9 Things You Really Knead to Know

Breadmaking, ancient craft as it is, can seem veiled in mystery and, after a succession of failed attempts by ourselves, as if it’s the sacred domain of an enigmatic, patiently skilful few. But, hey, even they had to start somewhere, those journeywomen and men, so let’s make a start here, now, together.

REAL BREAD. IT’S REAL EASY

#1 Flour, water, salt, yeast. Four ingredients – how hard can this be? And once we understand a few basic principles, apply them a few times in our kitchen, we’ll find ourselves turning out brilliant bread time and again. Real bread is real easy. It simply takes a little patience and practice to get going… and then there’s no limit to what you can do with that domestic oven of yours.

START WHERE YOU ARE

#2 It’s not necessary to buy loads of equipment to begin baking proper bread at home. Most of us have what we need to get going: a bowl, whisk, electronic scales, a baking sheet. Sure, it’s lovely to have specific, quality gear – it can take our experience to another level – but you don’t have to wait until everything’s in place before cracking on.

#3 It’s no good trying to fit something unfamiliar (and so demands our concentrated attention) into an already chock-full schedule – it’ll be stressful and quash any desire to repeat the experience. So let’s make some time to learn this new thing, acquire these as yet unfamiliar skills. Ancient peoples and contemporary indigenous tribe folk alike treat their crafts with great reverence, approaching them ritualistically in order invoke the Gods, viewing themselves simply as a channel through which a higher force works to produce what the community needs to sustain and enhance itself… So, to miller and farmer alike let’s metaphorically tip our hat, slowing down, reconnecting to the land, as we engage with this beautiful old craft.

FOUR INGREDIENTS, INFINITE POSSIBILITIES

#4 Flour, water, salt, yeast again. Think of all the myriad styles of bread the world over… all made, essentially, with these four raw materials. What differentiates each loaf, roll, stick and sweetbread from the next might seem a mystery but it’s none other than: 1) the amount of liquid added to the flour to make a particular dough (hydration rate); 2) and how the baker then manipulates the dough through both the fermentation process and the dough’s handling, to manifest the intriguing and delicious qualities of properly made bread. What I’m wanting to say here is: that bag of Asda’s own strong white flour you’ve got there doesn’t limit you to making just English-stylee breads and rolls.

THE PROBLEM IS IF IT’S NOT STICKY

#5 Wetter Is Better goes the artisan breadmaking industry’s mantra. And with good reason: a wetter dough is more responsive to both the gaseous action of the yeast and to the heat of the oven, giving us bread that is moist and open textured – an utter pleasure to eat. What this means for the homebaker is that the dough will be, on initial mixing, inevitably very sticky. It’s quite normal at this point to throw flour at the dough to alleviate that stickiness in a futile attempt to give us a dough we think we might have some chance of handling and thus making into bread. Don’t do that. Stick with the recipe, know all is well despite your concerns and trust in yourself.

NO KNEADING?

#6 There’s no need to knead that dough, you know. You can if you want, of course, but otherwise simply follow the recipe. The development of the gluten is a chemical reaction that begins as soon as we hydrate the flour with water (or whatever liquid the recipe calls for), the proteins absorbing the liquid and in so doing transforming into gluten, that lovely stretchy, elastic quality that manifests in dough and allows us to make the bread we’ve come to know and love. And so this is why the dough is always sticky at first; 30mins later, it’s a different animal, reassuringly ready to get on with the rising.

SECRET 5TH INGREDIENT…

#7 Flour, water, salt, yeast. Again? Again… It’s one thing being able to manifest myriad styles of loaves with our four simple ingredients but there’s one further ingredient that, when we incorporate it into our dough, will have the bread we make at home standing shoulder to shoulder with the very best loaves our esteemed artisan on the high street is turning out. Time. If we can extend the fermentation time of our doughs, either through using less yeast, incorporating sourdough techniques or slowing the yeast down with a cooler environment, then we allow lactic and acetic acids to develop in the dough, imbuing our baked bread with wonderful flavour complexities in both crumb and crust and making it more digestible, to boot. Time for fermentation is the gateway to achieving consistently high quality loaves in our own kitchen and I’ll be posting plenty of content on this topic as we go forward.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

#8 You’ve made a start and, fingers crossed, it’s been pretty straightforward following a recipe with a little guidance. Coming to shape the dough ready for the oven, things might turn a little tricky. Bakers hone their skills over months and years of repetition and can shape dough in their sleep. Without that familiarity, the hand skills of breadmaking can offer up a real challenge to the novice. Youtube is a great resource here, and I myself will be posting videos on shaping as we go forward. Start simply, a tin loaf or a cob, be patient with yourself, and try to keep some perspective – it’s a piece of dough. I guarantee your next effort will be better again.

#9 This thing is going to need baking soon… Ovens – we’ve all probably got one and probably they’re all different. I’ll be posting content and video soon on how to get the best out of your oven – what and however it is – with tips and insights aplenty.

See you soon,

Patrick xx

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