Why Bake Bread?
There is nothing in the world as satisfying to eat as home-baked, handmade bread. Of course, technically, the artisan baker down the road is much better at it, but no amount of skill and craftsmanship can replace the utter joy of eating and sharing the stuff you make yourself. And it is practical to make bread -- exceptional bread -- with your own hands, in your own home, on a regular basis.
I know you are busy, so I have given you roti -- a flat bread you can make, from cupboard to table, in less than five minutes. But I know that you also have free time, and I hope I can persuade you that free time spent in the kitchen -- by yourself, with friends, or with children, with music in your ears, wine in your glass, flour in your hair, and magic in your hands -- is time that could not be better spent.
If you are new to bread making, this sense of pleasure might not be immediate, but I am confident that you will reach it more quickly than I did. I remember my first loaf well -- even the birds wouldn’t eat it. I had followed the two-page recipe to the letter and the cookbook assured me that “homemade bread is easy.” That was rather hard to swallow (as was my bread). Still, I soldiered on, day after day. After all, practice makes perfect.
There are two kinds of bread in the world: bread that hands have made, and bread that hands have not. In an ideal world, all bread would be hands-have-made -- by your hands and my hands, and by the hands of those few professional bakers left who are still doing it properly. I guess there will always be hands-have-not bread, and while it’s not that bad, or at least it is surely edible, it seems a shame that bread has become so standard and commonplace that we don’t even consider what a small miracle a risen loaf is.
Some would say that 1961 was a bad year for bread. It was the year the Chorleywood Bread Process came into being. Developed by the Flour Milling and Baking Research Association in Chorleywood, England, the process revolutionized the baking industry. This high-speed mechanical mixing process allowed the fermentation time to be drastically reduced and meant that lower-protein British wheats could be used in place of the more expensive North American imports. Various chemical improvers and antifungal agents are necessary ingredients, as are certain hydrogenated or fractionated hard fats. This is high-output, low-labor production, designed to maximize efficiency and profit at the expense of the consumer.
Mass-produced bread is almost undoubtedly worse for you. Apart from the dubious additives and fats it contains, the short fermentation makes the wheat harder to digest. Indeed, some believe the Chorleywood processing method is partly to blame for a sharp increase in gluten intolerance and allergy. It is also probable that the prolific crossbreeding and modification of modern-day wheat, to produce stronger, tougher, harder-to-digest gluten, has contributed to wheat intolerance.
Somewhere in the region of 98 percent of bread baked in England is mass-produced, and most of it comes from around a dozen huge plant bakeries. Supermarkets love to crow about their in-store bakeries, but they are really nothing more than mini versions of these plants. And 98 percent is a lot. That means hands-have-not bread is not just the preserve of the supermarkets; it is the same bread you buy in most local “bakeries.” I’m talking about the ones that sell white pan loaves with flat tops and apple turnovers, where there is little hint of baking activity save for the oven warming of sausage rolls, ham-and-cheese croissants, and “Cornish” pasties. The bakeries whose bread looks the same as everyone else’s . . . Well, nearly everyone else’s.
Bread from real bakeries
Real bakeries are special places where bread is made in small batches by real people’s hands and baked on-site. You can tell when bread is made by hand. For a start, it will look different from other bread in other shops, because every baker has a unique, recognizable style. Shop at one regularly and you may spot changes in the bread from one morning to the next. You may even be able to tell if the baker was in a bad mood, so sensitive is real bread to the hands that make it. Some real bakeries sell their bread to local stores, which is excellent -- the more places selling real bread, the better. Real bakeries are a rarity, though. If you are lucky enough to have one near you, then you would be mad not to use it. The bread will cost more . . . So it should.
Bread made at home
Home is the bakery where handmade bread does not cost more. At home, you can produce a large loaf, made with organic flour, for less than half the price of a similar-sized, mass-produced, non-organic loaf from a local shop. And your homemade bread can be great bread -- even if it doesn’t quite go according to plan the first time.
I still have that first bread recipe I attempted -- both pages of it. And now, years later, I realize why my first loaf was such a disaster. The basic method is fine, but to make good bread you need to understand the process. Some professional bakers and cookery writers skirt this all too briefly. As I discovered, being told what to do is simply not enough. There is so much to know, and I really believe that the more you know, the better your bread will be. Two pages? Not even the best baker in the world could teach bread in two pages.
