Photo by B.Halliday from Dolmen Editing.
There’s something about making bread that I have always found fascinating. It’s not like making many other foods. The necessity for kneading, shaping and rising are critical to its success, but it is also quite forgiving and unbelievably versatile.
Often a bread loaf looks terrible when first formed, but when given time to rise, it becomes a thing of great beauty. The yeast breathes life into the bread and works wonders under the right conditions, turning a thick lump of dough into a light and airy loaf. When we understand how and why this happens, we really unlock the secret to making great bread.
Trial and error bread wisdom
I have been making bread for many years and tried many different recipes. Yet, I often failed. Either the bread comes out too hard or pale, or maybe dry or not fully risen, which can be really discouraging. Often I will just eat the bread anyway, usually toasted, and chalk it up to experience.
There are many different recipes and methods for making bread on the internet, and this is partly why I think I failed so many times. The sheer amount of information overwhelmed me, but it shouldn’t have. What I have come to realize is that making good bread requires a few new skills, if you’ve never done it before. However, it’s really just about patience.
Some of you may be already put off by that word but don’t be. It takes a little time to make, but mostly, this is just for rising and you can leave it be. The recipe I’m sharing is for a standard white sandwich loaf. You’ll need some kitchen scales, a lightly greased loaf tin that’s about 9 inches by 5 inches, and a large mixing bowl. A silicon spatula is handy but not necessary.
Before we begin, this recipe is for a white loaf so I am using white all purpose flour. If you want to add whole grain flour, no problem, but try using three-fifth white and just two-fifth whole grain. Whole grain flour is no more difficult to bake with, but it absorbs more water. A mixture of the two portions of flour gives the best of both worlds in my opinion.
A handy trick that bakers use when they want to scale a recipe up is percentages. This is very simple and a good way to start adapting your recipes for different results. If you’re new to bread making and just want to get started, you can skip this part.
Percentages simply give us an easy formula for dough, so we can make different quantities without having to check a recipe. First, we decide on our quantity of flour, 500g is a good amount for a medium-sized loaf.
- The flour is always 100% in the equation. In this recipe, 100% = 500g, so 1% = 5g.
- We will use 63% water, so 63% of 500g is 315g.
- 3% oil or butter = 15g
- 1.8% salt = 9g, about one and a half level teaspoons.
- 1% yeast = 5g yeast, a single serving pack usually contains about 7g. It’s fine to use the whole pack.
This information is not necessary to make great bread, but it’s handy to know. It leaves you free to change recipes as you wish.
- 500g all-purpose flour (You can also use a mixture of 300g all-purpose flour and 200g whole grain for a more interesting flavor)
- 315g warm water
- 15g liquid oil or butter (Don’t miss out the fat or the bread can be dry, pale and lacking in crispy crust)
- 9g of salt
- 7g yeast
Now the fun part—Method
Put the warm water and oil or butter in your mixing bowl. The water needs to be warm but not hot, as this can kill the yeast. If you can hold your fingers in it comfortably, it’s probably fine.
Next, pour in the yeast and give it a little stir. At this point, you can start weighing out your flour and other ingredients in a separate bowl, while your yeast starts to turn frothy and wake up. Alternatively, if you hate washing dishes like me, you can just wait and weigh them straight into the bowl.
When the yeast has started to foam, add your flour to the water a little bit at a time, and stir to combine. Keep adding the flour and stirring. When you’ve added about half the flour, you can add your salt to the bowl.
It’s better not to add salt directly to yeast, as it can slow down its growth and, in really extreme cases, kill the yeast. However, this isn’t likely. Either way, give your yeast the best chance and just add the salt a little later.
Finish adding the flour and stirring the mixture. By this point, a thick dough should be forming in the bottom of the bowl. Scrape down the edges and keep stirring until all the ingredients are combined.
Next, put a light dust of flour on a clean counter top and turn out your dough onto it. This is where a silicon spatula is really useful for scraping down the bowl.
Put a light dust of flour on the hand you will use for kneading and keep the other one clean and out of the way.
Kneading is simple. Just squish the dough with the heel of your hand, scrape it off the surface, turn it 45 degrees and squish it again. This will be messy for the first minute or so, but the shaggy lump of dough will quickly start to look more even and smooth. It may seem sticky at first, but just keep kneading it and it will become less so.
Keep kneading until the dough is soft, smooth and springy. If you poke your finger into it gently, it should spring back. This is a good indicator that all is well.
Next, form it into a ball with your hands by stretching the top part of the dough over the rest of the mass. Do this by stretching once, putting it down, turn it 45 degrees and stretch again. Repeat until it’s a round-ish ball with a smooth outer surface. The reason for this shaping is to create a surface layer for the dough to rise, a bit like inflating a balloon.
Now put the dough ball in a covered clean bowl or container, and leave it in a warm place to rise until it roughly doubles in size.
When your dough ball has risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured counter top. Once again, the silicon spatula is very useful here to scrape out that bowl.
Now take the dough and gently stretch it into a rectangular shape about the same width as your loaf tin. Take the top of the rectangle and fold it down about halfway, then seal the joint by firmly flattening it with your palms. Next, fold in the top corners to create a triangle and flatten those with your palms.
Now fold down the top again halfway and push with your palms to seal. Fold down and seal twice more, and then nip the ends together forming a neat cylindrical shape. This process is important, as it builds structure into the bread and gives consistent density throughout.
There is a great video demonstration here that clearly illustrates this method.
Take your shaped dough and place it in the lightly greased loaf tin, making sure it is evenly distributed. Now cover the tin, place it back in a warm place and leave it to rise again. This will take less time than the first rise. You will notice that it grows to fill the tin and starts to look more like a bread loaf.
When the dough has nearly doubled in size, begin heating your oven to 370 degrees Fahrenheit or 190 degrees Celsius. When your oven is ready, take a sharp knife and slash the top of the loaf about half an inch deep. This will allow the bread more space to rise. It is a good idea to use a wet blade to get a cleaner cut.
Photo by B.Halliday from Dolmen Editing.
Put the loaf in the oven to bake for 35-40 minutes. Rotate halfway through if need be to ensure even crispness and color of the crust. You can spray water into the oven beforehand using a spray bottle set to mist to increase the humidity a little. Spraying the top of the loaf also can stop it from crisping up quickly and allow it a little more time to rise.
Remove from the oven when baked and turn out of the pan onto a wire rack to cool. Easy!