How to bake bread

Food & drink
Baking bread at home

A lot of people are scared of baking their own bread.

There’s a lot of misconceptions out there:

  • It takes too long – not true.  A very decent soda bread can be made in under an hour, start to finish.  Granted, a proper loaf needs time for the yeast to work it’s magic, but even though the elapsed time needed to make bread may be several hours, it’s only punctuated by very brief interventions – a minute or two to punch the rising dough down, or shape the loaves…
  • It’s too difficult – quite the opposite, baking bread is very easy.  It takes a little time to understand the concepts, but the methods are so simple that, after a few attempts, you’ll be knocking out a batch of vastly superior loaves without a recipe.
  • My breadmaker takes all the strain, so why bother doing it by hand – breadmakers are a great invention, but the bread they produce isn’t nearly as good as a hand made loaf.  Nobody likes that hard nub on the base where the paddle got stuck, either.

Why bake bread by hand?

The main reason I bake bread by hand is because it tastes so good.

Your own bread will be more closely related to a loaf from a proper artisan baker than a slightly inconsequential white sliced from the supermarket, and that’s a very good thing.

That aside, baking bread is such an elemental process.  It’s a proper artisan craft, and worth doing for that very reason.  Making a dough, letting it rise, baking it and then pulling a loaf of bread out of a hot oven is one of the most magical cooking experiences there is.

People have been doing the same thing for thousands of years, and you’re just carrying on that tradition.

It would be slightly twee to call baking bread a spiritual experience, but it is extremely satisfying, more satisfying than any other type of cooking.

This is basic cooking.

It’s the simple bringing together of good ingredients into something that’s more than the sum of their parts.  The fact that you need to put some effort in, that you need to invest something of yourself in the process is all to the good.

Baking bread is cooking for the soul.

Do some reading

Baking bread is a fascinating subject, and there are plenty of variations and tricks to be learned.  A good, basic guide is essential, though – the method below comes from Daniel Steven’s Bread: River Cottage Handbook No. 3, which is a superb introduction to the world of breadmaking.  It’s clear and precise with good instructions, and once you’ve mastered the art of baking your own loaves, there are plans for building your own pizza oven at the back.

It’s worth investing in.

The method below is essentially Daniel Stevens’ basic recipe, but Stevens goes into much more detail and provides great troubleshooting advice in his book.

Step 1 – get your yeast going

There are three main types of yeast – dried, fresh and fast action.  It really doesn’t matter a jot which type of yeast you use, but there are some slight differences in the way you use each.

Fast action yeast can be simply mixed into the flour, but dried and fresh yeast needs a kick start to get it going.  Just dissolve it in warm water and add a teaspoon of sugar to feed the yeast and wake it up.  After fifteen minutes or so, the yeasty liquid will start frothing and smell alive.

Whichever yeast you use, and I favour fast action for sheer ease and simplicity, do what you need to do to reactivate it before you start.  If you’re using dried yeast, you need 10g, or 20g of fresh yeast, with 600ml of warm water (one third from the kettle, two thirds from the cold tap).

Step 2 – weigh out the dry ingredients

Start by clearing a large space on the work surface and then weigh out a kilo of strong flour, either white or a mixture of white and wholemeal to give the loaf a bit more texture.

A quarter wholemeal to three quarters white flour is a good place to start – the more wholemeal flour, the denser and heavier the loaf, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s easier to start baking with a white heavy mix to start with.

Pile the flour directly onto the work surface.

Next, add 20g of salt, and 10g of fast action yeast, if you’re using it, and then make a large, wide well in the pile of flour.

Step 3 – add liquid and form a dough

Make sure that the well is big enough to hold 600ml of warm yeasty water, and then pour your 600ml of yeasty water straight into it.  If you’re using fast action yeast, just use warm water instead.

Add a big glug of olive oil, too.

Now to mix everything together.  This is a precarious stage, and for a few moments, you could end up with a flood if you get things wrong…

The best way to transform your yeast and flour lake into a dough is to try to use the fingers of one hand to gently move the water around, taking small amounts of flour from the sides and incorporating them into the liquid.  After a few minutes, the flood risk will have passed and you’ll be able to move more boldly and take up more flour.

Soon, you’ll have a rough dough to work with.

Step 4 – knead the dough

Now for the energetic part.

Kneading dough stretches the gluten and exercises it.  It makes the dough soft and pliable and helps it to rise.

Kneading is nothing more than ten minutes of repeated stretching, folding, pushing and pulling.

Hold the dough with one hand and push it away from you, stretching the dough, then fold it back on itself and do it again, and again and again.

It’s a very therapeutic and relaxing experience that allows you to feel the dough smoothing and turning silky under your touch.

Step 5 – let it rise

Now for the magic.

Shape the dough into a round and lift it into a large, floured bowl.  Cover the bowl with cling film and leave it in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size.  This takes about an hour, but it depends on how warm the room.  A wholemeal loaf will take much longer to rise.

When the dough has doubled in size, gently knock it down, deflating it until it’s about the same size as when you started, then put it back in the bowl, cover and leave until it’s doubled again.  This second rise gives the dough some maturity.

Step 6 – shape your loaves

After the second rise, it’s time to divide the dough and shape it into loaves.

Before you do anything, cut off a small piece of dough, about 60g, put it into a plastic bag and leave it in the fridge for next time. Adding a piece of old dough along with the water is a good trick that adds a slightly sour taste to the loaf and bags of character.  It’s worth doing.

Next, divide the remaining dough into three equal pieces.  It’s a good idea to use a set of scales to do this.

The process of shaping the loaf is a little tricky, and takes some practise.  Here goes…

  • flatten the dough completely with your fingertips until it’s broadly square and flat
  • take the far edge of the square and roll it towards you, tucking it in tightly so that you’ve got a nice cylinder
  • turn the dough over and flatten it with your fingertips again, then fold one end over to the centre, then fold the other end right over the top, so you’ve got three layers
  • flatten the dough yet again, then finally form the loaf by rolling the dough from the top again, tucking it in tightly and cupping your hands underneath to keep the dough standing proud.

Step 7 – let it prove

Leave the three formed loaves on the floured work surface for another quarter of an hour.  The yeast will do it’s work again.

Step 8 – bake

As soon as you’ve shaped the dough, turn the oven on to 200c, place a large deep roasting tin on the very bottom of the oven, a heavy baking tray on one of the shelves and boil a kettle of water.

All will become clear.

When the oven is hot and the quarter of an hour is over, take the baking tray out of the oven and dust it with flour.

Carefully lift the dough onto the hot tray by cupping your hands underneath and gently lifting each loaf over.

Dust the dough with flour and then slash the top of each loaf three times with a sharp knife,  about a centimetre deep.

Now, work quickly.

Open the oven and pour the contents of the kettle into the hot roasting tin, then slide the baking tray through the fug of steam into the oven before quickly slamming the door shut.

The bread will take half an hour to bake, but turn the tray around after fifteen minutes so that the bread bakes evenly.

The bread is ready when it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.  Leave the bread on a wire rack to cool.

Congratulations.  You’re a baker.