(Approx. reading time 3 mins 39 secs)
Making bread can either be extremely complicated or very easy, it all depends on what kind of bread you want to make and the choices you make along the way.
I’m all about easy and simple, so I always try to figure out what comprises the basics of a recipe. Once you have that down, you can customise to your heart’s content. And this is exactly the approach I took with bread when I first started baking it.
I will usually prepare the dough while I make breakfast, and do the second proof after I come back from dropping my children at school. Or, prepare it right before going to bed and put it inside the fridge to proof while I sleep. The first option will give me bread for dinner (perfect for after-school during the week); the second one, for lunch (great for the weekend and holidays).
Messing up bread is really hard. Even if you don’t end up with a prize-winning loaf, you will still have perfectly edible bread. The biggest issues you will deal with when making bread are:
- are a bad rise because the yeast is too old. You will notice something is wrong during the first rise when the bread rises very little or not at all. You can fix it by adding fresh yeast (the bread won’t be perfect but it will be good enough) or by using to dough to make flatbreads or a crispy pizza.
- the liquid was too hot or too cold. If too hot, you will kill the yeast. If too cold, you won’t be able to activate the yeast. If you killed your yeast, your options are as above. If the liquid was cold, you can activate the yeast by adding some warmer liquid.
Another common issue that doesn’t affect the yeast is issues with the oven:
- the oven is too hot. Your bread will burn on the outside and still be raw in the middle. Obviously the best option is to lower the temperature of the oven next time you bake bread. But to rescue a loaf that is already cooking, you can lower the temperature and cover the bread with some foil.
- the oven is too cold. In this case your bread will take very long to cook and will not rise much. The only way to fix it is by increasing the temperature as soon as you realise what’s going on.
And when all else fails, if the bread doesn’t turn out great, you can always use it for bread crumbs or croutons!
Choosing the ingredients
There are many different kinds of flour, and some called ‘bread’ or ‘strong’ are usually considered the best for a basic white loaf. However, your regular cheapest supermarket brand of flour can make amazing bread. Get used to the steps, the feel of the dough, and how your oven behaves before you start spending money on more expensive ingredients.
As you become more experienced, you can start experimenting with different flours and enriched doughs (with added eggs, butter, oil, and other ingredients).
This recipe will give you 4 medium pizzas, 3 small loaves, 2 big ones, or loads and loads of buns! You can freeze the dough to bake it later.
Mix in a bowl 1.5 kilograms (12 cups) of flour, with 1 litre (4 cups) of lukewarm water or milk (I prefer water for crusty bread, and milk for sandwich bread or pizza), 21 grams (3 sachets. 2 1/2 tablespoons) of instant dry yeast, 10 grams (2 teaspoons) of salt and 10 grams (2 teaspoons) of sugar.
At this point it is easier to use a fork or a spatula to mix rather than your hands.
When the dough is starting to come together, you can start kneading with your hands. You can do this on a flat surface or for easier cleaning, in the bowl.
You’ll want to knead for at least 10 minutes, or until the dough doesn’t tear when stretched.
Cover the dough (a moist cloth over the bowl works perfectly) and leave it for about 2 hours at room temperature, and about 45 minutes in warm temperature.
You can also slow the proofing by putting the dough in the fridge (you can leave it there overnight), or stop it altogether by putting it in the freezer if you’re preparing it ahead of time. If you go this route, make sure the dough is at room temperature before you move on.
Flavour, shape and second proof
Once the dough has doubled in size, you should knead it again. It will go back to the original size. Now you can add any flavourings and shape.
‘Punching out the air’ helps give the bread a finer crumb and develop stronger gluten strands. The more you handle the dough, the finer the crumb will be. So if your prefer a more open crumb, keep this second kneading to a minimum.
As before, leave the dough to rise, but it will only take about half the time. Once again, you can slow the process by putting the dough in the fridge or freezer. But remember to bring it to room temperature before baking.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 C (350 F). When it reaches temperature, you can bake the bread making sure it’s placed in the middle of the oven.
Baking time will depend on the size of the loaves or buns, and whether you are covering them or not. The best trick is to turn the bread over once it looks golden and tap it, if it sounds hollow it’s done.
Before you cut into the bread, you need to let it cool completely.
For a harder crust (crusty bread), leave the bread to cool down uncovered. For a softer crust (like brioche or sandwich bread), cover with a cloth while it cools downs.