How to make really good bread

6 February 2014

bread

Master a good loaf of bread, and you will never have to bring anything complicated to a pot luck again. I have people over for stew lovingly simmered for hours, a gorgeous roast chicken, homemade ice cream – it’s the bread they reach for, groaning with pleasure, again and again. Arrive at someone’s house, unwrapping a fresh loaf from a tea towel and they will be a puddle at your feet.

It’s seems crazy, once you get the hang of it, because it’s so easy. How can something so simple give people such base pleasure? I swear, learn to make a good loaf and make some homemade butter and your friends will do anything for you. As an added benefit, I find homemade bread much easier to digest compared to a grocery store loaf. I won’t suggest you read the ingredients on one of those loaves, it will make you sad.

I would love to tell you exactly how to make a good loaf, but I can’t. It takes practice. Tasty practice, thankfully. I’ve been working on my technique for years. These days, I bake two loaves every 10 days or so, freezing one loaf straight away. I bake our everyday loaves in loaf tins, but for dinner parties and potlucks I make round loaves on baking sheets. Looks much more picturesque, but requires absolutely no extra work on my part.

Finally, I know the imprecise nature of bread making instructions make beginners crazy, but there are so many variables that giving specific rising times just isn’t practical. However, I will say this: slightly underproofing is better than overproofing. Speaking from experience. Keep your yeast in the fridge, even if it’s dried, and buy local flour if you can.

If you live in Vancouver, I highly recommend taking Florin Moldovan’s breadmaking class (you can read about my experience here). If you’re in the UK, I hear great things about the Bertinet Cookery School’s breadmaking courses.

Here is my two loaf recipe, let me know how you get on.

Basic 60% white 40% wheat bread with chia seeds
makes two loaves

725ml lukewarm water

11g dry active yeast

2 tbsp honey

3 tbsp chia seeds

22g fine sea salt

900g white all-purpose flour (if in UK, use bread flour)

200g whole wheat flour

1. In a stand mixer bowl or large mixing bowl, combine water, yeast and honey, and leave to sit for 10 minutes.

2. Add flours on top of water, followed by the salt.
– If using a stand mixer: mix with dough hook until mixture comes together as dough ball, this will take about 2-3 minutes.

– If mixing by hand: using the in-bowl kneading technique until dough comes together, and stops sticking to your hands, this will take about 4-6 minutes. Don’t give up!

3. Cover bowl with cling film and leave until dough doubles in bulk. For me, that’s about 1 hour in the summer, up to 2 hours in the winter when it’s cold.

4. Sprinkle flour on a clean counter, and turn out the dough, scraping out the bits with your fingers. Start oven preheating to 400º.

5. Spread out the dough gently with your hands to distribute the air bubbles. Shape it into a rough rectangle, with the long side facing you. You’re going to fold it in three as if you were folding a letter to fit in an envelope. Fold in one short side and press down the edges to meld it into the dough, you may have to pinch it a bit to make sure it attaches to the dough you’re folding it over. Repeat. Spread out the dough again gently, and repeat. Leave to rest covered by a towel for about half an hour.

6. Split the dough in half, and then shape into loaves. Tuck into oiled loaf pans.

This Kitchn video demonstrates both the letter fold and the loaf shaping. Personally I pinch the edges after my letter folds as well as the shaping, but up to you.

7. Cover loaf pans with tea towel and leave for about half an hour.

8. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until tops are brown and sound hollow when tapped. Let cool 5 minutes in their tins, then turn out onto cooling rack.

Note: to shape dough into more artisan round domes, follow the recipe until step 6. Instead of shaping into loaves after the letter fold, you’re going to make a round and place it on an oiled cookie sheet. This Kitchn video demonstrates the shaping step. Continue as above.

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