In a break from the relentless analysis that I post on my blog I thought that I would take some time to talk about what I have learnt whilst making some types of bread in a consolidated format rather than the sporadic information over the web.
I don't want anyone in any way to think that this is a particularly complete, or even advanced guide but I will cover my experiences with flatbreads and white sandwich-style loaves.
One of the most important things when it comes to bread is leavening, it's what makes bread… bread.
There are two main types of leavening leveraged in bread making: - Chemical (Using baking powder / soda) - Biological (Using yeast / starter) There are also a few other methods that are less common like mechanical but these are less likely to be used in the home kitchen (for example this)
For the most part I have been using yeast for my breads, I had tried (and failed) to get a sourdough starter on the go.
Yeast have some different variants on the shelf, the most common is active dry yeast (in the UK). You may also find instant yeast, and in some places fresh yeast.
There is a slight difference between active dry yeast and instant yeast in that they are different strains and usually instant yeast is milled finer. However they can be used interchangeably for hand baking (for bread machines you would use instant yeast). I have never baked with fresh yeast.
One of the best things to learn for a new baker is the baker's percentage notation. This is in essence the simplest way of giving recipes as it does not rely on any units.
In this notation the flour is always 100% and every other ingredient is given as a percentage of the flour. For example a dough may be 65% hydration, that is for every 100 grams of flour there are 65 grams of water (which is equivalent to 65ml) an example recipe may look like.
So for 500g of flour we would have 350g of water, 10g of salt, and 5g of yeast.
Getting used to this notation is good because you can start to visualise how the dough will look when you look at the recipe. High hydration doughs are sticky whilst low are more tough. This may also allow you to diagnose any issues with your bread.
HOWEVER: all of this is meaningless if you don't think. Humidity does affect how dough works and feels. It is always easier to add more flour than it is more water.
Kneading is important for bread as it forms gluten. I'm sure if you've read about bread you've heard the usual about formation of gluten. Kneading however can be performed in a few different ways.
The traditional method of kneading is with your hands. This is mostly intuitive, as long as you are stretching rather than tearing the dough you are probably doing a good job.
One of the key things I learnt whilst doing this is to keep going until your dough is smooth and silky which may take a long time (10m). If you get tired you can also leave the dough for a while (10-15m) and let it relax a little. When you leave the bread you are allowing the gluten strands to relax and the flour to overall hydrate. This is generally a good idea for good dough formation.
If I want dough fast and don't mind cleaning up the food processor this is a good method. Add all of your dry ingredients and pulse a little until mixed. Then drizzle in any wet ingredients with the processor on a low setting until come together. After that I let it go for a bit until it starts to pull away from the bottom and the blades. After that I will turn it onto my work surface and hand knead for a few minutes just to make sure it's completely kneaded.
Slap and fold / Stretch and fold
This is a method I have not tried but am interested in doing so it is usually used for higher hydration doughs (video)
I have already talked about the leavening agents used but for yeasted breads the number one thing that I have learnt is that slower is better. Many beginner recipes will ask for a one or two hour room temperature rise however if you knead your dough and put it straight into the fridge overnight you will have a much tastier loaf. Why? Because the yeast slows down and helps to ferment giving a much nicer 'real bread' taste.
Yeast acts not only to create bubbles (CO2) in the bread but also to break apart large molecules creating CO2 and alcohol (In fact this is the same chemical process). Yeast also helps to create a stronger gluten network.
Once risen overnight I will form the bread (I'm still learning about this so I can't write too much!) and let it rise again for around 30-40m until I deem is about the right size. After that I may slash it, this is for an even 'spring' in the oven. Oven spring is the amount the bread rises once in the bread just before the crust hardens. This is due to the gas in the bread heating up and expanding.
One of my favourite breads to make is the flatbread. At this point I have gotten the dough down to feel but if I were to give a recipe it would be around 200g flour 65% water 2% salt and a packet of 7g of yeast (a bit much for this much flour but it's easier to buy in packets for me). Knead until smooth and then fridge over night. Once out stretch fairly thin but not too thin (~7mm) and cook in a dry cast iron skillet. Once cooked place and wrap in a tea towel and leave to 'steam' for a few minuites before serving for the best results.
This is a nice bread to have with curries or daals. But it can work with anything (I have had an 'egg sandwich' with them that was amazing).
Whilst I am still experimenting with this white bread is the easiest to make for the UK home cook. You only need white bread flour available basically everywhere salt, yeast, and water.
Most white breads are at around 60-65% hydration, and will typically have around 2-5% salt and 1-2% yeast (dry).
The set up I use for baking these oven breads is to put my two cast iron skillets into the oven and turn it to the highest setting for 30-60m to preheat. Then turn the oven down to the desired temperature for the bread and place the dough on the bottom cast iron. The heat will make a nice bottom crust whilst the top cast iron will allow for more even distribution of heat over the oven. Typically I bake loaves for 40-50m. I find that also putting a little water in the top skillet to evaporate helps with the oven spring.