Back in the early days of the year - the short, dark, oh-where-is-the-sun days of winter, I decided to tackle my fear of bread.
Please understand: I am not afraid of bread itself. I eat it often and quite happily! But I have been afraid to take on the making of it with mine own hands. Yeast seemed far too delicate a thing for me, for truly, if something is dependent on me to carefully and tenderly nurture it to fullness of life, it will instead find itself withering. Just ask the many...lo these many and more... houseplants that were taken out to the curb in kitchen bin liners. Plus there is the kneading which seemed a complicated process, and also that none of the pizza dough I'd attempted had ever turned out really well. So, from bread I have remained at a respectful distance.
Have you noticed how many tutorials there are on YouTube? (I have more to say on these tutorials, gentle reader, but shall refrain for today) And also the books written about bread must rival the stars for their number. Here is what I have learned: there are as many theories, guaranteed methods, and thou-must-nots as there are people sharing their wisdom on the making of bread. Some of them were very mathematical (baker's ratio?) which was daunting and intimidating for my brain. (My brain used to stick its fingers in its ears and sing, "la la la la" during math class in school.) There is such conflicting advice as well: work it vigorously; no, don't touch it at all! Start with the dry ingredients; no, always the wet! Count every grain of yeast; meh... just eyeball it, bread is forgiving. No! Bread is very, very particular!
The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens. It explains the steps very clearly, and also what is happening along the way, which is helpful when you need reassurance that all is well. Stevens begins with the dry yeast process, and then tackles sourdough (made from a starter for which you 'catch' wild yeast. Imagine!) He includes a few non-yeast recipes, ideas for how to use old bread, and even how to build a clay bread oven - a project for the summer, perhaps?
I have found his recipes to be clear and understandable. Not inconsiderably, I also find the book pleasing to use due to its size and shape and the fact that it stays open to the page I want.
I've been measuring what I hear and read from other sources about bread against what I've learned from River Cottage. I've come across books that offer one recipe for a starter/biga/poolish but none of the breads are made using that recipe. Other authors go on about how it's done in their professional bakery - which, frankly, does me no good whatsoever, being as I don't have a massive floor mixer, a wheel-in chiller, or super-high heat steam ovens.
So far, 14 loaves of bread have come to life in my kitchen. The first two were rather dense, loaves 9 and 10 were very nearly perfect, and the last two were honest to goodness sourdough. I was quite chuffed.
Not only have they been turning out well, my little loaves, but I've gained confidence that I understand what I'm doing. I've also become fully and completely enamored of the process. The first time my dough did truly double in volume and even had gas bubbles forming on the skin, I did that laugh/cry thing that really needs a name of its own. I can feel how alive the dough is, and am fascinated by the transformation it goes through from one stage to the next.
Here's what I have learned:
~ making bread is not difficult, but it takes as long as it takes. Very little happens at your own hands: in between a little stirring, then a little folding, then some shaping, the dough does all the work on its own. Don't rush it.... rather, enjoy it.
~ moisture is a good thing. A dried skin on your dough prevents expansion, so keep it moist. The best trick I've learned so far (from River Cottage) is to keep the dough in a plastic bag. (Dan says to use a black bin liner, so that's what I've been using, though I think any plastic bag of sufficient size would do.) This provides a humid environment and also keeps the dough out of drafts.
~ weigh ingredients rather than measure as it is more accurate.
~ for all the measuring, a good loaf of bread comes down to becoming familiar with the process and seeing the results. There are so many factors at play from temperature of your kitchen that particular day, to how long its been since it rained, that you will have to adapt the recipe according to your circumstances. The only way to be able to do that is through experience... but just think of all the bread you're going to enjoy along the way!
~ allow the oven to preheat for at least half an hour. (I go for an hour, with the baking tray heating inside as well.) You want it good and hot. Boil a kettle of water, and when you put the bread in to bake, pour boiling water in the oven to provide steam. Steam is what develops a beautifully crispy crust.
~ bread is a wondrous coming together of flour water and salt. That's all you need. Have you looked at the ingredients list on a bag of store-bought bread? What is all that stuff? (I don't include yeast in the list because it is naturally occurring when you combine flour and water. You tend it for a few days until it becomes strong enough to leaven your dough, then away you go!) (This is what is called 'catching' wild yeast, which I just love the sound of, don't you?)
I'm hooked. I love it, all of it, from start to finish. I'm making more bread than I can eat, and my freezer can only hold so much, so I'm going to have to start giving it away.
Are you a maker of bread? If you've never tried, I enthusiastically encourage you to give it a go... and do let me know how you get on!