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Bread Making Tips

First, some background: I think the first time I made bread I was about eight. I can remember doing the shopping for my mother, and buying a ‘bloomer’ from the local bakers in Hayes, or from Parkers in West Ealing; and the special treat of having the top off a cottage loaf. The bread I made had a strange taste, and was underbaked; the result of the available dried yeast (which may well have been brewers yeast), soft flour, and the unpredictable oven temperatures in the early sixties (I now realise).

On holiday with my family in Bulgaria (I must have been about 14), I remember the texture and colour of the local bread; almost yellow, soft and unbleached.

Since then, I made wholemeal bread at university, which turned out like most commercial wholefood wholemeal of the era: dense, small, and somewhat cake like. I didn’t much care for it. My guide at the time was the Tassajara Bread Book, which stands up remarkably well.

After that, on business travels in Italy I was always impressed with the local restaurant bread. Breadsticks, plain rolls, focaccia, and so on. Then later on I came to San Francisco. The delicious sourdough breads of Boudin cafes, and the memorable combination of a sourdough bread bowl and clam chowder.

Which in turn made me want to cook bread like it. At first, I thought that this couldn’t be possible, without commercial scale bakery equipment, the local yeast cultures, and even the local atmosphere. But I was wrong.

The tips

Modern active dried yeast and bread flour mean that anyone can make good quality breads. That was the first tip. The second is: bread machines make it almost trivial to make good bread. However, don’t use the bread machine to bake the bread, just use it as a mixer/kneader; kneading is the hard part of making bread, or rather the judgement required to know when dough is sufficiently kneaded. Use a bread machine to mix, knead and carry out the initial fermentation; then shape, prove and bake the bread yourself.

To get good colour and crispness in the crust, use steam. I start with the oven at full temperature (190C, convection oven), and add about 4 oz of water, just thrown from a mug, on the bottom of the oven. Close, let it come back up to heat, and add the bread. Five minutes later, I put in the same amount of water again; another ten minutes, assuming a 45 minutes bake, I turn down the temperature to the recommended level.

The texture of the crumb depends almost entirely on hydration. A low amount of water will create a dense crumb with small holes, almost like a car sponge, very firm. A high amount of water will create open, irregular shaped holes in the crumb, which is much more attractive. Low hydration would be 60% water; high would be 65%. A word on hydration: 60% means for every 100g flour, 60g of water would be used; not that the dough would contain 60% water. This is bakers definition of hydration. Wetter doughs are much harder to handle.

Kneading is important. Making wholemeal bread, the end result can be very light and bread like, not doughy at all, provided it is given full kneading. Commercial bakers use mixing machines to do this, but they aren’t at all necessary. A minimum of 10 minutes kneading, or 300 turns, for a single 1 lb loaf (which is baked in a 2 lb tin, and contains 450g flour) is about right. The feel of the dough changes significantly about half way through, and a smaller change is noticeable towards the end. For double the quantity, double the kneading time.

There is an alternative technique to continuous kneading – if you let the dough rest for 5 or more minutes, then give a brief burst of kneading, maybe a minute at a time, in 45 minutes the dough will be fully developed. This may help explain some alternative approaches that give good results.

A fermentation stage is said to be complete when the dough no longer springs back in 10 seconds when gently prodded with your finger. We normally let each fermentation proceed to completion, or almost to it. A very brief kneading will allow the microbes access to enough fresh nutrients to ferment again. This is far more important than the amount of time spent rising, or the (very hard to measure accurately) volume increase.


Sourdough is the combination of certain strains of yeast with some lactobacilli. The yeast strains are tolerant of the high acid environment generated by the baceria; bakers yeast is not tolerant. The yeast may come from the air, or may be a contaminant from the bakers skin; the lactobacillus is almost certainly a contaminant from the baker (the same strains can be found in almost anyone’s mouth and gut). The distinctive taste mostly comes from the lactic acid products of the bacteria; but the value of sourdough is in the fact that it ferments a lot slower than commerial yeast, allowing the dough to have more fermentation time. Sourdough bakers often cool their dough to allow longer fermentations. As the yeast and bacteria have different growth rates at different temperatures, a complex equation of different temperatures through the fermentation period will control the final acidity.

The sourdough yeast and bacteria cooperate: the bacteria ferment maltose, which the yeast can’t, and the yeast in turn can ferment the products of the maltose fermention (and I hope I got that bit right). This is advantageous when baking with rye flour, which has a glorious flavour, but very low gluten (protein), and so is almost impossible to rise adequately using commercial yeast. The acid partially gelatinises the starches in rye, allowing rye dough to hold its shape.

I’ll write up a book list for bread baking later.

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