Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 30 June 2016

An Adventure in Bread Baking

Getting off the EU Referendum topic for today. I'm sure you're all a little tired of my thought-wonderings on that subject.

If we need anything, we need bread. It’s been around for thousands of years, and all cultures bake some kind of bread. I’ve never met a bread I didn’t like.

I’ve been making bread, on and off, for all of my adult life. Every so often I lapse, and I buy bread, good bread. It’s never quite the same as baking my own though.

Cheap bread is dull, depressing and not nearly nutritious enough.

I like to watch documentaries, so I watched Cooked recently, on Netflix. I can highly recommend it, and it’s what got me serious about my own bread baking again.

I’ve always used commercial yeast to bake my own bread, but this program gave me an epiphany, and I decided that I was going to grow my own yeast in the form of a sourdough starter or barm.

There are a lot of starter recipes out there, and some of them are quite complicated to make, and to keep alive. Spurred on by my epiphany, I decided to go for the very simplest starter recipe. It consists of equal parts, by weight, of flour and water. 

The resulting starter works, and it’s resilient.

Using the same basic principles, I began to make bread from the simplest recipe I could find. There are three basic ingredients: my starter, flour and water. The only other things that go into the bread are a little salt and sugar.

Try reading the ingredients in a bought loaf of bread; there could be as many as three dozen of them.

I didn’t expect much from my first loaf of bread. I was new at this kind of bread baking, and so much can go wrong.

Nothing much went wrong.

The most important thing was that the flavour was great, from loaf one. OK, so my first loaves were a little dense, but the crust was there and I hadn’t tasted a better loaf of bread in a while, including my own homemade loaves.

I was a convert.

Of course, I had to work on the texture.

I tend to the methodical, so, to begin with, I followed the same simple bread recipe and began to alter only proofing times. The texture of my loaves improved a little, depending on proofing times, but the results weren’t consistent. It would appear that atmospherics, including heat and dampness (yes, my bread did less well in wet weather) were having an effect. 

I optimised proofing as much as I could, and then moved on to kneading techniques. I’m a kneader, I have the strength and the patience for kneading. I like it; it’s a soothing activity. Kneading more didn’t have the desired effect. Putting the dough hook on the mixer and kneading mechanically didn’t improve results either.

I had read a little about bread baking by this point, so I changed tack. I started to leave the dough alone, resting and stretching it. It went against the grain to begin with, I’d been kneading, and kneading well, for years, with good results on the breads I’d made with commercial yeasts. I persisted with the resting and stretching method, unconvinced.

The texture of my loaves began to improve.

I thought I’d optimised my proofing times and conditions, but, having made the dough late in the day one day, I was left with no option but to refrigerate the dough overnight to bake it in the morning.

This accident, and I do love a happy accident, was a turning point. Finally, the texture of my loaves was getting closer to what I wanted it to be.
After the accident,
but before I adjusted baking temps and times

But, one final adjustment was still open to me. With the kneading and proofing pretty well sorted out, I could still choose how exactly to bake my bread.

As I may have mentioned, I’d done some reading on the subject of baking bread from starters, and cooking times and temperatures varied wildly, depending on who was writing about bread.

Initially, I followed the consensus, and baked my bread fairly hot and fairly fast. The texture wasn't bad, the crust was nice, and, most importantly the flavour was very good. My loaves were a little darker than I wanted them to be to look as appetising as possible, though. So, I played with oven temperatures and baking times, and began splitting the bake. Hot and fast to begin with and then cooler and longer for the remainder of the bake.

I made my starter three or four months ago, and it’s still going strong… There’s nothing quite like the smell of a good bread starter. I started making bread with my starter when it was about ten days old, and I’ve been making it regularly ever since.

I haven’t made a loaf that didn’t taste good or couldn’t be eaten for any reason.

In the past week, I’ve begun to make bread that I’m happy with on all fronts. Although, I do plan to keep working on it until it's as good as it could possibly be.

It’s a wonderful thing to do. Everyone should be able to proudly proclaim I made that once in a while. We all eat bread, we all have access to flour and water, and, with a little patience, baking bread is a very straightforward process.

100g organic bread flour - I’ve got two starters underway, one made with white flour and one made with rye flour. Both are good.
100g distilled, luke warm water - I pour off excess water from the kettle and allow it to cool. It’s perfectly possible to use ordinary tap water, but I intend to keep my starters indefinitely and don’t want fluoride, chlorine and other added chemicals in my mix.

Mix the ingredients in a jar and leave on the kitchen counter, loosely covered. Then, keep an eye on the starter. In anything from two hours to two days, the yeast will grow in the mixture, releasing bubbles and swelling the mixture.

Add more flour and water every day or every other day for at least five days (or ten days). You might find you have an excess of starter. Divide it and dispose of half of it, or pass it on to another baker, and keep feeding with flour and water. After a week or so, the starter should be ready to bake with. This makes quite a thin mixture, like a batter, and it smells lovely; it’s a kind of beery smell. I refrigerate my starter on days when I’m not baking, and feed it on days when I am.

500g organic bread flour. I use white or a mixture with wholemeal, rye or spelt.
300g my starter
250g water
2 tsps salt
2 stsps sugar

Put all of the ingredients in a glass bowl and mix well until the dough forms a ball. I do this with a large, silicon spatular. Cover with a damp cloth and leave for half an hour. Mix the dough every half hour, using the spatula to stretch and fold the dough.

This doesn’t appear to be critical. Sometimes, by necessity, the dough sits for an hour before I manage to get back to it. Repeat this process up to half a dozen times. Then, divide the dough and form into loaves. I use bread baskets lined with cotton and floured to proof my loaves, but you could simply leave the dough in bowls. The bottom of the loaf should be facing up.

Refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, take out of the fridge and bring back to room temperature for two or three hours (less in hot weather).

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees C and leave your baking sheet or baking stone in the oven to come up to temperature. Turn the loaves onto the baking sheet/stone and slash the tops of the loaves. Place a bain marie in the bottom of the oven. 

Cook for 20 mins. Turn the oven down to 180 degrees C and cook for a further 40 minutes.

I’m going to experiment more with this style of bread baking, but this is what works for me, right now, as a beginner.

Have a go. I can’t believe I’ll ever fall out of love with this process.

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