This post is designed to give you a brief introduction to bread baking. If you’ve never baked bread before do not be intimidated. You can never go wrong. Sometimes your dough may be wetter than intended, in which case you’ll have more air-bubbles in the bread. Sometimes the dough will be heavier than intended, in which case your bread will be denser. Sometimes you’ll have added too little salt and the bread will taste bland (very disappointing). Sometimes too much salt is added by mistake and the loaf ends up as bread-crumbs to garnish a savoury dish. You rarely repeat the same mistake twice.
Just have faith that whatever dough you make, what ever shape you form, whatever additions you add, freshly baked home-made bread will taste good regardless of whether you have followed the recipe down to the last –t or not. Baking bread – more so than with pastries, cakes or biscuits – is an intuitive process and for the sourdough recipe, at least, I prefer baking by volume (cups) rather than by weight (scales). It works for me – hopefully it will work for you too.
Most people will have a cup in their house even if they have not got round to buying some kitchen scales. Don’t get too worried if the “cup” doesn’t correspond exactly in volume to the North American “cup”. Just keep using the same one to keep the proportions in balance and you’ll be fine. Remember, this is about everyday baking not about winning international bread competition awards.
There are literally hundreds of bread recipes to choose from. Many sourdough recipes call for something called a poolish and a sponge. Mine doesn’t. Many focus on proving the bread, leaving for an hour, kneading, proving… kneading… proving…. Many pay great attention to room temperature, dough temperature and ambient temperature. This is not strictly necessary. The three stage (rather than 12 stage) recipe for the sourdough loaf given below is simple but it has the desired effect in terms of optimising texture, flavour and nutrition. It can be prepared in the evening and baked in the morning.
In its simplest construct bread is a mixture of flour, water and salt in differing proportions. Mix these simple ingredients together and the result is a kind of flat bread still common in the middle-east and referred to in biblical times as “unleavened” bread. (Think pitta-bread, though other example include focaccia, roti and pizza dough).
Plain, yeasted bread
When yeast is added to the flour, water and salt mix the result is the “raised”or “leavened” bread many of us recognise as a typical leavened loaf. A by-product of yeast activity is carbon dioxide, which in turn gets trapped in between the gluten in the flour forcing the bread to puff-up in volume. The more gluten the greater the rise. The less the gluten the less the bread will rise. Until relatively recently the only two methods of adding yeast to the basic mixture of water, flour and salt was by trapping wild yeasts through the process of fermentation.
This could be done either directly by fermenting flour and encouraging the wild yeasts (naturally present in the air and on the ground grain) to become active, or indirectly by skimming off the left-overs of brewing beer – known, unsurprisingly as brewer’s yeast. In both cases the fermentation process is key to transforming the grain into an optimal ingredient for consumption (See Sleeping Beauty and Chapter on Fermentation).
Today most modern bakers rely on baker’s or instant yeast. Interestingly, bakers yeast was one of the first food products to be patented. Baker’s yeast not only tastes sweeter than the more sour or bitter flavours of the wild yeast found in fermented flour or brewers yeast, it also allows the bread to rise much, much quicker since the yeast is not competing with the LABs present in fermented flour. The bread may rise quickly but the result is a loaf which will go stale quicker, tastes more uniform, is a lot less satiating – and perhaps most importantly does not transform the grain into a more nutritious, digestible food.
A note on the type of grain used for your bread: strong wheat flour contains the most gluten and will result in a high, puffy loaf with an elastic texture. Kneading bread with high protein wheat typically results in a satisfying, pillowy dough. Rye, by contrast, is impossible to knead since it has next to no gluten. Any bread which has more wheat flour than whole flour of any sort is the one often most desired and sought after. Soft wheat (typical in the UK) contains little to no gluten and thus will not deliver a risen loaf. Spelt has less protein than wheat but more than emmer. Rye has next to no gluten. Although this may all sound very technical – it will have an effect on the final taste, texture and nutritional value of your baked loaf. Be aware that more whole flour or rye will result in a smaller risen loaf with a denser texture. On the plus side it will have more flavours and more nutritional value than a plain white loaf of bread.
A further ingredient that can replace yeast as a leavening agent in bread-making is soda. Soda, (initially at least), derived from wood ash which is why it was often referred to as “pot” ash (potash) Being alkaline, soda is only effective as a leavening agent in baking when it comes into contact with an acidic food such as buttermilk, kefir, yoghurt, vinegar or lemon juice. Upon contact with acid the soda, much like yeast, begins to release carbon dioxide which in turn causes the bread to rise. For the process to activate the soda/acid mixture needs to be heated which explains why soda bread will only rise once in the oven. It is also used for baking cakes and biscuits.
Rich bread refers to yeasted breads which have had eggs, butter and or milk added. Sometimes, as with brioche, a small amount of sugar is added to sweeten the dough – but once sugar is added the recipe is veering into cake rather than bread territory.