The Good White Loaf – How to make Homemade Bread
Bread is made from just a few simple ingredients: flour, salt, water and yeast. Optional additives such as fats, seeds and fruits as well as variants of the basic ingredients and methodology can result in bread of different shapes, colours, flavours and textures.
White flour is probably the trickiest of the ingredients but if you know what it contains and what it doesn’t then I feel you can use it with educated discretion. Traditional stone-ground flour contains all parts of the original grains of wheat: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Literally pulverised with stone wheels at room temperature this type of flour contains all the natural fibre, vitamins, proteins, anti-oxidants and other goodies that the body needs to stay healthy. It can also be coarse and has a relatively short shelf-life, which is one of the issues that led to the invention of modern white flour.
These days wheat is generally processed in industrial roller-machines at high temperatures with the resulting flour then being bleached and sifted of all germ and bran. Because of this, the flour can be nutritionally deficient and is often supplemented with vitamin additives. I’d say that this is especially the case in the USA, where supplementing flour has been written into law, but a simple look on the back of your bags of flour will let you know what it contains, either in the ingredients section or the nutritional values listings.
Modern conventional roller milling and traditional stone milling
Types of flour are also determined by the type of wheat it’s made from as well as its colour. ‘Soft’ wheat types are lower in gluten and higher in starch which make it ideal for multipurpose flour but very poor for making bread. ‘Hard’ wheats are naturally high in gluten and thus better for bread-making because gluten is what enables bread to rise. Wheat also comes in three main colours, red, white and amber, which will help give flour (and bread) its colour if left unbleached. Considering this, it is possible to use a stone-ground ‘Hard’ and ‘White’ (HWW) variety of wheat to make white bread flour.
Another flour factor to consider is buying local or imported. I live on an island that fiercely supports local food and we have the benefit a local mill and bakery which uses only Manx-grown wheat. But though it pains me to say so, the flavour of this flour leaves much to be desired and you can see from images on their website that they use conventional machinery to create their product. What I’ve been doing now is using the local flour in my bread but substituting 50% of the flour called for with a strong Canadian flour. Life is all about compromise!
The other ingredients of water, salt and yeast also have varieties that impact greatly on your bread as well. Spring water as opposed to tap water, sea salt as opposed to table salt and fresh and/or wild yeast as opposed to dry and commercial yeast. So many factors to consider and plenty of room to experiment and find the right balance for yourself.
Makes two loaves
1000g Strong White Flour
600ml lukewarm Water
20g Sea Salt
10g dried Yeast
1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive oil
1. Measure all of your dry ingredients into a large bowl, ceramic if you’ve got one, and stir until well incorporated.
2. Pour in the water and oil and mix with a spoon and/or your hand until all the ingredients form a sticky dough. Then turn it out onto an un-floured work surface and begin kneading. The surface is unfloured because though the dough is sticky, it’s picked back up by your main mass of dough as you knead it. And too much extra flour in your dough will make your bread stodgy in any case. Kneading is all about stretching the glutens of the flour until they become satiny and elastic. Once this is understood then I think it’s apparent that the kneading style seen on television and movies is not the easiest, most efficient or even quickest way to get the job done. A good video which shows kneading among other great bread making tips and instruction is given by River Cottage on Youtube at this link. The few advertisements at the beginning are annoying but the video is great and shows how to make a round loaf if you’d prefer that style. Also, while you’re kneading fill your ceramic bowl up with hot water and let it stand. The idea is that the warmth will be absorbed by the bowl and help the yeast to get a jump-start on life when the dough is put back inside.
Kneading the dough
3. After your dough has been kneaded you’ll notice that it displays an even and satiny elasticity. It takes about 10 minutes to achieve and will make sure that your bread will rise properly – improper kneading will result in a dense and possibly unpalatable loaf. So once properly kneaded, form the dough into a ball and place it into the now empty ceramic bowl, which has been lightly greased with about a teaspoon of olive oil. Drizzle a bit of oil onto the dough as well and make sure to rub it into its entire surface. This oil helps to keep the moisture inside the dough and prevents it from drying up. Place a damp towel over the bowl and put it in a warm place to rise. Rising shows that the yeast are alive and producing gases and the dough should double in size before the next step – it will take about an hour.
Oiling the dough
Dough rising to double its size
4. Once the dough has risen, take it out of the bowl and punch it down flat with your fingertips, form it back into a ball again and put it back into the bowl. Allow it to rise again to the same size, then again take it out and punch it down until you have all the air bubbles out.
Punching down the dough
5. Now cut the flattened dough down the middle – the two pieces will become separate loaves. Select one and place it on a lightly floured surface and roll it up tightly like you would a swiss roll and pinch the seams in so it doesn’t fall apart.
Cutting and rolling up the dough
6. Using your fingertips, press the roll down until it’s fairly flat. Then fold one end to the middle of the dough and then fold the other end up and over as well. Now press it all down flat again. The point of all this rolling and pressing is to create structure for an unsupported loaf to rise and take a final shape. Without it, your result will be a bread puddle.
Flatten the roll with your fingertips
Folding and flattening the dough
7. Take one long side and roll it tightly towards the other long end. Pinch in the seam and tuck in the sides then rub flour all over the loaf and set it on a floured board. Repeat the process with the second piece of dough.
Two formed and floured loaves
8. These formed loaves still need to rise one last time, which is called proving, so put them into a warm part of the house and cover with a large plastic bag to keep them from drying out. It’s now that you want to pre-heat your oven and the surface/pan you plan on baking on to the highest setting possible – my fan conducted oven goes to 250°C. You should also place a dripping pan or even a cake pan at the bottom of your oven at this time.
Proving the loaves in a bag
9. Proving will take at least half an hour and possibly another full hour depending on how warm the dough is. When you feel the dough has nearly doubled in size again it’s ready to be baked. But before you start moving the dough, make sure get some water in the kettle going because you’re going to need one cup of boiling water at the exact time you put the bread into the oven.
10. Once the kettle is sorted, take the pre-heated pan out of the oven and gently move your loaves to it. Take a sharp knife and score the tops of the loaves around a centimeter deep. Scoring not only looks nice but allows the bread to rise even higher once it’s in the oven.
Scoring the loaves
11. Now pour your water into the pan you’ve placed at the bottom of the oven and move quickly to put the loaves into the oven just afterwards. Close the oven up and allow the bread to bake at this temperature for ten minutes. The steam from the water helps to create a moist environment for the last rise the bread makes before the crust hardens.
12. After ten minutes, turn the oven down to 180°C Fan (160°C Conventional oven) and allow the bread to bake for 35 more minutes. When you take it out, the bread will be golden brown and look similar to the image below. Try to let it cool before cutting it but if you can’t resist, tuck in and enjoy a piece of it warm – I know I do 😉
The finished loaves