Friday, 10 September 2010

Let's bake bread ~ a sound basic recipe!

Article updated 12th September 2012 ~ see dated insert below
Baking bread is easy and satisfying.  We started to bake our own bread last year for economic reasons: it is cheaper to bake your own good quality bread than to buy the equivalent, and we prefer it.  Also,  we know better what the bread contains and where the ingredients are from.

We are repeatedly asked if we have a bread-maker.  The answer is: we are the bread-makers!  Please note that this recipe is not suitable for making with these mechanical devices as the quantity of liquid required varies depending on the absorbency of the flour and other ingredients used. 

A fresh batch of our own bread - the smell, flavour and satisfaction can't be beaten.

I share here a basic recipe, the result of our own experimentation, which may provide a good starting point for those who want to have a go and don't know where to start.  If this works for us anyone can do it!

There really is no mystery to it.  For years I put off any attempt because it seemed to require a whole lot of things I didn't have: specific skills, ingredients, implements and a lot of time.  Furthermore, I didn't seem to have a suitable place to put bread to rise.  Recipe books seemed only to emphasize these obstacles!  However, with the encouragement of an experienced sister and an excellent no-fuss bread book I decided to take the plunge.

To my surprise I found it's not difficult at all.  You do not need a lot of specialised gear or a special environment.  What you need is some flexible time so that you can be around while the bread is rising and a few basic ingredients and implements.  Like any new undertaking it takes practice to gain a consistent result and experimentation may be helpful in arriving at what you like.

The main difference between baking with yeast and other baking is that firstly, yeast dough is handled considerably and the kneading process demands this, whereas other baking is handled as little as possible.  Secondly, the mixture does almost all it's rising before it goes into the oven.  Once it's in the oven it will rise a little more giving it what is called 'oven spring' until it reaches a certain temperature when the yeast dies.  It's important that dough has risen adequately before the heat is turned up.

I have given the quantities for what we use to make a single loaf, so that it's easy to multiply to make the number you want without fussy calculations.  Bread-making, although simple enough, does take a reasonable chunk of time so I make three loaves at a time which is what fits easily in the oven.  Measurements are given in standard measuring cups so that one need not use kitchen scales unless desired.  It also makes it easy for various grains to be exchanged for others.

Ingredients for one loaf:
  • Yeast granules - 1 and 1/2 tsp
  • Sugar - 1 tsp
  • Warm milk - about ½ cup
  • Flour - 4 cups.  The ratio we use is approximately 2 to 1 of white high grade flour to wholemeal flour or alternative grain(s).  Applied to the measure of 4 cups of flour I suggest 2 and 1/2 cups of white flour and 1 and 1/2 cups of wholemeal.  I'm sure that 3 cups of white to one of wholemeal could work out just as well. 
  • 2 teaspoons of gluten, if desired
  • Salt - 1 tsp
  • Vegetable oil - 1 Tbsp
  • Warm water to mix - start with a cupful and continue to add it until the dough holds together well and is somewhat sticky. The total water I use is 1 and half cups.  It may be a little more or less depending on the flour used - the absorbency of flour varies considerably.
  • Sunflower seeds - if desired.  We like a tablespoon or two of these in each loaf.
Notes updated 2nd May 2013:
We are currently using the following measures.  They are not greatly different from those noted previously.  The only new ingredient is a small amount of gluten flour.  This is not strictly necessary, but will help bread be lighter and a little springier.
For four loaves:
  • Yeast granules - 7 teaspoons
  • Sugar - 3 teaspoons
  • Warm milk - 1 cup
  • Flour - 18 cups:
    • 5 of these being wholemeal, 
    • 12 of high grade white flour
    • 1 or so further cups of white flour reserved for sprinkling while kneading
  • Gluten flour - 2 Tablespoons
  • Salt - 3 to 4 teaspoons
  • Vegetable oil - 3 Tablespoons
  • Warm water to mix - 1.2 litres. (amount amended again 8th December 2012!)
Regarding kneading we have found that once the dough as a whole has been fully kneaded and divided into loaf-sized portions best results are obtained by the further kneading of each portion until these have good individual texture and form.

At present we are rising our dough only once which does simplify the remaining steps as once loaf-sized portions are kneaded they are placed directly into their oiled loaf tins.  These are put to rise in the oven which is set to the lowest possible setting.  Rising takes about 45 minutes, after which the temperature is turned up to 180 degrees Celsius.  Baking takes 40 minutes from that point, which allows extra time for the oven to heat.
The rest of this article remains largely unchanged.

