Whole books are written about making bread (I should know, I own quite a few of them). It is often seen as something quite daunting – a serious, difficult topic, with a major sense of accomplishment from producing a loaf. And while there is definitely a ‘staff of life’ thrill about producing your own loaf, bread is unusually accommodating, and will cope with a surprisingly wide amount of variation and approximation. So I thought I would try and distil the essentials down into a few principles, and see how few I could get away with. This list doesn’t talk about everything you need to know – that’s what all those books are for. And for more resources, see the end of the post. But hopefully these principles give some context for the stages in the recipe books, and more of a feel for what you’re aiming for.
- Any sort of baking with yeast means that you have to be flexible: you need to watch the dough and see what it does. This is why the instructions always give vague directions like ‘until the dough has doubled in size’ – that can take very different times depending on the amount of yeast you started with, the temperature, how much sugar the mixture has in, and many other factors. So you have to do what the dough says (at least up to a point – and see point 7)
- The basic process is: mix: to combine the ingredients; knead: to develop the gluten; rest: to allow the gluten to relax, and the yeast to develop air bubbles in it; shape: to redistribute the air bubbles and create the final loaf shape; proof: to let the final air bubbles reemerge; bake: to set the protein and give a nice brown crust.
- The ratio to use is 5 parts flour (by weight) to 3 parts of water. For example, 500g to 300g, with 1.5 tsp salt.
- Bread flour is useful but not essential. Plain flour is fine for many breads. Brown flours are harder to work with, and need more water.
- Adding fat to the dough makes the crumb softer – so if you want soft rolls, use milk instead of water, and add some butter; for a more rustic loaf, you don’t need to add any.
- You can use any amount of yeast – use a 1/4 tsp instant dried yeast, and let it rise over 18-24 hours, or 2 tsp for a very quick rise.
- If you want the process to happen slower, put it in the fridge; if you want it to work faster, put into a warm place. Use this along with the quantity of yeast to make the process happen at a speed to suit you.
- Kneading is optional – you can also leave the dough for a longer time – this will develop the gluten as well. However, kneading does repay the effort – you will almost always get something better out if you knead it a little more.
- You need to bake bread very hot – 200C/400F or more. About 45 minutes for a loaf made with 500g of flour, or 15-20 minutes for rolls.
Here is a video I made of me kneading bread. A couple of things to know: I started this dough off in the mixer, so it’s quite well developed here – when you start, it is much stickier and harder to handle.
Dan Lepard – bread baker extraordinaire, creator of loaves at Locanda Locatelli, Baker & Spice and many other locations. He has a lovely website with lots of useful resources, and writes every week in the Guardian – bread but also yummy cakes and biscuits. @dan_lepard on twitter.
Richard Bertinet – has a cooking school in Bath (which I keep meaning to go to) and has produced some great bread books, including Dough, which comes with a DVD of the kneading technique. @BertinetKitchen on twitter.
See also previous post on no-knead bread – really, no kneading required, but you do need to let it sit for at least 18 hours, so that the gluten can develop that way instead.