Apparently, if I were keeping up with the Joneses, then I would be baking sourdough this season. Or possibly spelt. Or, to demonstrate my culinary bravura, spelt sourdough. I raise my hat to the devoted bakers out there: those with the time, the patience, and the nurturing love for their biga, poolish or leaven. My time is minimal, and my patience short, so…
…back to the basics. Ordinary flour from the supermarket. Dried yeast from a sachet. Salt. Water. A tiny bit of elbow grease, and a great deal of enjoyment.
This will require fifteen minutes’ work, spread out over three hours. You will need…
- a 5g packet of “easy blend” dried yeast – don’t worry if it’s 7g – the bread will simply rise a bit faster
- 500g of strong white flour – this is bread making flour, as opposed to plain flour, which is the kind you use to make cakes and pastry
- 5g salt (or more, if you prefer – I wouldn’t go beyond 10g)
- 400mL of very warm (but not hot) water – you won’t need it all
- extra flour for dusting/kneading/etc
Put all the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix together. I wouldn’t worry about sifting: this is a relic from the days of yore, when flour had lumps and weevil shit in it.
Make a well in the centre of the flour and gradually add 350mL of the water whilst stirring. This will clump together and then turn into dough. Depending upon the age and grind of the flour you may find it absorbs all the water, in which case add the remaining water in two 25mL lots. You may find it’s too sloppy, in which case, just leave it for a few minutes and the starch in the flour will soak up the excess water. What you need to end up with is a slightly sticky goopy mass that has absorbed all the flour.
Now, spread about a tablespoon of flour on a clean area of the kitchen bench, and get some all over your hands as well. Hoik the dough out of the bowl and onto the bench. It will not look very attractive, and it will feel strangely flaccid.
Start kneading it, and by kneading, what I mean is gently push it out in front of you, using the heels of your hands until it’s twice as long as wide. Then fold the far edge back over the near edge, and turn it 90º clockwise. And repeat. It will start to look like this.
You’ll need to knead (fnarr!) for about ten minutes. It’s not hard work: imagine you’re massaging it, rather than punishing it. Beware of flouring the bench too much, as the dough will soak up the extra flour and you’ll end up with drier bread. (If you’re feeling a little brave, have a go at kneading without flour at all. Initially, this will seem like an exercise in messy messy futility, but after about five minutes the dough will start sticking to itself in preference to anything else, and order will arise from chaos.)
About halfway through, something magic will happen. The dough will start to feel springy and elastic, and you’ll start to feel some resistance. Keep going. You’ll find that the elasticity means you’ll do more stretching than pushing. This is good. Once the ten minutes is up, roll it into a ball, put it into a clean bowl, and cover with a dampish teatowel.
Now it has to rise: this is when the yeast munches the sugar in the starch, burping it out as carbon dioxide and alcohol. Yes, it’s the same kind of yeast you use to make wine and beer, but the alcohol gets burnt off during the cooking; sorry. (Particularly snooty works on bread making will refer to this as “fermentation”. They also measure their water in grams, which is odd.)
Anyway, this will take from 45 minutes to two hours. It was 20ºC in my kitchen this morning, so it took an hour. You can tell it has risen, as it will roughly double in size, as below, and possibly have small blistery bubbles on its surface.
Upend the contents of the bowl back onto the floured bench, and gently squish it down. You’ll feel all the air being forced out and it will return to its previous size. This is known as “knocking back”, or sometimes “punching down”, but shouldn’t be a violent activity.
Spread some flour on a solid baking sheet and transfer the dough here, and organise it into an approximation of its final shape. Some people go for a ball, I prefer a kind of sausage shape. (See Dan Stevens’ book for its magisterial section on shaping.)
Dust it with flour, and cover it with a teatowel; again dampish. This is to stop the outside from drying out too much.
It’s going to need to rise again for about another hour. This is called “proving”, although some writers use this term for the first rise. Towards the end of this period, get the oven going as hot as you dare. The dough may do more spreading than rising, so just before it goes in, tuck the edges under if necessary.
Now it needs to go into the oven. When it cooks it will probably double in height, so make sure you’ve adjusted the shelving in the oven to give it some headroom. Otherwise it will wrap itself around your overhead grill, which would be Ugly.
Now, after the first ten minutes at maximum, drop the temperature down to about 200ºC and leave it to cook for another half hour or so, but keep an eye on it after twenty minutes. (Lop about ten minutes off the total time if you’ve halved the dough into two loaves.)
The reliable test at the end of this is to pick it up in a teatowel (carefully! fold the teatowel a few times!) and rap the underside with your knuckles: it ought to sound hollow and drum like. If not, back in the oven for another ten.
Pop it onto a cooling rack and leave for twenty minutes. It will smell fantastic, and make appealing crackling sounds as it cools and the crust solidifies.
You could, before proving, break it into two smaller loaves, but don’t forget to place them a fair distance from each other on the baking sheet, and reduce the cooking time slightly.
Oh, and in a fan forced oven, the side closest to the fan will get more heat. If this uneven tan bothers you, rotate the tray about ten minutes before the end.
About 50g of semolina will add a certain crunch, or you could use the semolina for kneading etc.
You could also use this recipe with a 50:50 mix of wholemeal and white flour. Note that the bread won’t rise as much.
*slightly too little yeast will result in a longer rising time and slightly too much a shorter rising time – but vary the amount too much and the bread won’t work – always ignore the instructions about the dough only needing to rise once!