A couple of weeks ago, a food production company was ordered to pay a fine after a certain Mr Forse of Oxfordshire found a dead mouse embedded in his loaf of sliced bread. Reading this story prompted a doughy revolution in our house, and every few days there is a floury flurry of mixing, pounding and shaping as one of us frantically replenishes the bread stock. Yes, I know, I know, I know that this was an isolated and freakish incident – but in all seriousness we demand so little from limp supermarket bread when we can create a tasty, filling staple food by baking our own. Here’s an easy, fairly standard recipe which gives a hearty, wholesome loaf:
- 750g of your choice of flour (see below for suggestions)
- 2 teaspoons quick yeast
- 1 teaspoon salt (many recipes use a bit more than this)
- 2 teaspoons dark brown soft sugar (many recipes use a little less than this)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 tablespoons milk
- 400ml hand-hot water (the amount will vary according to the flour you use and how it has been stored)
- Thoroughly mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
- Add the oil and the milk; stir them in.
- Gradually add the water and mix it in until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. When you feel you are getting close to having added enough water, start mixing with your fingers.
- Lightly flour your work surface and – this is the fun bit – knead the dough for 10 minutes, making sure you stretch and fold it as well as pushing your fists into it firmly.
- Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size, or about an hour. Make sure the place isn’t too hot, or your loaf will dry out.
- Bake at 180°C for about 30 minutes, until the loaf sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped, or until a skewer inserted into the middle emerges clean. If you are using a non-stick baking tray, try flouring the bottom instead of greasing it; this helps the base develop a nice crust. However, if you are using a ceramic dish do grease it.
- Let the loaf settle for 10 minutes or so before serving.
Even this simple recipe has plenty of room for variation: you can substitute olive oil with butter or vegetable oil, alter the amounts of milk and water or vary the amount and type of sugar. To make burger baps you can elongate the uncooked dough, slice it into about 10 pieces and shape each piece into a bun – but be careful to work with the shape of the dough and avoid introducing new folds. These buns will cook slightly quicker than the large loaf (about 20 minutes instead of 30). Once you’ve become proficient with this simple recipe it is only a short step to making more complicated breads involving oats, yoghurt, eggs or honey, and you’ll be able to start making authentic baguettes and plaited breads.
Unsurprisingly, the key to good bread is the main ingredient, flour. There’s plenty of choice when it comes to varieties of flour, but whatever you plump for it has to be a good-quality product. Rye flour will give a very strongly-flavoured bread, and because rye is a difficult grain to refine it retains more of its nutrients as compared with white flour. This dense bread also keeps for longer. Try slicing it thinly and eating it with fish (especially smoked fish).
Spelt, my personal favourite, is an older variety of wheat which has a high protein content (over 15% as compared with 10% for most other wheat varieties); it also offers a slightly sweeter, nuttier flavour. These qualities mean that it is more filling and has a stronger presence in a meal; the bread goes from being an accompaniment to a base. As such, it works particularly well with roasted vegetables, vegetable soups and ratatouille. The commonly-cited difficulties of spelt flour are that your loaf will not rise as much as with other flours, and it will be fairly crumbly – but these rustic attributes are not necessarily disadvantages. Wholemeal flour gives a similarly thick and heavy loaf, but tastes less strong and is slightly less filling: this means that it works well when you are just looking for bread to supplement your meal. Try it with meaty or pulse-based soups and casseroles.
Strong white bread flour will give you a lighter, spongier loaf, often with a larger crumb; I find that it is the easiest flour from which to obtain a good result. However, it contains less protein and is less fibrous than spelt and wholemeal flours. It is divine if you are looking for a bread to soak up juices; try using it to mop up salad dressings and eating it with burgers. More refined white flours, such as 0 grade and 00 grade are also extremely pleasing to work with, giving the uncooked dough increased suppleness and elasticity. Use these finer flours to make a base for pizzas and garlic breads, kneading the dough for slightly longer than indicated in the above recipe (15 minutes rather than 10), leaving it to rise until it has doubled in size then stretching and kneading it again for five minutes before forming the pizza bases.
Baking bread is often seen as the preserve of those with rustic lifestyles who structure their days around the making and eating of food. But you don’t need to be Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to do it: it’s easy, and if you’re pushed for time you can make the dough up before going out for the day and cook it when you get back, or leave it to rise for 25 minutes instead of its full hour. And best of all, you can munch safe in the knowledge that you won’t be breakfasting on buttered rodents.