There are few greater pleasures than the evocative smell of bread as it bakes, followed by eating warm bread that has been spread liberally with good quality butter: simplicity at its very best!
This post is about the basic, but nonetheless majestic bread loaf, made with commercial yeast, along with simple variations. I dip into pre-ferments as a great way to add even better depth of flavour to bread and I also give recipe links for classics such as focaccia.
My detailed post on sourdough bread, focusing on making and maintaining a sourdough starter, as well as how to make an excellent sourdough loaf with variations, can be found here.
- The best tip I can give
- Ingredients for a standard bread loaf
- Mixing & kneading (and the “stretching and folding” approach)
- Fermentation and proving (the rises)
- Is it ready to bake?
- Shaping (free-form, baguettes & bâtards; rolls; flatter breads)
- Baking bread
- Adding a pre-ferment (poolish)
- Flavouring bread doughs
- Some of my favourite breads
The best tip I can give
The trick for excellent tasting bread is not to rush it. At all!
I never use a particularly warm place such an airing cupboard: normal room temperature, cool room temperature or, ideally, the fridge for the first, long rise, will give the very best results: the slower the rise, the better the flavour.
And as there is no urgency with bread, you can get on with other things quite happily and return to the bread later.
Ingredients for a standard bread loaf (makes 1 large or 2 medium ones):
- 500g strong white bread flour
- 7g easy-blend dried yeast
- 10g fine sea salt
- about 300ml tap water – I use cool water
NB: you can also add about 100g seeds of choice to the flour if you want a simple seeded loaf, which I have used for the photos in this recipe.
These ingredients will give an excellent loaf of bread. Essentially the process is to mix the ingredients together, knead them, let them rise slowly, shape them, let them have another rise and then bake.
If adding flavours (see towards the end of the post), you can normally add them to the flour at the start or else incorporate them after the dough has been kneaded.
Below are detailed notes on these different stages:
Mixing and kneading
(1) Put the dry ingredients into a large bowl and add most of the water, mixing to get a soft dough. Add more water if needed but for a standard bread you want it more on the wetter side than at all dry, but it needs to feel manageable and not too sticky.
(2) Knead for about 15 minutes or so on a very lightly floured or oiled surface. Either works fine, but don’t use too much flour to knead with. Alternatively, use a food mixer with the dough hook attached for about 10-15 minutes.
NB: the dough should very stretchy: if you pull at it, it shouldn’t tear off and should instead pull back and want to go straight back into the main mass of dough! It should also be smooth and not at all sticky.
(3) Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with clingfilm or a damp teatowl and leave it for its first rise (bulk fermentation) at cool room temperature or even the fridge.
NB: fear not, the yeast will activate in the fridge – it will just do so slowly, but in turn you will be rewarded with better flavour.
The stretching & folding approach:
I sometimes go for stretching and folding rather than full-on kneading, especially if the dough is on the wetter side, such as for focaccia and baguettes, and often with sourdough. This give excellent results (see my Perfecting baguettes post).
Fermentation and proving (the rises)
I always go for two rises for my bread: a bread that rises just once does not have the chance to develop the flavour that characterises an excellent bread. The first rise (the bulk fermentation) happens once the dough has been kneaded, and before it has been shaped. The second rise (the proving) takes place once the dough has been shaped.
I cannot over-emphasise enough that the slower the rise, the better the flavour: I invariably go for the first rise in the fridge: this slows down the process while allowing the flavour to develop wonderfully. I sometimes go for an even slower first rise, such as overnight, in which case I also reduce the amount of yeast by between a third and a half: the bread will still rise perfectly with less yeast and give excellent bread.
For each rise, I go for an increase in about double in volume. The risen dough should feel bouncy and light.
The trick, however, is not to over-prove (or under-prove):
Is it ready to bake?
Lightly press a floured finger just over a centimetre or so into the dough. If the hole slowly starts to fill and a little bit of indent remains, it is ready to bake.
If the indent stays as it is, it is under-proofed so give it a bit longer before testing again.
If the indent fills up quickly it has over-proofed.
For simplicity you can simply knead the risen dough (“knocking back”) – this is always a marvellous sensation as it deflates – kneading until the dough is smooth.
You then pop it into well-oiled tins or bannetons for its second proofing (in which case, the bread proves until it is domed a little over the top of the tin).
You can also shape the dough free-form. There are many ways to do this but I do the following:
Free-form loaves such as boules:
For shaping for a standard loaf for a retangular banneton, you need to develop good surface tension that it holds it shape.
Flatten the dough with oiled hands into a rough rectangle on a lightly oiled surface, with the longer edges facing you. Lift the right edge into the middle and then fold the left edge over that. Give the dough a quarter turn, flatten it down again a little and gently repeat this folding once or twice more or until the dough feels bouncy and holds its shape easily.
For a boule, you can then gently shape above shaped dough into a taut ball shape – there should be enough surface tension on the dough so that it holds its shape while it rises. Pop the shaped dough onto a sheet of greaseproof with the seam facing downwards and let it prove until about doubled in size.
Baguettes and bâtards:
For shaping baguettes, cut into equal pieces: I go for about 200g pieces. Lightly flatten each into a rectangle, roll up towards you and gently roll the dough to smooth it, putting slightly more pressure towards the ends to give a slight tapering effect.
Place in bannetons, floured couches or metal baguette trays before proving and baking.
For bâtards, use smaller amounts of the dough and shape as for baguettes, going for about half or a third of the length of a baguette.
