I am sure I am not alone in thinking that the smell of baking bread is one of the most wonderful smells in the world. The taste of warm, fresh baked bread, too, is so much better than that of bought bread. The wonderful thing is that anyone can get that fresh baked taste at home. Baking your own bread is far easier than you might imagine. Refining the process and developing the perfect loaf can take time – but you can have a lot of fun along the way.
Baking Bread: The Basics
If you have never baked bread before then you may think the whole thing seems a little daunting. But bread is actually quite a simple thing. A basic yeast bread is simply flour, water and yeast. As you get more familiar with baking bread you will realize that adding other ingredients will improve the quality of your loaves but if you start with a good understanding of the basic ingredients and how to combine them, that will help you in your pursuit of the perfect loaf.
It is a simple fact that the better the flour you use, the better the bread you will be able to create. A strong white bread flour is the easiest type of flour to begin with, though wholemeal flours and other specialty flours can create healthier and more interesting loaves. An organic flour is healthier and kinder on the environment. If using a wholemeal flour, beginners are advised to make loaves of 2/3 wholemeal, 1/3 white flour to make it easier to get a good rise on the bread.
A wheat flour with high gluten levels will be the easiest flour for novice bread bakers to use, though of course there are other options for those with a gluten intolerance. Gluten is the mix of proteins found in wheat and related grains. It is the gluten that holds the structure together and is what will give bread dough its stretch and elasticity (and allows the bread to rise).
Yeast is a tiny micro-organism. When added to bread dough, baker's yeast converts sugars in the dough and turns them into carbon dioxide and ethanol. To bake good bread, you need to understand that yeast is a living thing and needs certain conditions in which to thrive for long enough to give a good rise to a loaf.
Various types of yeast are available to the home baker. The most commonly available to home bakers are active dry yeast (this stores well but must be re-hydrated with the addition of warm water before use) or instant yeast, which can often be added directly to a bread recipe. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for when it comes to yeast.
In the most basic of breads, the flour, water and yeast are combined to make a soft, stretchy dough. This dough is then kneaded by hand (stretched, folded and pressed). This forms the dough into a uniform mixture and strengthens the gluten strands that give yeast bread its light and open structure.
To improve your bread baking, getting things right at the kneading stage is key. Manipulate the dough on a lightly floured surface until the lumpy mass has become smooth and slightly tacky to the touch. Properly kneading dough can actually be pretty good exercise – you should really go for it. Think of it as a chance to take out all your aggression and frustration on the dough! You should not stop kneading until you can stretch a small piece of the dough to paper thickness and can see the light shining through it like a window.
After kneading, you should leave the bread to prove (rise). Bread baking is easy but there are no shortcuts and the best breads usually take time. There are lots of variables in determining how long to leave your dough to prove so you may need to experiment with different suggestions to see what works best for you. Personally, I usually leave my basic yeast breads to prove for around 1 hour in a fairly warm spot before knocking back (kneading a little), shaping and baking. Some people advocate a slower, colder prove though I personally have not seen much benefit to this.
Another important element to baking good, basic bread is shaping the bread. To put bread dough in a normal loaf tin, it is best not to just lump it in. I have found that I get a better rise and better end result when I flatten the dough into a rectangle and fold it up, placing the join on the bottom of the tin.
Finally, there is the bake itself. The temperature of baking is key to a successful bread. Bake basic loaves at around 400 to 425 degrees. Keep the oven hot and do not check on your bread too soon. Different recipes will require different temperatures and of course the time taken will depend on the size and shape of the loaf. Normally, bread will bake in between 25 and 45 minutes.
Additions To Improve Yeast Breads
Once you have understood the basics of kneading, proving and shaping, you are ready to consider improving your breads with a number of basic additions. Most simple of all the additions are salt and sugar. The salt is largely just for taste, the sugar (a little, not too much) will help the yeast to do its job. Salt will retard yeast. Add salt at the side of your bowl and make a hole in the middle to add the yeast. Then mix both throughout the dough. If the yeast immediately comes into contact with yeast, it can die and the bread will not rise effectively. The yeast can work on the sugars present in the flour but a small amount of sugar can make yeast more effective. For health conscious bakers, honey can be a good alternative.
Fats and oils can enrich bread and improve the texture and taste. Too many, however, can also retard the yeast. A dash of olive oil or a small knob of butter can help you create a better basic bread.
Nuts, seeds, whole grains and dried fruits can also all be added to basic yeast breads to improve the taste and boost the health benefits.
Getting A Crisp Crust
One final tip. If you love a crisp crust on your bread, when you put your bread into the oven, place a tray of water into the base of the oven at the same time. Steam in the oven helps to create a crisper crust.
Experiment, take your time and you will find your own way to your own perfect loaf.