Bread: tips & ideas for the novice home baker and upwards!

This post, focusing on bread making, is part of my Baking tips page, along with tips for macarons, croissants, cake decorating ideas and pastry.

  • Introduction
  • The best tip I can give
  • Ingredients for standard bread loaves
  • Mixing & kneading (and the “stretching and folding” approach)
  • Rising
  • Shaping (free-form, baguettes & bâtards; rolls; flatter breads)
  • Baking
  • Adding a pre-ferment (poolish)
  • Flavoured breads (vary the liquid)
  • My favourite flavours

Introduction

Baking bread, whether it is a sourdough bread or a bread using commercial yeast, is a wonderfully tactile and intensely therapeutic process. There are certainly few greater pleasures in baking than the evocative smell of bread as it is baking, followed by eating warm bread that has been spread liberally with good quality butter: simplicity at its very best!

This post is about the basic, but nonetheless majestic bread loaf, made with commercial yeast as opposed to using a sourdough starter, although I dip into pre-ferments as a wonderfully simple way to add even better depth of flavour to bread.

I have also posted guidelines for different types of bread, such as focaccia, one of my favourite types of bread.

The best tip I can give

The trick for excellent tasting bread is not to rush it. At all! I never use a particularly warm place such an airing cupboard: normal room temperature, cool room temperature or, ideally, the fridge for the first, long rise, will give the very best results: the slower the rise, the better the flavour.

Ingredients for standard bread loaves (makes 2 loaves):

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 7g easy-blend dried yeast
  • 10g fine sea salt
  • about 300ml tap water

These ingredients will give an excellent loaves of bread. Essentially the process it to mix them ingredients together, knead them, let them rise slowly, shape them, let them have another rise and then bake.

Below are my notes on the different stages:

Mixing and kneading

(1) Put the dry ingredients into a large bowl and add most of the water, mixing to get a soft dough. Add more water if needed but for a standard bread you want it more on the wetter side than at all dry, but it needs to feel manageable and not too sticky.

(2) Knead for about 15 minutes or so on a very lightly floured or oiled surface. Either works fine, but don’t use too much flour to knead with. Alternatively, use a food mixer with the dough hook attached for about 10 minutes. The dough should very stretchy: if you pull at it, it shouldn’t tear off and should instead pull back and want to go straight back into the main mass of dough! It should also be smooth and not at all sticky.

(3) Put back in the bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave it for its first rise (bulk fermentation).

The stretching & folding approach:

I sometimes go for stretching and folding rather than full-on kneading, especially if the dough is on the wetter side, such as for focaccia and baguettes, and often with sourdough.  This give excellent results (see my Perfecting baguettes post).

Rising (bulk fermentation & proving)

I always go for two rises for my bread: a bread that rises just once does not have the chance to develop the flavour that characterises an excellent bread. The first rise (the bulk fermentation) happens once the dough has been kneaded, and before it has been shaped. The second rise (the proving) takes place once the dough has been shaped.

I cannot over-emphasise enough that the slower the rise, the better the flavour: I invariably go for the first rise in the fridge: this slows down the process while allowing the flavour to develop wonderfully. I sometimes go for an even slower first rise, such as overnight, in which case I also reduce the amount of yeast by between a third and a half: the bread will still rise perfectly with less yeast and give excellent bread.

For each rise, I go for an increase in about double in volume.. The risen dough should feel bouncy and light: when you gently prod the dough with the flat bit of your finger it slowly springs back. The proved dough will also have the most wonderful aroma. If the dough looks wrinkled at all then it has over-risen and is likely to collapes when it bakes: if it has over-risen, knead it again, re-shape and prove again.

Shaping

For simplicity you can simply knead the risen dough (“knocking back”) – this is always a marvellous sensation as it deflates – kneading until the dough is smooth and then pop it into well-oiled tins for its second proving (in which case, the bread proves until it is domed a little over the top of the tin).

However, shaping the dough free-form or for bannetons gives a very appealing artisanal look to loaves. There are many ways to do this but I do the following:

Free-form loaf:

For shaping for a standard loaf for a retangular banneton, you need to develop good surface tension that it holds it shape:

Flatten the dough with oiled hands into a rough rectangle on a lightly oiled surface, with the longer edges facing you. Lift the right edge into the middle and then fold the left edge over that. Give the dough a quarter turn, flatten it down again a little and gently repeat this folding once or twice more or until the dough feels bouncy and holds its shape easily. Give the dough a gentle roll on the work surface to smoothen it up a little (but it really does not need to be perfect!) then pop this either into a floured banneton with the seam facing upwards, or onto a sheet of greaseproof with the seam facing downwards.

For a boule, you can gently shape above shaped dough into a taut ball shape – there should be enough surface tension on the dough so that it holds its shape while it rises.

Baguettes and bâtards:

For shaping baguettes, cut into equal pieces: I go for about 200g pieces. Lightly flatten each into a rectangle, roll up towards you and gently roll the dough to smooth it, putting slightly more pressure towards the ends to give a slight tapering effect.

Place in bannetons, floured couches or metal baguette trays before proving and baking.

For bâtards, use a smaller amounts of the dough and shape as for baguettes, going for about half or a third of the length of a baguette.

