Why baking bread isn’t rocket science…

Do cookery writers have some vested interest in making bread baking sound like rocket science? Hang on a minute, I suppose they do! ‘Bread making is an exact science’, ‘water must be weighed rather than measured to ensure accurate quantities’…? Anyone wondering how they’ve ever managed to turn out a half decent loaf?

There are several myths surrounding how to bake bread that are very likely to deter the majority of people from going within a foot of a bag of flour and some yeast! Below, I will try to reassure you that bread-making is not as precise and difficult as we are sometimes led to believe…

Weigh your Water?

– I don’t think so! Of course, there are quantities that it is prudent to stick to; but any recipe worth its salt will advise that different brands of flour absorb water differently, and so often it is better to go by the following simple rule: whilst combining your dry ingredients with water (mixing with one hand and pouring with the other), generally you have added enough when the dough begins picking up flour from the sides of the bowl, leaving it looking clean. Also, wetter dough is considered preferable to a dough which is too dry, so that little drop extra shouldn’t mean the death knell for your loaf! Just keep kneading it past that sticky phase (if you aren’t used to making bread this requires some faith and perseverance to begin with – but it will happen eventually!) and you should end up with a light and silky dough.

Dough in the Airing Cupboard?

-Not anymore! Recipes of old would suggest rising and proving dough in a warm, draft free airing cupboard (or similar). However, whilst it is true that a draft is the enemy of your dough, keeping it in the airing cupboard is no longer required in this day and age; when homes are generally well heated and insulated all the year round. A warm kitchen is absolutely fine for rising and proving your dough.

Over-kneaded?

If you are kneading your dough by hand over-kneading is nigh on impossible! If you’re using a mixer with dough-hook, you need to be a bit more careful! Check every few minutes and if your dough begins to feel dense it may be time to stop mixing! Generally, once your dough begins to become elastic; form a kind of cohesive skin on the outside; when it wants to come together in a ball rather than sticking to the surface, it’s ready to prove. The other test for how well you’ve developed the gluten in your dough (this being the main purpose of kneading), is the ‘gluten window’ test. Using two hands, pull the edges of your dough out leaving the majority to hang down. If the dough stretches far and thinly enough so that you can see light shining through (the ‘gluten window’) then the gluten is well developed. However, if it tears before the light can be seen through it, it needs more kneading!

To me, the art of baking your own bread is actually very forgiving. Adding a little bit of this and a touch of that often pays off and even if you end up with a disastrous loaf at the end, you will invariably know the reason why and adapt your recipe for next time… And what if you don’t? Well, then there’s an army of knowledgeable bloggers on hand to answer your every baking conundrum!

The Yeasty Thing

Let me introduce you to…The Yeasty Thing…

The latest sourdough starter to come out of Charlton!

The latest sourdough starter to come out of Charlton!

Yes baking fans, you guessed it, this is my latest sourdough starter, bubbling away vigorously in its garish Sainsbury’s picnic jug!

The thing I love about making a sourdough starter is the fact that every single one is unique. The bread I bake from this one will be different from the bloke’s down the road, from those I’ve made from other starters, even from the loaf I baked from it yesterday! The character of a starter is down to the airborne yeast spores that happened to be merrily floating by on the day I started it, coupled with how long it’s been fermenting away – and I love that about it!

While preparing my starter and growing it ready for the first bake, I like to pretend that I am a scientist, working methodically and observing closely as I go. However, the reality of growing a starter are not quite as precise. All it takes is a bit of strong white flour (this must be organic, I’m told, otherwise the yeasties will steer clear!); roughly 100g, and some warm water. Mix this to a thick paste (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, henceforth HFW for obvious reasons, suggests it should resemble the consistency of ‘thick paint’) and leave in an airtight-ish container (like my trusty picnic jug) until you see little bubbles forming on the surface. This seems to happen for me in a matter of hours, but apparently it can take up to 3 days! So some patience may be required!

I have read some instructions for building sourdough starters, which prescribe adding all manner of grated fruit to this simple flour and water mix in order to encourage the yeast to settle and grow. I have never tried this and see it as totally unnecessary; especially since you are often advised to remove said fruit once the yeast has got going – err, no thanks!

Whisk the flour and water together, to create lots of aeration, and wait for the magic to happen! When the bubbles appear, it’s time to feed your new pet. Actually, this is why mine is now known, in our household, as ‘The Yeasty Thing’; because my two year-old likes to sniff it each morning and watch me ‘feeding it’ as if it’s a new addition to the family! I rather like this way of thinking about it, and it is conducive to me remembering to feed it every day rather than leaving it languish and turn into, well, a floury bloody mess!

Yes, that is everyday – as in, every 24 hours you must feed your starter another 100g of organic strong white flour and mix in enough water (it can be cool water straight from the tap from hereon in) so as to bring it back to that thick paint consistency. You will start to see your starter bubbling up with delight each time you feed it and then over night it will begin to fall back frothily in anticipation of its next meal.

Once you have lovingly repeated this routine for at least 7 days you’re ready to bake!

Look out for future posts with more juicy sourdough deets!