread flour
7 gms (2 tsp) rapid bake or active dry yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp butter
300 ml water (add 250 ml but retain 50 mls to add bit by bit)
Mix all the ingredients till the flour comes together. At this point you have to assess if some or all of the retained water is needed. Add only enough to make a soft dough. You can rest it for a few minutes at this point, gives you a better behaved dough, some call it autolysing, but I am not sure if there is any scientific basis.
Knead the dough with the heel of your hand in a stretching motion for about 10 minutes. It took me some time to figure out, it is the stretching and not pressure, thus can be done with minimum effort. If you tire yourself out kneading, you are doing it wrong. The end point of kneading, you learn with practice. For guidance, the dough should be smooth and soft, should not stick to you hand, a floured finger pressed on the surface should leave a depression which slowly bounces back.
Leave the dough in a reasonably big container, cover with film or a tea towel and leave in a warm place to rise, till doubled in size. Takes about 2 hrs depending on the ambient temperature. Tip the dough on to a floured surface, give it a tap with your fist, known as knocking back to collapse some of the larger bubbles. Knead lightly and shape either into a round(boule), oval(batard) or place in a loaf tin. Cover with oiled cling film or a slightly damp tea towel and rise for a second time in a warm place for a further 1/2 to 1 hour. Make slashes with a sharp knife over the surface of the risen dough and bake in a very hot oven, 220˚C for 30 – 40 mins. End point of the bake is a nice dark brown crust and taping the bottom gives a hollow sound. Picture above shows the bottom of the loaf and the initial picture the top for guidance.
Leave to cool on a cooling rake, takes at least a couple of hours, if you can leave it till then, what with the freshly baked bread smell wafting around the house. But slicing is definitely more difficult with warm bread.
Enjoy your bread.
Remember this is just the basic, with a a lot more to come. A few times of this basic white and you yourself will start trying newer types of breads.
1. Kneading and shaping bread are basic skills you will quickly acquire. There are many videos online to help if you want, just google.
2. Forgetting about that dough left for the first rise is easily done. If you leave it too long, the yeast gets exhausted and does not do a good second rise. Use your oven or phone alarm to remind you.
3. Forgetting the shaped loaf left for the second rise may not be that detrimental, just overflows if in a bread pan and looks odd but still delicious. Toasting will make the overflown bits crispy and tasty, so nothing is lost.
4. Rising times depend on the ambient temperature of the place you keep the dough, the quality of the yeast and the wetness of the dough.
5. Over risen dough will fall back when touched, so if you forget, bake without touching. That also means do the second rise in the baking sheet or bread pan you are going to bake in.
6. If you are in a cold country like me and do not have time to slow rise the dough, you already have a nice incubator in the kitchen – your oven. Warm the oven to about 40 or 50˚C, switch off the oven and then place the dough covered with oiled cling or a tea towel in the oven and close the door. Modern ovens are well insulated and will hold that temp for a good time if you don’t keep opening the door too often. If your ovens minimum temperature is higher, warm it, checking it every few mins, it should only be warm and bearable to your touch.
7. Slashing the dough before baking is not just for decoration. It gives the bread areas of weakness to expand when baking. If you don’t do it the bread will develop cracks in odd places and won’t look professional. However it tastes the same.