I am not going to go through any step-by-step methods here; there are some great books out there that explain how to get started, but I thought I would address some of the things I commonly get asked:
- Make your doughs wet, as most people make the dough far too dry. Don’t be scared, if it sticks to your hands, who cares? Just oil or flour your hands and persevere.
- Try using a mix of strong white bread flour and good quality plain flour to achieve a chewier, more artisan texture. Strong white flour will tend to produce a more English sandwich loaf, which you may not always want.
- When moulding, be gentle! Most doughs should only need the gentlest of rolling to achieve a nice shape.
- Turn up your oven to its highest setting. You need a really hot oven for most breads (turn it down for sweeter breads, though, or your crust will get too dark). Lots of books will tell you to pre-heat a baking stone/pizza stone, and bake your bread on that. I find that your un-cooked dough takes a lot of heat out of a hot baking stone, and it never really recovers during the bake, so using one doesn’t give you the oven spring you want, and the bottom can go a bit soggy. Maybe my pizza stone just doesn’t like me! I prefer a preheated metal tray, or just plonk your moulded dough on a cold metal tray and bung it in; it will heat up fast.
In our commercial ovens we use steam to aid oven spring (the last stage of rising, occurring in the oven) and create a nice splintering crust, but it is not essential, and it’s difficult to re-create this in a home oven. You can try pouring water in the oven or having a tray of hot steaming water in the bottom, but I find this can cool the oven down too much, and you certainly don’t want to be opening and closing the door, because then you really won’t get any oven spring!
A word on making a sourdough culture at home
Yes, sourdoughs do stink! Sorry, I know a healthy sourdough bubbling away in the back of the kitchen can make the room smell like you are an alcoholic, but that is exactly what is it producing! Don’t be scared of sourdoughs; some books make it seem awfully complicated, but once you have a good culture, it’s pretty hard to kill. Just have fun with it.
People ring me up all the time asking how to start a sourdough culture, and how to keep it going, and I get some brilliant stories of starters with potatoes and all sorts stuffed in the pot!
The simple truth is that all you need to grow a sourdough culture is flour and water. The yeast cells in the air and on the grains of flour will colonise your mixture, and after around two weeks of throwing away a little every day and replenishing the paste with more flour and water, you should have a lovely bubbly mixture which will rise your bread. Adding grapes or raisins to your initial mixture will speed up the process, but is not necessary. Mixing by hand as opposed to using a spoon will also help to hasten the sourdough’s development. Good luck!
Bread is very trendy right now, and you only have to turn on the telly for five minutes to find a bread recipe these days! There are lots of baking blogs, which can be inspiring and helpful, and of course, loads and loads of baking books. This is all fantastic, but it can be horrendously confusing.
Everyone is promoting a slightly different method, and using slightly different terminology, and it’s easy to get lost in all of that. I think the best thing to do is develop your own method of mixing and fermenting a dough after finding a recipe you like, building your confidence by regularly repeating the same recipe, and then adapting your recipe as you pilfer through other people’s ideas, creating new flavour combinations!
For starting out, have a look in your existing cook books. Most modern cook books seem to have a chapter on bread. Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Delia Smith and Tamasin Day-Lewis have all included bread recipes, which are simple and work.
Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters is a good comprehensive book for English style breads. Half the book is devoted to denouncing modern commercial bread, and is a bit evangelical even for me! However, it is strong on traditional recipes like muffins and hot cross buns, and also has a great gluten-free chapter.
Dan Lepard’s Handmade loaf is beautifully photographed and inspiring, but probably more of a coffee table book than a practical manual. Dan’s website www.danlepard.com is excellent and gives a good summary of the best bakeries in this country and in France.
Dough, by Richard Bertinet, has some beautiful pictures, and great ideas for moulding and presentation, but is not really an all encompassing source-book, more an interesting extra!
The most useful bread book I have found is Jeffrey Hamelman’s book Bread, which answers everything you would ever want to know about French style baking. It is a bit serious for the casual home baker though – perhaps best reserved for the very serious enthusiast!
If you really get the baking bug, Tom Jaine provides detailed instructions on how to build your own oven in your garden in Building a wood fired oven.
Good luck and happy eating!