It’s a strange time to be a baker.
Our isolation encourages a regression to more basic needs, more elemental things. We remember, slowly remember, some of the things we used to do, the way things used to be. Necessity is a great leveler and an excellent coach, and the sudden resurgence of people discovering the joy of a fresh loaf of bread all over my Instagram feed is something truly wonderful. It reminds me that technical proficiency is merely an affectation. Simply ‘doing’ is the answer. The search for perfection is not.
Doing, learning, doing again, and again and again.
I feel lucky to have some experience of baking bread, but this is one of those areas where you’re always the student. There’s always something to learn, the key is to just start. Don’t they say that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, or failing that, today? The same applies to learning how to bake a loaf of bread.
There’s power in that dough, power more potent than the mere flour, water and salt it contains. It teaches you to care, to nurture, to wait, to be patient. It forces you to stop and listen, to feel, to be cautious, to be bold. There’s nothing like it. It’s elemental and basic, alive and ancient.
Where to start? Here’s a list of resources and recipes to get you going. You don’t need much – flour, water, salt at the bare minimum, yeast or baking soda, a book or two.
- Basic soda bread – the easiest and quickest bread you can hope to make. This is a reliable River Cottage recipe.
- Standard loaf of bread – nothing fancy, nothing pretentious, just a solid, reliable loaf of bread. Get the hang of this, and the variations are limitless – different flours, different additions such as seeds or oats.
- Bagels – more advanced, but surprisingly easy, and very satisfying. Infinitely better than supermarket approximations. Bake these as a nod to the incredible people of NYC.
- Naan – another straightforward and easy recipe that you can use to scoop up a curry or as a substantial wrap.
- Sourdough – OK, hard to escape sourdough bread at the moment. Shortages of yeast have pushed a lot of people into giving it a go, with spectacular results in a lot of cases. Sourdough isn’t for the feint of heart. It’s a long and involved process that requires patience and judgement, but it’s by far the most rewarding bread to bake. Bargain on a week to get a starter established and ready to go. Use the method here to make your starter, and then flip to this recipe to make your loaf.
- Scandinavian cinnamon and cardamom buns – and why not?
There are lots of good books about breadmaking. Here are a few of the ones I use all the time.
- Bread: River Cottage Handbook No. 3 – a small but mighty book, a tenner well spent. The basic recipe in here is the mothership for everything else. Open, accessible, well-informed. Start here.
- The Handmade Loaf, Dan Lepard – a wonderful book, full of reliable and adventurous recipes, including a particularly good milk loaf and an excellent sourdough.
- Tartine Bread, Chad Robertson – I have very conflicting opinions about this particular book. It’s both a nemesis and a muse for me, something that’s helped me in subtle and important ways, whilst also haunting every sourdough loaf I’ve ever made. Every loaf, no matter how it turns out, has a nagging comparison to the Tartine country loaf to accompany it. It’s the gold standard, and it’s a stunning book, beautifully written and a great thing to have around. There’s lots of baling wisdom here. One for further exploration.
- Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe’s Best Artisan Bakers, Dan Leader – encyclopedic and authoritative, this is a stunning overview of continental bread styles. There’s lots to try here, particularly loaves from Germany and Eastern Europe. Worth the investment
My recommendation would be to start with a soda bread, then move onto the basic yeasted bread recipe above. If you want to jump in and buy a book, the River Cottage book is a very solid starting point.
Stay at home. Bake bread.