Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?
– the Prophet Isaiah
Bread made from whole and natural ingredients is a staple food providing integral protein, carbohydrates, and fibre. Mass-produced white bread bought off the shelf does not.
Anybody can make a loaf of bread. It is not difficult. Electric breadmakers have simplified the process, but cannot produce a loaf with the individuality and integrity of a handmade one.
There are, however, great myths about the process of breadmaking which deter many people from ever trying. The need for sugar, kneading, double-proving and knocking back are all unnecessary complications in what is a simple and satisfying task. Most of the skill of baking is about routine and practice and a refusal to take shortcuts. The ingredients are few in number: just flour, water, salt and yeast. These behave in predictable ways, so if the rules are followed, bread will result. Better bread comes from practice.
A Bit of History
Not every society in the world grew wheatcorn and its relatives. More people depend upon rice than wheat even today. The whole of North and Central America ran on maize before Europeans arrived. However, for those who lived in the Middle East, northern Asia and Europe, bread was the staple food. It was from these regions that some of the great migrations - of peoples, economic influence and political power - originated. Thus bread spread throughout much of the world.
Real Bread or Fast Food Envelope?
What is real bread? Its classical authenticity results from organically-grown wheat and fresh stoneground flour, baked in a wood-fired brick oven. Today's real bread is home-baked using the most 'natural' and fresh products available and is made with care.
Most people agree that factory bread is bland. Rather than being a taste in itself, bread has become a convenient medium on which to array other flavours. The contents of these fast food envelopes - butters, spreads and sugary pastes - have become more important to us than the deep and satisfying wheat flavour of real bread. The quality of bread has been sacrificed for speed, money and shelf-life. The flour is stripped of its cumbersome bran and germ coatings; then bleach, vitamins, proteins, bran(!), additives and preservatives are added. Most so-called 'wholemeal' breads on sale are no better than white loaves. They are usually made from bleached white dough, dyed with caramel, bran added for 'authenticity' and are artificially inflated by the use of gluten flour.
Technical Information and Myths Exposed
Flour and Milling
For centuries, the working man envied the white bread of the privileged. Extracting all the bran and germ from wheat was a time-consuming and expensive business, until mechanised high speed roller mills came along in the 1870s. Roller-milled flours have everything but the starch removed, which is then crushed and bleached with chlorine, becoming our modern white flour.
Flour that is stone-milled (marketed as stoneground flour) is crushed and ground between rotating stones. Stoneground flour contains all of the wheatgrain: nothing added and nothing removed. Thus the protein, the fibre and the flavour are retained. White stoneground flour has the bran and semolina sieved out of it.
The flour most suitable for bread is stoneground from high protein, or hard, wheat. This is often called strong flour. Strength is related to the gluten content of the flour, which varies according to the wheat variety and the growing conditions. The stronger the flour, the higher the gluten content and the more the bread dough will rise evenly and consistently.
Bread can be made without yeast, but for the purposes of simplicity, only yeasted bread is discussed here. For a yeast-free substitute for those with an allergy, try yoghurt soda bread.
Yeast is alive, but inactive, when we buy it. Under the right conditions - warmth and moisture - it is activated and it releases the gas which will raise the dough. The activity only stops when the dough is put in the oven and the extreme heat kills the yeast.
Yeast is available in two forms: fresh and dried. Supplies of fresh yeast are increasingly difficult to source in the UK and most bakers use the dried variety. To activate fresh yeast, crumble it in a cup and add hottish water. Allow it to froth before using it. Dried granular yeast is still yeast: it is hot air-dried to remove all the moisture, to enable it to be kept for longer. Dried yeast can be mixed with the flour and salt before hot water is added to make the dough. As a rule of thumb, one tablespoon of dried yeast is equivalent to 25g fresh yeast. Store dried yeast in an airtight container for up to two months. Fresh yeast can be frozen for up to three months.
Salt is an essential ingredient, so don't skip it. Bread is insipid without the addition of salt. It also conditions the dough, making it firmer and more resilient and it tempers the yeast, thus making the bread more digestible. On a simple level, the more salt there is, the longer the dough takes to rise. Generally, longer-maturing doughs require more salt than shorter-time doughs.
How about the quality of the salt? Table salt and free-running salts available in the supermarket have magnesium carbonate and other chemicals added to keep them dry and free-running. If the aim is to make and eat 'real' bread, pure salt should be used. Fortunately, seasalt and rocksalt are both easily sourced these days.
Water is the primary liquid for making bread and its quantity can vastly affect the finished product. It needs to be used at the temperature of bathwater: a little higher than body temperature. It then activates the yeast, which in turn produces gas and stretches the dough. Cooler water slows down the rise of the dough. The quantity of water to be used can never be given exactly, as different flours absorb different amounts of water.
