Bread is not difficult to make, but takes a little time to learn how to do properly. So get rid of the recipes which have 3 lines of instructions, and try the recipe below instead. If you really enjoy baking bread, I can advise you to invest in a good bread baking book (Richard Bertinet is one of my favourites) which explains all about proteins in flour, gluten, kneading, rising etc etc. Knowing why bread dough does what it does will help you to bake good bread every time.
Find a good place to buy bread flour. I buy mine from a local windmill (benefit of living in The Netherlands) where they grind their own flour and have a large collection of biological mill-ground flours. But if your supermarket has good bread flour (without additives, they are really not necessary), by all means get your flour there.
Should you not make a perfect bread immediately, don’t worry. Bread baking is not difficult but it does require you to get a feeling for the way the dough should react. This takes practice, but it is very much worth it.
- 500gr bread-flour (flour with a high (11%) gluten protein content)
- 350gr water (weighing is more accurate but 350ml should be the same amount)
- 10gr salt
- 7gr dry yeast or 10gr fresh yeast
Yes, this seems like a lot of water for the amount of flour. However, the wetter the dough, the lighter the final result will be. I always knead my bread by hand (and find that immensely satisfying) but if you prefer to not have lovely doughy hands, you can also use dough hooks on your mixer, or use a freestanding machine. Be careful to not overmix the dough (this is close to impossible by hand). The more the gluten develop, the less sticky the dough will become, so another option is to start with dough hooks on your mixer (or even a wooden spoon, my preferred method) to get a somewhat coherent dough, before sticking your hands in. The instructions below are for kneading by hand.
Combine the flour, salt and yeast. Make sure the salt and yeast do not touch, as yeast is a living organism which dies when salt is added, making your bread dense. Add the water (straight from the tap, it doesn’t have to be warm. Cold water will make the dough rise a bit slower, but not much, and a longer rise provides a better flavour). Mix the dough a bit with a wooden spoon, or the dough hooks of a mixer. When the dough is coherent, tip the contents of the bowl onto a clean working surface (and by clean I don’t mean “covered in flour”).
Start kneading the dough. This can be done in several ways:
- Push the fingers of your left hand into the dough on your side and push the remainder of the dough away from you with the palm of your right hand. Drag the dough back to its original position, turn 90 degrees and repeat. You will get handier with doing this by practicing. The dough being sticky is a good thing, as you stretch the dough more when part sticks to the kitchen counter, resulting in you having to spend less time kneading;
- Make a ball in the middle of your countertop. Make sure there is nothing hanging closely over your countertop. Push the fingers of both of your hands under the sides of the ball, lift if, stretch it by moving up and spreading your hands apart. Turn the dough mid-air (you can also do this once every 4 or 5 lifts) and knock the middle back on the countertop. Fold the sides over the middle, then push your fingers in the bottom of the sides again and start over. As with the method above, this takes practice to perfect but I have found that this yields the best results (and it is so much fun, however be careful as I have kitchen cabinets over my countertop and have once or twice slapped my dough to the underside of them. Woops!)
- Any other method, such as using two hands to knead, will work as well. I however prefer the methods above as this really stretches the dough well and limits the time that you are slaving away to get the gluten to develop properly.
Many recipes state that you need to knead for 10 or 15 minutes. This is nonsense. If you knead well, you can take only 6-7 minutes, and if you don’t stretch the gluten well you might be working for over 20 minutes and still not have the desired result. The best test is to take a small piece of dough and to stretch it between your fingers. You should get a nice, thin, stretchy dough that doesn’t easily tear. The rule is that you should be able to read a newspaper through it, but I hold mine up against the light to see if it’s really transparent.
During kneading, a scraper is very useful. Not only can you use it to get sticky dough from your countertop to get it back in with the dough, it is the easiest way to clean your countertop (adding water just makes a doughy glue) and functions as the best dough cutter you can find.
So, now that you have kneaded your dough, you leave it to rest. Wipe off the original container (if it’s big enough, it will easily double in size) and dump your dough in. Cover it with a lid or clingfilm and set the container in a warm place. The ideal teamperature for bread to rise in is about 30 degrees, so if it’s warm and sunny, don’t put the container directly in the sun. Be patient for it to rise, you can make it rise faster in the sun (or by placing the container in a tin of warm water, my trick in winter), but a slow rise does produce a tastier bread.
Leave it to rise until more than doubled in size. I aim for about 2.5x the original size. Again, I won’t give you a time to let the dough rise, as it is so highly dependent on the temperature of your room, and I am assuming you are a home-baker like myself, without a proving cabinet or other fancy bread baking tools (which you don’t need to make really good bread at home).
Heat your oven to the highest setting (250°C on my oven).
Ok, so your dough has doubled in size. Very lightly oil your countertop (add a drop or two and spread it by rubbing your hand all over the counter) and tip your dough out onto it, using your scraper to get everything from the bowl. Now, most recipes say you should knock back the dough. I don’t bother. The dough loses quite some air by tipping it out on the countertop, and when forming.
Now to form the dough into the desired shape. Start with a round loaf of bread, as these are easiest to shape. You place the dough on your oiled countertop, pick up the sides and fold them to the middle. Keep doing this until the dough doesn’t want to be stretched and tucked back in anymore. Now flip the ball around. Place both your hands on the countertop, the pinkies touching the counter and the rest of your hand held straight. Place your right hand to the right top of the dough (top as in furthest away from you, keep the hand on the countertop) and your left hand on the left bottom. Now move your right hand down and left hand upwards, which stretches the dough into an even tighter ball. Do this 4-5 times while slightly turning the ball each time.
Flip the dough over and place it into a floured proofing basket, or in a floured round container. If you can find unbleached cotton, rub a piece with flour and place this in your round container before adding the dough.
Cover the dough and leave to proof (which is the last rise).
The bread is proofed when doubled in size, and when pressed, the dough springs back gently. If it doesn’t allow to be pushed much, or springs back fully, the dough is underproofed. When the push leaves a hole, or even makes the dough around it sink somewhat, the dough is overproofed. You will get a knack for seeing when the dough is perfect by trying. You will fail occasionally but you will get the hang of it eventually.
Place a baking tray in the oven until very, very hot.
Very gently tip the bread over on the hot baking tray. Slice the tops with a very sharp knife (a blunt knife will pull the dough. I use razor blades), which allows for more expansion during baking and a lighter result.
Spray the bread with some water from a plant spray. I have a “bread spray” in my kitchen at all times. Quickly place the bread in the oven, spray water into the oven and close the door. The water creates steam, which stops a crust from forming. This, plus the initial very hot temperature, creates an extra boost for the yeast.
After 10 minutes, lower the temperature to 220°C and bake for a total of 45 minutes.
Many people do the knocking-test to see if bread is cooked. The theory is that if bread sounds hollow, it is done. However, a thick crust and a portion of the dough being cooked, can result in a hollow sound, while the center is still undercooked. Stick to the time, but if you want to be sure, test with a meat or sugar thermometer. Bread is cooked at 96°C.