For ficelles, use even smaller amounts of dough and shape into much thinner baguettes.

Rolls:

I take about 40g of dough and roll them on a non-floured surface (otherwise the dough will slide everywhere!) in the palm of your hands until you get smooth balls. You can also roll them out thinly and “tie” up to give knot rolls

Flatter breads:

Sometimes I add a lot more water to the dough to get an even wetter dough and more aerated interior structure. This can be harder to shape, but patting the dough into a well-oiled swiss roll tin, for example, before its final rise works well, giving a focaccia-style bread. This is especially good if that dough is then studded with goodies such as toasted pine nuts, chunks of cheese, chopped roasted onions etc…For a more traditional focaccia, see my focaccia post.

Baking

I always put my oven onto its highest setting and pop a solid roasting try on the bottom shelf while the oven heats up. I also pop in a cast iron skillet pan if I have proved my dough in a banneton.

When the oven is at temperature, I turn out the dough from the banneton onto the sizzle pan, score the surface a few times by giving it a couple of shallow cuts with a sharp knife of razor blade, throw in a few cups of boiling water into the roasting tray to create steam and spray some water onto the inside door and the base of the oven. The steamy environment that the water creates really does give the most wonderful crust to the dough.

If I am using a free-form dough, I slide the dough off its greaseproof onto the sizzle pan (but if the dough doesn’t slide off easily, just pop the greaseproof and dough on!). A loaf that has risen in a loaf tin just goes straight into the oven as it is: scored or otherwise.

After about 10 minutes at this highest temperature I turn the oven down to 220C (fan) until the loaf is nicely browned and the underside sounds hollow when knocked (another 20-30 minutes or so).

Adding a pre-ferment or poolish

A home-made loaf will taste stunning but you can improve even further on its flavour by using a pre-ferment/poolish which is made up the day before in seconds and left to ferment overnight, giving even more depth of flavour.

There are many variations for this, but for a simple poolish, mix 100g strong plain bread flour (or rye flour or a mixture) with just a little yeast: a generous pinch. Add 100ml tap water and mix to a thick paste or batter. Cover with clingfilm and leave at room temperature overnight. The following day the paste will take on a spongey texture and have a terrific fermented aroma to it. It can be left for longer until you want to use it: there is no urgency here!

To use the poolish, simply add it to the other bread ingredients at the start: you can adjust the amount of flour and water in the recipe above but I find adding it to the proportions above works well – just add enough water to get the right texture of dough.

Flavoured breads

You really don’t have to tinker around with bread to get a very satisyfing loaf, but the possibilties for marvellous flavoured breads are endless.

Simple things such as using different flours add a different flavour: rye flour, for example, is excellent and I would typically replace about 10-20% of the flour in a recipe with rye flour to give just a slight rye kick.

There is a great variety of seeds and nuts that can be added too, at the initial mixing stage, which add interesting textures and flavours. Seeds and nuts that have been lightly dry-roasted in a pan whack things up a notch!

Depending on the flours used, you might need differing amounts of liquid: breads made with rye flour, for example, tend to need more liquid: just make sure you add enough water to form a soft, manageable dough.

Vary the liquid:

Rather than using water, you can use other liquids such as cider, ale, milk…….You get different textures and flavours (a bread made with ale, or instance, has a deeper flavour than if made with water; a bread made with milk has a soft, almost fluffy texture) so it is worth experimenting.

If I am using a liquid other than water, I use it to replace about three-quarter of the amount of water in a recipe but you can increase this proportion.

My favourite flavours

Roasted garlic: use 3 bulbs of garlic per 500g or so of flour used in the main recipe. Roasted the garlic whole at about 180C (fan) for 45 minutes or so until soft but not over-cooked and dry. Squeeze out the gorgeously sweet flesh and knead it into the bread dough prior to its first rise. I sometimes make this even more of a garlicky treat by gently adding more cloves of roasted garlic (this time peeled, mixed with oil and salt and roasted for about 30 minutes until they turn golden brown) after the first rise, trying to keep them fairly whole. Full recipe here for roasted garlic breadsticks, but you can make it into one loaf.

Sun-dried tomato and basil: chop a handful of sun-dried tomatoes (drained if they were in oil) and a handful of fresh basil and work into the dough prior to the first rise. Full recipe here.

Multi-grain bread with smoked flour: A little smoked bread flour work a treat in bread, giving a lovely depth of flavour. This bread also contains a variety of seeds for flavour and texture. Full recipe here.

Black garlic bread: a wonderfully quirky bread using the more readily available black garlic. Full recipe here.

Camembert, sultana and ale bread: I replace most of the water with ale at the initial mixing stage, and work in raisins that had been soaked in water or ale overnight. Chopped Camembert is gently worked into the dough after its first rise, without squashing it too much. Full recipe here.

Walnut & raisin tear and share bread with molten Brie: I replace most of the water with ale at the initial mixing stage, and work in raisins that had been soaked in water or ale overnight. Chopped Camembert is gently worked into the dough after its first rise, without squashing it too much. Full recipe here.

Apple, walnut and cider bread: I replace most of the water with cider at the initial mixing stage, and work in chopped walnuts and some grated apple prior to kneading. Full recipe here.

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Author: Philip

Very much into baking and general cooking.

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