Beginning to bake #8: A simple loaf of bread

White bread baked in a pot

I’m going to give cakes a bit of a break – too much sugar around here. Instead, let’s turn to bread. Bread is probably the baking area with the greatest gap between myth and reality. It seems hard and unachievable, the sort of thing only crazy obsessives or domestic goddesses attempt. Actually the process is easier than making a cake.

So how did breadmaking acquire this intimidating aura? A few things get in the way:

It takes time

Unlike the soda bread, which came together in just an hour, yeasted bread will need at least 2 or 3 hours from start to eating. However, for most of that time, you don’t need to do anything. What you really need is a few hours when you’ll be at home so you can dip in and out of the process. One useful thing is to make bread while you’re making something else like a casserole. That allows you to chop some carrots or stir the pot while you’re waiting for the next bread step.

You can even stretch the time out so you can start it off one evening and continue the following morning or even the next evening. There are a number of tricks to use to speed up or slow down the dough and make it work to your schedule.

Briefly, you can speed things up by using more yeast or by keeping everything warm so the yeast multiplies faster. Conversely, you can slow things down by starting with less yeast or using the fridge to store the dough for a while.

It’s not predictable

Cakes can be tricky, but you can have a reasonable expectation that if you use the right ingredients, weighed accurately, and baked at the right temperature, it should do exactly what it’s supposed to. Bread making is more unpredictable, in that factors that are hard for you to control at home (like room temperature and humidity) have a much greater influence. This is fundamentally because you’re cultivating a live organism, the yeast, to do the work of aerating the bread. It’s more like gardening than cooking. The trick lies in understanding the processes and recognising what they look like, so you can proceed until the dough is ready, rather than watching the clock.

You need to know what you’re aiming for

One reason people can be disappointed with their breadmaking is that it isn’t like their favourite bought type, and there are many different types of bread. Whether you like rough, chewy sourdough, nutty wholemeal sandwich loaves or soft white rolls, you can create each of them at home, but you’ll need to use not just a different recipe but a different approach for each one.

So, with that in mind, this recipe is for a white loaf with a crust that can be baked in a loaf tin, on a baking sheet or in a pot to make a round ‘boule’ shape.

Equipment:

  • Bowl
  • Wooden spoon
  • A little sharp knife

For baking:

  • A large round casserole dish with a lid (Pyrex or cast iron – it needs to be able to withstand high temperatures)

For the best first-time results, I would recommend the casserole approach, but you can also use a preheated baking sheet, or a loaf tin and put a roasting tin of hot water on the shelf beneath to create steam.

Basic recipe:

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 300g water
  • 3 tsp dried yeast, or one sachet
  • 1 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil or vegetable oil

I’ve covered lots of other tips and tricks for making bread in a previous post, so I’ll go through the recipe fairly straight. This method is adapted from Dan Lepard’s technique and a really great blog post by Azelia’s Kitchen.

Method:

1. Mix

Flour, yeast, salt

Put the flour, yeast and salt into a bowl and mix briefly to distribute the yeast and salt. Add the oil and water. The water doesn’t need to be warm, but if you want things to move fast, then that will help. Mix into a rough dough with a spoon, stopping when there’s no more dry flour.

Shaggy dough

2. Rest

Rest the dough

Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave for 10 minutes. This step starts the gluten working (remember that water + flour = gluten) by allowing the flour time to absorb the water properly.

3. Fold

Bread folding

Instead of kneading to develop the gluten, this approach folds the dough to develop and stretch the gluten. You can do this in the bowl if you’re short of space, but it’s a little easier to do on the counter. If you’re putting it on the counter, use oil rather than flour to prevent the dough from sticking. This means you won’t change the overall balance between flour and water in the recipe.

Just scrape all the dough out, push it into a single ball and then fold each side into the centre, as if it had 4 sides.  Do this three times, for 12 folds in all. This should create a nice tight ball, with a smooth surface on the side away from the folds.

12 folds

4. Rise

Ready to rise

Turn the dough so the smooth side faces up in the bowl. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rise for a few hours or until doubled in size.  To speed this up, put the bowl in a warm place, or to slow it down, if you need to leave it alone and come back later, put it into the fridge. If you do that, you’ll need to let it come back to room temperature before you carry on.

Risen dough

5. Shape

Once it has risen, it will be very puffy, with big bubbles. To redistribute these and form the shape of the loaf, scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a floured counter. Try to make sure the smooth upper surface is preserved, and ends up face down on the counter. Press all over with your fingertips to push down the big bubbles and flatten the dough slightly. Fold the sides into the centre again to reform the ball.

Shaped dough

6. Proof

Proofing

Put the dough onto a floured tea towel, this time smooth side down. Fold the towel over it, and leave to rise again, for somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour, until it’s expanded again and become puffy again.

Proofed dough

7. Bake

While the dough is proving, put a large casserole dish with a lid into the oven (Pyrex or cast iron are good). A good 20 minutes before you think the dough will be done (start after 20 minutes if you’re not sure) turn the oven on and set to 220c or 200c for a fan oven.

Into the hot pot

Once you’re ready to bake, take the scorching hot pot out of the oven, remove the lid and tip the dough, fold-side down, into the hot pot. Use a small sharp knife to slash the top of the dough. Replace the lid (don’t forget to use oven gloves) and put into the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 15 or 20 minutes to get the top brown.

First bake

Finished loaf

8. Cool

Tip out onto a rack and leave to cool. Be as patient as you can – important things happen to the interior of the loaf as it cools, and you’ll find it is quite doughy if you cut it early.

The bread will keep well for a couple of days because of the oil in it, but if you don’t think you’ll get through it wrap the whole loaf or a half before freezing. You can also hand-slice it and then freeze so you can toast it straight from the freezer.

Published by

louise-marston

I’m Louise, and I’m a compulsive baker, cookbook hoarder and a bit of a food geek. I learnt to cook at home, and later at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. With a science degree and a background in IT analysis, I like to understand why a recipe works, not just how to do it. Why the rules are there and when they can be broken.

3 thoughts on “Beginning to bake #8: A simple loaf of bread

  1. Gosh I come back and you’re on a roll here with your posting!! Been trying to catch up! 🙂

    I did the pot method in the very beginning but never gone back to it..not for any reason..just haven’t.

    From a texture and crust point of view how different would you say a bread baked in pot is to the just in the oven?

    1. Thanks, Azelia!

      I like the pot because it makes it easy to get a crisp, layered crust without needing a tray of hot water, or spritzing with water. I think it just allows it to get a good oven spring, and expand well and then develop a nice multi-layered crust – all of which you can do with a proper bake and a bit of steam in the oven. It just makes that easier to achieve. It also puts less pressure on the shaping.
      Mind you – this is nothing compared to your recent epic post! So impressed at all those loaves.

  2. yes good point with the steam and crust. I’ve read on another bread blog the blogger stating he didn’t think adding water for steam prior to the bread in domestic oven actually did much good with a really good crust. He then followed a bread author’s advice of adding the water quite a while before the bread went in to give the oven a huge head of steam and concluded it was the best crust he had.

    Since that I’ve been adding my water much sooner than I use to but not sure yet if it gives a much better crust than how I did it before.

    I’m guessing it’s one of those where you have to split the loaf and try it both ways. I find to make sure I get good crust I have always bake it longer than I think I should! So the crumb is really dry and no moisture left so when it’s cooling the moisture doesn’t evaporate and soften the crust on its release.

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