RECIPE: Basic bread [v]

You get a lot of this ↑ kind of sourdough geekery in post-GBBO Britain. I get it, I partake of it, bread baking and beard stroking go hand in hand (maybe not during COVID) and I’m sure Herd Gatronomy will have its fair share of bread recipes for those who know their levain from their lame grignette. How could anyone not be in awe of these crafty master bakers who elevate flour, water, yeast and salt to something so sublime through skill, patience, practice and attention to detail? It’s art. But for every fermentation obsessed artisan there is surely someone else who’s a little intimidated, who can’t really be arsed because it all seems like too much faff and you can buy really good bread at the shops and, who has the time anyway? This recipe is for them.

Because now, getting bread from the shops is actually less straightforward than just making it from the comfort of your own lockdown. And we all have loads of time to kill. And bread only needs 4 ingredients and you only use a few pence worth of ingredients and it’s actually really hard to get wrong. If you’re a seasoned baker striving to hone the perfect loaf, definitely check out the sourdough recipes elsewhere on HG, but if baking isn’t usually your thing but we’re in lockdown so you want a few guidelines to make perfectly passable bread at home without needing any fancy equipment or ingredients – or even really needing to get the scales out, read on.

Just remember, flour/water ratio, amount of yeast/salt, ambient temperature, proofing time, shaping method and baking temperature are all variables that when changed will alter the final loaf a fair bit. Which is why most home bakers eventually start caring more and more about the small details. I’m a bit of a wierdo in that I don’t tend to stick to a precise recipe and I quite like that the loaves turn out a bit different each time, but that’s just me. I’ve got to the stage where they are almost always edible. So, in celebration of charming imperfection, we’re going for a basic and flexible bread recipe that’s pretty hard to mess up as long as you stick to a few golden rules.

Makes one loaf
Flour (ideally strong white bread flour, can be plain / all purpose, can by all means have some wholemeal flour added, or some nice seeds, but should be at least 50% white flour because it just seems to make the whole dough that bit more manageable and failsafe).
Yeast (we’re keeping it simple with a single sachet of instant dried yeast, this is a fine about for anything between 500g and 1kg of flour)
Water (must be dew collected from a south facing meadow at dawn, only kidding, tap)
Sugar (optional, but they say it helps potentialise the yeast and achieve a browner crust, we’re not making sweet bread though so don’t overdo it. A similar amount of sugar to the amount of salt is good)

Step 1: Mix your dough. Basically add everything except the salt together. But what about amounts? Oh yeah amounts. So a whole kilo of flour would make a loaf that’s a bit too big. Half a kilo makes quite a small loaf but we’ll go with that for now. The flour I buy comes in kilo bags, so about half a bag as I can’t find my kitchen scales. Water is calculated as a percentage of the flour, 60% water to 100% flour is a pretty good starting point. So for this loaf that’s going to be about 300g or if you prefer 300ml of water. As you get an idea of the pros and cons of drier/wetter dough you’ll be able tweak your own recipe accordingly. Slightly too dry or too wet won’t ruin it. I pour water in sparingly and mix until it’s the desired consistency, you get a sense for what +/- 60% hydration looks and feels like. Not stiff like pastry, and not runny like cake mix. Pillowy like Pillsbury. Don’t forget to also add the sachet of yeast and incorporate it all really well (with your hands or a wooden spoon until there are no lumps).

Step 2: Rest for about 15 mins. Simply leave your dough in the bowl for a bit. The flour particles in your dough are gradually absorbing water and the yeast is waking up and very gradually starting to make your dough rise. Maybe cover it with a tea towel otherwise the dry air can give your dough a crusty outer layer, not the end of the world if you don’t though.

Step 3: Add salt. We add salt after the rest stage because it can interfere with how well the yeast works. I would say add salt to taste but this is probably too vague. A common rule of thumb is 2% of the flour amount. So that would be 10g for this loaf, so start with a level teaspoon of salt and take it from there. Imagine it was a big bowl of mashed potato that you were about to serve to guests, but slightly undersalt it because water will evaporate and the flavour will intensify in the oven.

