Making your own bread at home can be such a satisfying experience, and is much nicer than the bread you buy at the supermarket, which is full of additives and preservatives. It might make the bread last longer, but when you make your own bread, you'll probably enjoy it so much that it won't be around long enough for it to start going stale anyway.
I discovered the joy of bread-making about a year ago, and what I know is mainly self-taught, and having learnt from experience. Here is a guide with tips to making your own bread, so it can be as lovely and healthy as possible. I do not use a bread machine; I do not think it is necessary, and takes away part of the satisfaction of doing it yourself, so all these tips are based on making bread by hand.
Flour: You can use plain flour but, the best kind to use is Very Strong Bread Flour; the increased gluten content means that is holds on to the carbon dioxide created by the yeast. This creates a stronger rise. There are of course many different types of bread; flatbread does not need to rise as much, for example, and rye bread, of course uses rye flour.
Yeast: Save yourself the hassle and use Fast Action Yeast; it is so much less effort, and a time saver. With fast action yeast, you do not need to reconstitute it in water, just simply mix it in with the flour. How much yeast you use is quite flexible. The less yeast you use, the slower the rise, and the longer it will need to prove. If you are not in a hurry, this is not a bad thing, as a slower proving gives a strong flavour. For flat bread, you do not want too much yeast, and 1/2 tsp per 500g of flour is enough. For your basic loaf, you can use between two or three tsp. I usually use three as I don't like waiting a long time for the dough to prove, and I still get delicious bread, but I would not recommend using and more than 3 tsp.
Salt: Most of us have too much salt in our diet, and a lot of it comes from processed food. When you buy bread from the store, you have no control over how much they put in. Last year, The Daily Mail reported that 'one in four shop loaves contains as much salt in a single slice as a bag of crisps'. Most of that salt is unnecessary. Salt in bread serves two purposes; first, it inhibits the growth of the yeast, so that the bread does not rise too quickly, and second is for flavour. Not a huge amount of salt is required for either. Of course, individual tastes differ, and I am someone who does not add salt to any of my meals, but you can still make delicious bread without using much salt. For every 500g of flour, I would recommend 1/2 tsp of salt.
Water: The water should be luke warm, as heat is what enables the dough to prove. Warm water will help the proving process, but make sure it is not too hot, otherwise you will kill off the yeast. For your basic loaf 500g of flour should be accompanied by 300ml of water. This is just a guide, as sometimes you need more to bring the dough together. With bread such as focaccia, there needs to be at least 400ml. If you like, you can swap water for milk, to add even more flavour.
Bringing The Dough Together
Mixing Dry Ingredients: Salt kills yeast, so when mixing the two ingredients with the flour, you should put them on opposite sides of the bowl.
Adding Water: Create a well in the middle of the flour and add part of the water; bring the flour into the water, and use your hands to start moulding it into a ball. At this point it will be very crumbly and start falling apart. You should pour the contents onto a work surface, and gradually add a bit more water. When you have the basic ball shape, but still have bits flaking off, pour the rest of the water into the bowl, and add the ball of dough. Roll it over in the water until the surface is wet and sticky, then roll it over all the loose bits of flour that have crumbled off. Repeat this process until you have all the flour has come together to create the dough; it should neither be crumbly, or sticky. If it is still crumbly, dab your fingers in water and moisten the dough, and if it is sticky, sprinkle a bit of flour on to its surface. It is a good idea to have a damp cloth near by to wipe your hands. When your hands are sticky it becomes much more difficult to bring the dough together as it just sticks to your hands.
Kneading: Your dough should now be ready for kneading. I find this the most enjoyable process. Punch the dough down with your fists, and then with the base of your hand, stretch it out. Once you have stretched it out, fold it back into a ball and pound it back into shape, by throwing it down on the work surface. Pound it down and stretch out again. You should repeat this process for about ten minutes. To test that your bread has been kneaded sufficiently, stretch out a corner; if it slowly recedes back again, then it has become successfully elasticated and is ready for proving.
For the bread to prove, it needs heat and there are a number of things you can do to improve the proving process:
1. Put the dough in a bowl, cover it over with cling film, and then place the bowl over a saucepan of boiling water. 2. Prove the dough in the warmest room in the house. On a sunny day, this might be your conservatory. 3. If it is a cold day, and you have the central heating on, you can put the dough by the radiator. Proving should last a minimum of 1hr (I usually give it an 1hr 1/2 to 2hrs), and the dough should double in size. If you are just making a basic loaf, your bread is now ready to be baked, however, if you plan to shape or divide your bread in some form (e.g. into rolls, or a plait, etc), then it will need a second proving because by handling, punching down, and re-shaping, you will take out air bubbles from the dough, so it won't rise properly.
If you have a fan oven, I would recommend using it so that your crust does not get over done or burnt on one side. For your basic loaf, bread should be baked for 20mins at 200 ༠C /180 ༠C Fan/400 ༠F/6 Gas Depending on how you like your crust, there are a number of ways in which you can bake your bread:
Soft Crust: For a soft crust, wrap your dough in tin foil before putting in the oven. When the bread is baked, cover the bread in a damp tea towel.
Semi Soft Crust: Same as above, but don't bother with the tea towel.
Crusty: Just bake it as it is.
Super Crusty: Put in a baking tray filled with water at the bottom of the oven while it is pre-heating. This should create steam. Then bake the bread over the top.
So often I make a loaf of bread that comes out so tempting. I have a slice, and am proud and pleased with the result. Then I put it away in the fridge. The next time I go for a slice it is hard and chewy, and I feel disheartened. I learnt the hard way. Don't put your homemade bread in the fridge. The only reason store bought bread last in the fridge is because of the additives they use. If you want to keep your bread fresh, keep it out of the fridge, but in a sealed container.