Bread: Getting started, and getting better

There is a particular magic to mixing up a bit of flour, water, salt and yeast, watching it rise, and ending up with an amazing crunchy, chewy delicious loaf, and a house full of wonderful smells. 

If you’re looking to get started, or to improve you bread making. These five tips should help you out. 

1) No need to Knead 

We’ve all been wasting our time I’m afraid. Yes on Facebook, but also by kneading away at our bread dough for 15 minutes. 

That gluten development that makes your dough strong and stretchy actually happens largely just by mixing the flour with water. 

Most of what you achieve by kneading your dough would have happened anyway just by mixing the ingredients and leaving it alone. 

That said, the gluten will need a bit of encouragement and you’ll want to get all the lumps out and make sure that the yeast and salt are evenly dispersed. 

try this: 

1) Mix your ingredients for about a minute until you have a rough dough. Now wander off and do the washing up/update your status (#bread). 

2) 10 minutes later (a bit more or less wont hurt) work your dough – still in the bowl – for another minute. Wander off again. 

3) Repeat the process once more and you’ll have a stretchy, silky dough, ready to rise. 

If you’re using any oil, nuts, fruit etc. it can go in before the last mix. 

2) Baking equipment 

Other than a mixer (which you don’t really need, see above) bread kit is generally pretty cheap and easy to come by. 

- Scales: A half decent set of scales is pretty important. Although some of the best bread books are from the USA where they mystifyingly still use cups, spoons and sticks, it is undoubtedly better to weigh your ingredients. You can just put your bowl on the scale and weigh in everything, including the water. 1ml of water weighs 1g. 

- Dough scraper: a simple plastic scraper is one of those little things that makes your life so much easier when baking. You don’t see them much in the shops but they’re easy to find online. Definitely go for all plastic, Matfer is a good brand. 

- Baking parchment: Barely ten years after it was common place in restaurants, 

the supermarkets are now stocking proper parchment paper. It’s great: it stops your bread from sticking to the tray, and it means less washing up. 

- Bread Lame or Tomato knife: A Lame (pronounced Lahm) looks a bit like a razor blade stuck to the end of a toothbrush. It’s a pretty good for slashing your dough before it goes in the oven, but they can be a bit expensive and hard to find. A tomato knife is a cheap, widely available option, which does a decent job. 

- Temperature probe: These are seriously useful. Great for telling if your bread is ready (usually around 85°C), or your roast chicken…etc. 

- Cooling rack: Important bit of kit. Leaving bread to cool thoroughly is vital (see below). A perfectly acceptable cooling rack should only cost a few quid. 

3) Leaving to cool 

Bread that’s still warm from the oven has a certain rustic romance attached to it, but the reality is that it hasn’t really finished cooking until it’s cooled to room temperature. Tuck in too early and the edges sag, and the consistency can be cakey or dry. 

If you like your bread warm, let it cool fully then give it a quick blast in a really hot oven before you eat it. You’ll get a great crust that way too. 

4) Ingredients 

Just four ingredients. Result. 

Flour: Some is better than others, but on the whole decent bread flour is really easy to come by. If you’re struggling with a particular recipe, try changing the flour, some brands will suit you better than others. 

Salt: Use decent sea salt, but nothing too special. Expensive flaked salts are totally pointless if you’re just going to dissolve them in the dough. Save them for topping focaccia. 

Yeast: I don’t know anyone who still uses fresh yeast. Is that sad…? I don’t know. Either way – fast action dried yeast is so convenient and reliable there’s little point in using anything else. 

Water: No point complicating this one – it’s practically free and comes out of the tap. I would only note that nine times out of ten you wont want to use warm water. It’s just rushing the process that gives flavour to your bread. A slow rise is always better, and that means using cold water. 

5) Getting a good crust 

There are countless variables that interplay and influence whether or not you get a good crust – including the salt and water content, the length of the proving process, and the humidity of the oven. It can take a while to get it right. 

The one thing you can change right away on your next loaf how long and how hot you cook it. The crust is simply the dehydrated dough that surrounds the interior. The more you cook it(without burning it!) deeper, and harder your crust will be. 

Start your bread at a high heat and then gradually reduce it to about 200°C. Continue cooking the bread until you have a deep, chestnut-brown colour, then leave to cool. Play around a bit. Some bakers advocate almost burning the bread to get the best flavour and texture. You needn’t worry about overcooking it. As long as you don’t burn it, it’s all-but impossible to overcook bread.