Step 4. Knead. Now from this point on it becomes very tempting to add a load of extra flour because sticky dough can be tricky (possibly even icky) to manipulate by hand, I’m not saying adding flour will ruin your loaf, it won’t, and everybody does their kneading on a lightly floured surface anyway, but try to keep extra flour to a minimum because every time you add a handful you’re moving further away from that optimum 60% hydration. Don’t overthink kneading, there is no right or wrong technique unless you’ve reached the point in your breadmaking where you’re tweaking the minor details in the quest for marginal gains. Find your own way to stretch your ball of dough, fold it in half, squash it down, and stretch again. Just repeat this until it becomes a smooth and silky ball. If you’re lucky all the annoying dough stuck to your hands and wrists will make its way back into the doughball as you knead (a bit of olive oil on the hands can help with this), again, no mountains out of molehills, worst case you just have to wash your hands after kneading. Some say the more kneading the better, some say be careful you don’t overwork the dough, some say the best bread is made with no kneading at all, long resting periods have a similar effect to kneading anyway so it’s not a dealbreaker, just enjoy getting hands on with your dough for about 10 – 15 mins and then leave it shaped into a nice ball.

Step 5: First rise. Wash, dry and lightly oil the bowl where you mixed the dough and transfer your doughball from the kneading surface back into the clean bowl. Dust lightly with flour, cover with a tea towel and forget about it for a bit (about an hour depending on ambient temperature, humidity etc). The next step happens once the dough has inflated to almost double what it was.

Step 6: Knock back. Uncover your partially risen dough and do a couple of easygoing stretch and folds. You’re not trying to press all the bubbles out of it, just give it a nice stretch and fold and it’ll naturally collapse back to a size not far off what it was at the start. Now you need to gently roll it into a tight ball and put it back into the oiled bowl or any other container that will act as a mould to give the loaf a nice shape (remember any bowl needs to be big enough that the dough can expand to at least double the original size).

Step 7: Second rise. This is the all important stage where the loaf expands enough to go into the oven. You won’t really touch it again after this except to score it and put it in the oven. Patience is a virtue here, it might take one or two hours for the dough to be ready to bake. Not waiting long enough at this stage is probably the main cause of disappointing loaves. I’ve been known to take a “before” photo of the knocked-back doughball so I can compare sizes with the “after” and only bake once I’m sure it’s risen to at least twice the size it was. Also at this stage you should preheat a cast iron casserole dish / Dutch oven (with lid) on the middle shelf of your oven and put it on full blast. If you don’t have a Dutch oven just use a baking tray or pizza stone, but the Dutch oven method keeps the moisture in really nicely.

Step 8: Score and Steam. After your dough is fully risen. Ideally with some semi-translucent bubbles at least starting to puff out from the surface. Gently flip the dough from the bowl onto a floured surface so the bit that was at the bottom of the bowl is now the face-up dome. Take your sharpest knife and score the loaf any way you like (I’m sure you’ve seen enough photos of nicely scored loaves by now). Scoring helps it to spring up in the hot oven. After you score the loaf it should rest for a few more minutes. This gives you time to do two things: turn the oven down to 200°C and chuck in a decent splash of water to get it steamed up.

Step 9: A tricky bit. With oven gloves on, take the Dutch oven out and remove the lid. Carefully but as swiftly as possible place your loaf into the Dutch oven and put the lid back on, put it back in the oven and shut the door. Obviously if you are using a tray or pizza stone just place the loaf onto it and shut the door ASAP.

Step 10: Bake (do not open oven door for 30 mins). The hard part is done, it’s time to just let the heat and the yeast and the bubbles and the steam do their oven-spring thing without any interfering. After 30 mins you should be OK to check without affecting the spring. It might be done, it might need 5 to 10 mins extra. Some people take the lid off the Dutch oven for the final blast and add extra water to the oven at this stage for steam, I personally don’t as I’m worried I might get a dry outer layer, but I admit the extra dark crust is appealing. This really depends on the foibles of each person’s oven. You don’t need to worry if it’ll be cooked inside, the half hour at 200°C ensures that. From this point it’s just about the darkness of crust you want. Once you’re happy with the colour remove the loaf from the oven and let it cool completely on a rack. A good sign is if you can hear it quietly crackling as it begins to cool.

This recipe is designed to he pretty accessible and as failsafe as possible, the objective being to be take something out of the oven that could objectively be described as bread. Now as you enjoy a slice of buttery breakfast toast made with your own hand-baked loaf you will undoubtedly meditate on what aspects of the method you will need to tweak for next time. And lo and behold you are part of the bread geek herd.

If you want your loaves to be even tastier, and you are prepared to really take your time over it, and you want to have a kind of home-made yeast Tamagotchi living in the fridge. Get into sourdough! Here is the definitive starter: Herd Gastronomy’s #StayHome Sourdough Starter