Baking temperature and time: 
Loaves are baked at 180 degrees Celcius, for approximately 30 minutes. (if put directly into a fully heated oven.  Rolls will require less time.  Oven's vary to experimentation is important. 

I've given full notes below about all the details that come to mind to make experimentation as straightforward as possible, so although at first glance the length of notes may make it look an arduous process, when you read through it you'll see that it really is very easy indeed.

General notes about the ingredients:
  • For the best results use good quality flour.  In New Zealand this may be either the Champion or Elfin brands. Other brands may be cheaper, but in my experience can produce a significantly different and less desirable flavour and smell.
  • If using standard grade flour, the addition of 1 teaspoon of gluten flour per cup is recommended in other bread recipes, which we regard it as optional.  Although we now add some gluten we use a great deal less: about a tablespoon per loaf.
  • Gluten is the protein part of the wheat which is included in high grade flour.  This is a binding ingredient in the dough and makes it stretchy.  Go easy on any additional gluten as it can  give bread an odd cloying taste.
  • We have found that the proportion of white flour to other flours given above is about right for what is tasty and satisfying for our household.  A higher proportion of white flour to other sorts results in a lighter bread but isn't as filling.
  • With the ratio of four cups of flour to one and a half teaspoons of yeast per loaf ingredients can easily be varied or substituted.   I started using whizzed (in the food processor) rolled oats because I didn't have oat bran and wanted something other than wheat flour, but ordinary rolled oats would do as well, or a mixture of cornmeal, barley flour or soy, and so on.  
  • If using whole grains, seeds, or those which are less finely ground, such as coarse cornmeal or linseed, these are best soaked or partially cooked before adding them to the mix.  
  • Honey, malt or molasses can be used instead of sugar.
  • You may like to try using kelp instead of salt or in addition to it. 
  • Brewers yeast and flaky yeast cannot be substituted for granular yeast. 
  • Sugar is needed to provide the yeast with something to feed on while it's growing.
  • The quantity of oil included is approximate and can be omitted.  
  • The quantity of water and milk used is also approximate and the amount required will vary with the ingredients used.  It's better to add a little too much than not enough, as it's easier to add more flour than more water when you are kneading your dough.
  • Measuring spoons
  • Measuring cup
  • Kitchen scales, if you have them and prefer to weigh things rather than measuring by the cupful
  • A pot in which to heat the milk
  • Something to scrape the yeast mixture out of the pot, such as a plastic scraper.
  • A whisk - useful, but not essential, for combining the dry ingredients as well as for combining the yeast granules with the warmed milk.
  • One very large bowl, depending on the quantity you are making (see note in 'Method')
  • A clean bench on which to knead the bread
  • Oiled loaf or bread tins in which to bake the bread or a large oven tray
  • A sharp knife to divide the dough
  • A small dessert-sized bowl containing a cup or so of white flour and a spoon in it so you can easily flour your hands while kneading without making a mess.
  • Another small dessert-sized plate containing a smallish quantity of vegetable oil, say a third of a cup, for smoothing over the dough before it's set to rise. (Optional step)
  • Something with which to cover the dough while it's rising to keep out draughts and to stop the surface from drying out if you deem it necessary.  I've used a clean piece of waxed paper covered with aluminium foil, the latter of which can be re-used.
  • An oven
  • A good serrated knife for slicing up your yummy bread once baked!
  • Assemble the ingredients and kitchenware.  If the kitchen is at all draughty or cool, close windows and doors to reduce this.
  • Warm the milk until it is very warm but not hot.  It must be warm enough firstly to dissolve the sugar and then to start the yeast working but not kill it.  Books specify lukewarm or blood heat, which I have found insufficient.  This is the only part of bread-making that I initially found troublesome, which it needn't be! 
  • After the sugar has dissolved and the milk is the right temperature, add the yeast by sprinkling it over the surface of the milk.  I like to use a whisk to mix it through.  I find it easiest to pour the milk from the saucepan into a warmed bowl, stand it in hot water in the kitchen sink and then add the yeast to it, leaving it to froth with a plate over the top.  It should take only about ten to fifteen minutes to foam nicely when it will get a head of foam like glass of beer.
  • While the yeast is busy getting to this stage measure the dry ingredients into a large bowl and combine them thoroughly with your fingers - or that nice whisk.
  • Scoop out a hollow in the centre of the floury mixture.  This hollow is called a well.  Pour into it much of the warm water, the oil, then add the yeast mixture.  