Milk produces a soft, flavoursome loaf when used as part of the liquid ingredient. Small breads, such as rolls and muffins, that should have soft crusts, are made from a half water, half milk mixture.
Olive oil added as part of the liquid results in a dough that never forms a skin and doesn't develop a sour taste, even if it is over-proved. It is usual to add a little olive oil to pizza dough.
Myths of Breadmaking Part 1: Sugar
Sugar is not an essential ingredient. Yeast does not require sugar or honey to activate it. The addition of honey to a dough contributes to a moist and longer-keeping bread, but is not a necessity for a successful loaf.
Myths of Breadmaking Part 2: Kneading
Kneading improves the integrity of a loaf and just a couple of minutes is sufficient. However, kneading is not essential. Despite the sometimes dogmatic instructions provided by such culinary luminaries as Elizabeth David and Delia Smith, bread that is not kneaded will taste good and can be light and airy. The trick is to make a wetter-than-usual dough, which is mixed well in the bowl before being turned out onto a well-floured surface3, coated in flour, shaped and placed into a baking tin.
Myths of Breadmaking Part 3: Knocking Back and Double-Proving
It is unnecessary to leave the dough to rise, knock it back, re-knead it and then let it rise (or prove) again. A good loaf results from a single rise. Simply put the dough in the loaf tin and leave it in a warm spot4 and allow it to rise to the top of the tin. There is no need to cover it with teatowels, clingfilm, plastic bags, or any other material that you'll find suggested in the recipe books. Either coat the dough with flour, or if you want a crisp crust to your loaf, keep the dough surface damp with a hand water sprayer.
The ideal oven for baking bread is one in which the fire is lit inside and later raked out, such as a mudbrick oven. The bread is baked in a steamy atmosphere, as these ovens can be sealed and the heat reflected back onto the bread from the brick walls results in a crunchy crust. Most people these days will be baking in a gas or electric oven. Preheat the oven to the required temperature and place the loaf in the middle or upper section, to ensure that it benefits fully from the heat. If necessary, change the position of the loaf part way through, to get an even bake.
Bread should be baked in a hot oven. A regular 700g loaf cooks in 35 minutes at 220C. White breads cook better hot. For 100 percent wholemeal, use a temperature of around 205C for 45 minutes. Of course, all ovens differ, so practice to get it right. Overcooked is preferable to undercooked.
Remove the loaf from the tin once it is baked and return it to the oven for five minutes for a good crust to form all over. Remove it and place it on a wire cooling rack until it is completely cool. A loaf should never be wrapped up or put away until it has lost all of its heat. Bread is best left 12 hours before eating5.
Bread needs to breathe if it is to be stored. It can be stored wrapped in cotton cloth inside an earthenware crock or wicker container, or a metal bin as long as it is not sealed tight. The exception is when the bread is frozen; this is the most efficient method of storage. The loaf needs to be well-sealed so that it retains its moisture intact. When it is thawed it is difficult to distinguish it from bread freshly made6.
Basic Wholewheat Bread Recipe
You will need:
A couple of hours
700g stoneground wholewheat flour
1 tablespoon dried yeast
3 teaspoons fine seasalt
Approx. 450ml hottish water
A well-oiled 1kg loaf tin
Preheated oven at 205C
Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl (earthenware if possible)
Add the water and mix with a wooden spoon until it is incorporated and the dough is soft and sticky, but not fluid
Transfer the dough to a well-floured board and roll it in the flour, until it is thoroughly coated
Shape the dough to fit and place it into the loaf tin, so that it fills approximately two-thirds of the space7
Put it in a warm place such as an airing cupboard, a conservatory, or anywhere which provides all-round warmth. Allow the dough to rise, spraying the surface with water if it looks exposed and dry
When the dough has formed a dome and is at the top of the tin, it is ready8.
Put it into the preheated oven and bake for approximately 45 minutes
Remove from the tin and return the loaf to the oven for five minutes, to allow a crust to develop all over
Place the loaf on a wire rack to cool
The only way to find out whether real breadmaking is as simple as has been suggested, is to give it a try. And then give it another try. And another.
There are so many good flours available today, and so many different supplementary ingredients9, that the experiment never ends.
Be the envy of, and an inspiration to, your friends. But don't forget to tell them how simple this 'mysterious' process really is. Breadmaking is fun.
David, Elizabeth. English Bread and Yeast Cookery Allen Lane 1977
Downes, John. Natural Tucker Bread Book Hyland House Melbourne 1983
Jaine, Tom. Making Bread at Home Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1995
McLure, John. Baba a Louis Bakery Bread Book Baba a Louis Bakery 1993
Smith, Delia. Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course BBC Publications 1982