Words and images by Amanda.
While I was at university I decided pretty much on a whim that I was going to make my own bread. I realized there was roughly a teaspoon of sugar to each slice of basic store-bought bread and I figured I could do better myself. Baking my own bread quickly became part of my weekly routine, and I learned to make pizza, dough balls, tear-and-share pesto bread, white and brown loaves, spelt bread, soda bread and sourdough. I have never looked back.
Bragging about a particularly good loaf on Twitter a while back, I was surprised to get a reply from Dana not only praising my bread, but also lamenting that her and yeasted bread had yet to find their happy place. Now yeast-free soda bread is delicious and all (and we have a great recipe for it here) but sometimes what you want is a nice white bloomer, and it’s not as intimidating as you might think.
What’s the secret to good bread then?
- Good ingredients
- Good kneading
Good quality bread flour is a must for a good rise, and for tasty bread. Bread flour is made from harder wheat and has more gluten, which is essential for a light, well-risen bread. Don’t use all-purpose flour, it just won’t work.
Likewise, try and get your mitts on good yeast if you can. Yeast is your raising agent – it chows down on sugar and converts it to alcohol and CO₂, which makes the bread rise. The yeast will also affect the flavour of your bread to a surprising degree. There are three types of yeast:
– Quick yeast. It’s cheap, easy to use (you just throw it in the mixture – great for beginners), keeps in the cupboard more or less indefinitely, but definitely not the best in terms of quality.
-The middle road option is live granulated yeast. I strongly recommend Allinson’s tinned Dried Active Yeast – it keeps well, tastes pretty good and is easy enough to use. Unlike the quick yeast it can’t be thrown straight in the mix, but the results are far superior.
– The very best yeast is fresh yeast (or cake yeast), and it usually comes in a sort of crumbly block. My local UK supermarkets, such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco, will often give you a chunk of fresh yeast from the bakery for free/a few pennies. It will last you about two weeks in the fridge, and also needs a bit of extra prep time, like the live yeast. Nonetheless, it makes the tastiest bread.
Good kneading is the other important bit. Kneading the bread firms up and stretches out the gluten to make sure that it’s going to be good and efficient at capturing the CO₂. When you first mix the dough it will look scruffy, lumpy, and will break easily. What you’re aiming for is a dough that is smooth, plump, holds its shape and is springy and elastic. I recommend kneading by hand rather than machine so that you can feel when it’s done – normally ten minutes is spot on.
Place the dough on a lightly floured counter and hold it against the counter with one hand. With the heel of your other hand, stretch the dough away from you along the counter. You want to stretch the dough not break it, so stop before you end up with two separate balls of dough. Fold it back into a ball and turn 90°. Keep doing this for the next ten minutes. When it’s done, if you poke your finger in it, the dent should slowly spring back. Under/over kneading is the main reason for excessively dense or crumbly bread.
Your Basic White Bread
You will need:
- 500g strong white bread flour
- 300ml warm water
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 30g cake yeast / 1 tbsp dried active yeast / 1 1/2 tsp quick yeast
Note: Grams are a measurement of weight, where cups measure mass, and it allows you to make very accurate measures of small quantities like your yeast. If you need a converter, this is a good one.
– If you’re using quick yeast, then mix together all the dry ingredients and gradually add the water – it’s best to mix it with your hands.
– If you’re using active yeast you’ll need to do a little more preparation. For the granulated yeast, whisk a teaspoon of sugar into half the warm water, then whisk in the yeast. Leave it somewhere warm for 15 mins to froth up! Add to the dry ingredients, then use the remaining 150 ml to swill out the bowl the yeast was in, and add it to the mixture as well.
For fresh yeast, beat the yeast together with a teaspoon of sugar – it will go to a runny liquid when it’s done. Add half the warm water and leave for 15 minutes. After that, same as above.
– Knead your dough for ten minutes, or until it’s smooth, springy and elastic.
– Now leave the dough to prove: put the dough into a lightly oiled bowl covered with a damp cloth until doubled in size. On a nice warm day this takes about an hour, in winter I give it an hour and a half. Get the kettle on!
– Once your dough has risen, tip it out of the bowl and knead it lightly. This is called “knocking it back”. The idea is just to gently squash out the dough, not to pulverise it. Once you have done this, either smooth it off into a nice round and put it on a baking tray, or put it in a lightly oiled loaf tin. Rub a little oil over the surface of the dough to prevent drying out and prove for another 45 mins.
– Heat the oven to 220°C (425°F) when the dough is nearly ready. Bake at 220°C for 12 mins, then turn down to 180°C (350°F) for another 20 mins. The bread is done when it sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom. If you get a wet thud – not done!
– Here’s the only really tricky bit – no matter how good that bread smells, wait until it is cool to cut it up and eat it. It continues steaming and cooking while it is hot for one thing, and it will be too soft to cut without crushing it. I usually try to leave it so that the first slice you get is just warm enough to melt a little butter. Delish.
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