The basic bread recipe
This is my simplified bread recipe, which can be adapted to create a host of different breads (see chart on p. 75). You will find more detail on the essential stages (highlighted in bold below) in the previous chapter. To begin, you need to
measure the ingredients.
Makes 2 large or 3 small loaves, or 12 rolls
8 cups (2 pounds, 3 ounces/1kg) flour
1 tablespoon (0.35 ounce/10g) instant yeast
4 teaspoons (0.7 ounce/20g) fine salt
21/2 cups liquid (warm)
2 handfuls of extras
A piece of old dough, or a ladleful
of sourdough starter
About 1 tablespoon (a good slug) of fat
2 handfuls of coating
Scant 1 cup milk or water (if coating
with anything other than flour)
First, mix the dough. This is the one-stage method; you can adapt it for other methods. Combine the flour
, yeast, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add smaller extras
if you are using them (save nuts and dried fruit for after kneading). Add the liquid
and, with one hand, mix to a rough dough. Add a piece of old dough or the starter if you are using one. Add the fat
if you are including it and mix it all together. Adjust the consistency if you need to, with a little more flour or water (or your chosen liquid), to make a soft, easily kneadable, sticky dough. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and clean your hands.
Knead the dough until it is as smooth and satiny as you can make it -- as a rough guide, this will take about 10 minutes. If you are using larger extras
, like nuts and fruit, stretch the dough out on the work surface, scatter the ingredients over the dough, then fold, roll, and knead briefly, to disperse them.
Shape the dough into a round
once you have finished kneading. Then oil or flour the surface and put the dough into the wiped-out mixing bowl. Put the bowl in a trash bag and let ferment and rise until doubled in size. This could be anywhere between 45 minutes and 11/2 hours -- or longer still, if the dough is cold.
Deflate the dough by tipping it onto the work surface and pressing all over with your fingertips. Then form it into a round. If you like, let rise again up to four times. This will improve the texture and flavor.
prepare for baking.
Turn on the oven to 500°F or its highest setting, put your baking stone or baking sheet in position, and remove any unwanted racks. Put the roasting pan in the bottom if you are using it for steam (in which case, put the kettle on). Get your water spray bottle ready if you have one, your serrated knife if using, a hot pad, and your peel if you are using a baking stone. Clear the area around the oven.
Divide the dough into as many pieces as you wish (I suggest 2 large or 3 small loaves, or a dozen rolls). Shape these into rounds and let them rest, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes.
Shape the loaves as you wish, and coat the outside
with your chosen coating
. Transfer the loaves to well-floured wooden boards, linen cloths, tea towels, or proofing baskets and lay a plastic bag over the whole batch, to keep it from drying out. Let proof, checking often by giving gentle squeezes, until the loaves have almost doubled in size.
Transfer the loaves for baking to the hot baking sheet (removed from the oven), or one at a time to the peel. Slash the tops, if you wish, with the serrated knife, and before you bake the bread,
spray it all over with water if you can. If using steam, bring the boiling teakettle to the oven. Put the pan in the oven, or slide each loaf onto the stone, pour some boiling water into the roasting pan, if using, and close the door as quickly as you can.
After about 10 minutes, turn down the heat to 400°F if the crust still looks very pale; 350°F if the crust is noticeably browning; or 325°F if the crust seems to be browning quickly. Bake until the loaves are well browned and crusty and feel hollow when you tap them: in total, 10 to 20 minutes for rolls; 30 to 40 minutes for small loaves; or 40 to 50 minutes for large loaves. If in doubt, bake for a few minutes longer.
Let cool on a wire rack, or anything similar that allows air underneath. Bread for tearing can be served warm, but bread for slicing must be cooled completely.
Look after your bread and enjoy it. After all, you have put a lot of work into it. And don’t waste a crumb.
P.S. Remember that timing in the recipe relates to convection ovens. If using a conventional electric or gas oven, increase the temperature by 25°F. Use an oven thermometer to check the accuracy of your oven.
Excerpted from The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens, Introduced by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Copyright © 2010 by Daniel Stevens, Introduced by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.