“All that bread wants is time and warmth.”
After writing a post on bread a while ago, I thought I should follow it up with some bread recipes. I was going to go in a chronological order and find the earliest recipe for bread I could, but then I thought against that idea; a recipe for a delicious, but basic loaf is what we need to start with.
I bake all my own bread these days, but admittedly, I don’t eat a large amount of it, making a loaf every couple of weeks. However, I do believe that baking your own bread several times a week is possible and not the huge pain the arse you might expect. For many years, I tried to bake bread and it always tasted good, but it was always a little dry and unrisen, and was rather disappointed thinking you had to practise to get the knack. It turns out that I was doing everything correctly, the only ingredient I was missing out was time…
…and this is the problem with today’s factory-made bread; it is mass produced to the extreme, hurredly leavened, containing additives that preserve, emulsify and rise. The slices are always far too light and fluffy – “flabby” is the word I think Jane Grigson used. If course you can buy posher factory-made bread, but it will cost you at least £1.30. Of course, these days there are bakery sections in our supermarkets, but Elizabeth David was very suspect of them even in 1977. Now don’t be thinking me a big old snob: I actually like some factory bread, and much instore bakery bread is very nice and crusty, but having realised I can make bread that is better tasting and so much cheaper, I can’t go back (though I am still a sucker for tiger bread). Admittedly, it doesn’t last as long in the bread bin, but then bread shouldn’t!
Here is the recipe I use for a basic loaf – it requires little elbow grease, especially if you have a food mixer with a dough hook and is based on Elizabeth David’s in her amazing book English Bread and Yeast Cookery. The best thing is that it should be made the evening before you actually want to eat it, so there’s no getting up at the crack of dawn. It contains only four ingredients too: flour, water, salt and yeast. There is the option of adding a little fat or oil and the merest pinch of sugar. The former acts as a preservative and the latter gives the yeast a kick start, if you should be using the dried stuff. You can enrich the bread by swapping some or all of the water for milk, but I think there’s no need. There are so many variations on the theme and as I discover them and try to perfect them, I shall add them to the blog.
20 oz of strong white bread flour, or 16 oz strong white bread flour and 4 oz of wholemeal
a flat dessertspoon of salt
½ ounces of fresh yeast, or a teaspoon of dried yeast
sugar (optional, see below)
12 fl oz water at blood heat (i.e. 37⁰C or 98⁰F)
2 tbs oil or melted fat, e.g. olive oil, sunflower oil, butter, lard &c. (optional)
Mix the flour(s) and salt in a bowl and put it in a cool oven to warm for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cream the yeast with a little tepid water and a pinch of sugar if using dried. When the yeast has started to froth, make a well in the middle of the flour and pour in the activated yeast along with the warm water and fat or oil, if using.
Using a wooden spoon, start to mix the flour into the liquid, swapping the spoon for your hands to bring it all together. If it seems like the flour and water will not come together easily, add more water.
Important note no. 1: try to make the dough more on the wet side, rather than the dry; just keep your hands well-floured so you can handle the dough. Work it for a few minutes whilst in the bowl. Of course, if you have a mixer with a dough hook, you can simply use that on a slow to moderate speed to mix and briefly knead it.
Cover the ball of dough with some cling film and leave it to rise in a warm place.
Important note no. 2: try to let the dough rise naturally for 1 to 2 hours. Do not leave it near a radiator or anything like that – unequal heat will not do the job – you need ambient warmth. I let my dough rise in the bathroom. If you don’t have a warm place, do not worry for the quickly-metabolising yeast will begin to generate its own heat.
When it is at least double in size, knock it back, i.e. punch all the air out of it, and give the dough a few sharp slaps into the bowl. It should be squidgy and much more elastic. Now knead the dough on a floured surface. This is not as difficult as you may think it is. With the heel of your floured hand or hands, use your body weight to push the dough out and away from you, stretching it. Bring it back and turn the dough a third of the way around and repeat. The dough shouldn’t be really sticky, though there should be some tackiness when you stretch it. Just make sure the board and your hands are evenly, but lightly floured – remember important point no. 2. Knead for about 5 to 10 minutes. If using a mixer, simply add a little flour whenever the dough looks like it is going to stick.
Now you need to let the bread prove. Bring the dough together so that any folds are underneath and place in a large 2 lb loaf tin. With a very sharp knife make a few confident diagonal slashes across the top – the more you make, the more it will rise. Cover with a billowing plastic bag.
Important note no. 3: a good proving is absolutely necessary; the dough needs to almost double in size again – many recipes say the dough should be just peeping above the tin. This is nonsense. It won’t take anywhere as near as long as the first rising. If you like and have the time, you can prove the dough twice – I would recommend this step as the texture and flavour is much improved, and there is less kneading, er, needed!
Bake in the oven on the middle shelf for 15 minutes at 220-230⁰C (425-450⁰F), then turn the heat down to 200⁰C (400⁰F) for a further 15. Remove the loaf from its tin, and place it on the rack on its side for a final 15-20 minutes at 180⁰C (350⁰F). When ready, the loaf will sound hollow when knocked with a knuckle.
Leave it to cool across its tin and wrap in greaseproof or wax paper or foil. If you have made it in the evening and don’t have time to wait, leave it overnight.
Important note no. 4: do not eat the bread when warm or even on the day you made it – contrary to popular belief, bread will be better the next day, and will not be stale.
There it is – sorry it rather long, but hopefully it is a good guide to baking proper bread. If anyone has any extra tips, let me know…