I take about 40g of dough and roll them on a non-floured surface (otherwise the dough will slide everywhere!) in the palm of your hands until you get smooth balls.
You can also roll the pieces out thinly and “tie” up to give knot rolls.
Sometimes I add a lot more water to the dough to get an even wetter dough and more aerated interior structure. This can be harder to shape, but patting the dough into a well-oiled swiss roll tin, for example, before its final rise works well, giving a focaccia-style bread.
This is especially good if that dough is then studded with goodies such as toasted pine nuts, chunks of cheese, chopped roasted onions etc…For a more traditional focaccia, see my focaccia post.
I always put my oven onto its highest setting and pop a solid roasting tray on the bottom shelf while the oven heats up. I also pop in a cast iron skillet pan/sizzle pan if I have proved my dough in a banneton.
A loaf that has risen in a loaf tin just goes straight into the oven as it is.
When the oven is at temperature, I turn out the dough from the banneton onto the sizzle pan, score the surface a few times by giving it a couple of shallow cuts with a sharp knife of razor blade and then throw in a few cups of cold water into the roasting tray to create steam.
NB: the steamy environment that the water creates really does give the most wonderful crust to the dough.
If I am using a free-form dough, I gently lift the dough (still on its greaseproof) onto the very hot sizzle pan.
After about 10 minutes at this highest temperature I turn the oven down to 220C (fan) until the loaf is nicely browned and the underside sounds hollow when knocked (another 20-30 minutes or so).
Adding a pre-ferment or poolish
A home-made loaf will taste stunning but you can improve even further on its flavour by using a pre-ferment/poolish which is made up the day before in seconds and left to ferment overnight, giving even more depth of flavour.
There are many variations for this, but for a simple poolish mix 100g strong plain bread flour (or rye, wholemeal or spelt) with just a little yeast: a generous pinch is all. Add 100ml tap water and mix to a thick paste or batter. Cover with clingfilm and leave at room temperature overnight. The following day the paste will take on a spongy texture and have a terrific fermented aroma to it. Ideally you leave it until it starts to collapse back on itself and go wrinkly on top, but it is great having been left overnight.
To use the poolish, simply add it to the other bread ingredients at the start. You can adjust the amount of flour and water in the recipe above (ie: reduce the flour and water by 50g each) but I usually just add it to the proportions in the recipe above.
Flavoured bread dough
You really don’t have to tinker around with bread to get a very satisyfing loaf, but the possibilties for marvellous flavoured breads are endless.
Different flours add a different flavour: rye flour, for example, is excellent and I would typically replace about 10-20% of the flour in a recipe with rye flour to give just a slight rye kick. You can, however, increase this to about 50% (much more than that and the bread becomes a bit hard to enjoy in my opinion!)
Depending on the flours used, you might need differing amounts of liquid: breads made with rye flour, for example, tend to need more liquid: just make sure you add enough water to form a soft, manageable dough
Seeds and nuts
There is a great variety of seeds and nuts that can be added too, at the initial mixing stage, which add interesting textures and flavours. Seeds and nuts that have been lightly dry-roasted in a pan for about 5 minutes whack things up a notch!
As a rule of thumb, I add up to 100g seeds or nuts to 500g flour.
Vary the liquid:
Rather than using water, you can use other liquids such as cider, ale, milk…….
You get different textures and flavours (a bread made with ale, or instance, has a deeper flavour than if made with water; a bread made with milk has a soft, almost fluffy texture) so it is worth experimenting.
If I am using a liquid other than water, I use it to replace about half of the amount of water in a recipe with the liquid, but you can increase this proportion.
Some of my favourite breads
Roasted garlic fougasse
Slow-roasted garlic bulbs worked into the bread dough gives a phenomenal bread. This fougasse is one of my favourite flavours.
The recipe for this fougasse is here.
Spiced onion and chilli bread
Think onion bhaji-flavoured bread and this will give you the idea with this bread.
The recipe is here.
This bread contains a variety of seeds for flavour and texture. I sometimes use a little smoked bread flour, which adds a lovely depth of flavour, but even without smoked flour, it is a terrific bread.
The full recipe is here.
Black garlic bread
A wonderfully quirky bread using the more readily available black garlic.
The recipe for this bread is here.
Walnut and raisin “tear & share” bread with molten Brie
I work raisins and walnuts into the dough. You can add chopped Brie or Camembert gently after its first rise, without squashing it too much, or you can shape the bread around a whole Brie or Camembert for what I think is a stunning centrepiece.
The recipe for this bread is here
Black treacle and Guinness bread
This is a bread I made for my first auditions for Britain’s Best Home Cook – serving it with a variety of cold fish dishes I had made: a kind of fish ploughman’s!
The recipe for this is here
A beautiful Italian bread with large holes within, this has a high water content that makes it harder to work with. However, the stretch and fold method (referred to above), or a food mixer with the paddle or whisk attachement (rather than the dough hook), makes this much easier.
Focaccia, a bread I make very often, is a true crowd-pleaser and can be studded with all manner of flavours such as chunks of cheese, olives, garlic, fresh herbs, tomatoes, anchovies……
Home-made focaccia is far removed from the dense bread in supermarkets that is often adorned with dry old herbs and has barely even flirted with olive oil: it should be crisp, slightly chewy with irregular holes within and have a good flavour of olive oil.
As with ciabatta, it has a high water content so the stretch and fold method is ideal. Alternatively, a food mixer with the whisk or paddle attachment works brilliantly.