  • Flour your hands well and combine everything, gradually working the excess moisture off your hands and adding in more warm water as necessary. 
  • When the dough is nice and easy to handle lift it out of the bowl and onto the bench.  Some recipe books suggest you do this combining process directly on a bench or board, which you may wish to try if you don't have a large enough bowl.  If trying this out do add the liquid in small amounts or you may find it runs in all directions!   Yes, I've done it!
  • If you are going to rise your bread in the same large bowl, wash it and put it to one side. 
  • Begin to knead the dough, pushing down into it with the heel of your hand (the base of your palm next to your wrist) and then lift the back of the dough folding it towards yourself and turn it a little.  Keep going for about ten minutes.  
  • When the dough sticks to your hands flour them lightly rather than adding flour directly to the board or dough.
  • When you've finished the dough should be smooth and stretchy, almost silky, and not sticking to your hands or the bench.
  • Place the dough back into the clean bowl.  You may wish to pat some oil onto its upper surface which will help to keep the surface elastic while it expands.  It's common practice to cover the bowl with cling wrap or waxed paper and foil when leaving it to rise but isn't strictly necessary.
  • Leave it to rise in a mild-temperatured place.  We've found it simplest to rise the bread in the oven by setting the temperature gauge to the lowest possible setting.  This is draught proof and the temperature easily controlled.  You can also stand the covered bowl in a sink-full of warm water. The hot water cupboard may be another possible place.  
  • Depending on warmth the dough will rise within 30 to 40 minutes or a number of hours.  As long as the yeast hasn't been over-heated you can't kill it even if it takes all day!  Resist disturbing the dough while it's rising by patting or poking it as this may cause it to temporarily deflate.  Note that dough that rises too fast may taste too yeasty.
  • When the dough has doubled in size gently remove it from the bowl and repeat the ten minutes of kneading which will reduce it to its original size.  
  • Experienced home-bakers may omit a second kneading altogether and instead raise their dough for the first time in the tins in which they will be baked.
  • Have your oiled tins ready.
  • Once you have finished kneading, divide the dough into as many pieces as you wish, and knead each portion further until they have good individual texture and form,  then make them into suitable shapes for your tins or baking tray.  You can handle the dough firmly at this stage.  Pull any 'creases' to the underside and pinch them together to prevent bubbles and cracks in the finished loaves.
  • Place the pieces of shaped dough into the oiled tins.  These should not be filled more than two thirds or the dough may rise over the top and bulge over the sides.  If you would like a loaf that can be pulled apart at the middle, make two round balls per loaf tin and place them side by side. 
  • Set these to rise once more.  If you want to cover them you can re-use the waxed paper and foil or cover of your choice.  
  • When the dough looks about ready, remove the covers from your loaves and turn the oven to 180 degrees Celcius.  Once the oven has heated up place your loaves in their tins into the oven if they are not there already.  
  • Loaves placed into a preheated oven will take about 30 minutes; rolls will be quicker.  Loaves which have been left to rise in a warm oven which is then turned up will take longer, say 40 minutes. 
  • Once baking seems complete test loaves by tapping them.  They should sound hollow, especially the bottoms of them.  
  • Turn the loaves out onto a wire rack to cool.  If the tins have been oiled properly they should tip out easily.   Do not leave loaves upside-down as doing so can damage the soft warm bread.
  • If you want to keep the crust soft, cover the fresh, hot bread with a clean tea towel.  I run mine under the hot tap and then wring it out! 
  • Although bread can be eaten while still warm, it's best to wait until it has cooled at least to some degree as cutting a warm loaf can be difficult and spoil a loaf.  
  • You will need a good serrated knife.  An ordinary kitchen knife is unlikely to slice properly.  Wait until the bread is completely cold before slicing it for storage.  Once the loaves are sliced and bagged they can be stored in the freezer.
One great bonus of home-baked bread is the reduction of rubbish: all those shop bread bags can be completely replaced by a single box of snap-lock bags.  These can so easily be washed, hung to drip-dry and re-used time after time.

The best storage method by far is in home sewn bread bags.  You can read about how I made mine here:
 Bon appetit!

The book I found so helpful was:
“No-bother bread: easy continental yeast baking for New Zealanders”
by Christine Keller Smith,
published by David Bateman, Auckland, NZ, in 1985
ISBN: 0-908610-32-7
Although it appears to be out of print it does come up for sale second hand from time to time.

Readers who have got this far down the page may find this website of interest:

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