I think bread is a very good place to start. Almost everyone (99% of UK households) loves a good loaf of bread, but almost no one makes it themselves.
And do you want to know a secret? It’s not hard to make a loaf of bread. It’s not even particularly time-consuming. But if you haven’t done it before, or if you’ve tried and it hasn’t worked out the way you’d intended, it can be daunting.
Even though one of my first jobs out of high school was working in a home bakery, helping to make challah and croissants, I have always been a bit intimidated by bread-making. (I know, I know, with a starting point like that, you’d think I would have had a little more confidence.) But my perspective changed when the No-Knead Bread, developed by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, came along. Here was a recipe that was very straightforward, it didn’t require any kneading at all, and you didn’t even have to fiddle around with bread tins or shaping that never seemed to come out the way it was planned. Plus, it was delicious. You could say that the No-Knead Bread was my gateway bread.
Now, although Lahey’s dough is basically hands-off and therefore extremely low-maintenance, it does require time – hours and hours of it – to get the gluten to work. Sometimes (actually, most of the time) I have to get the bread made sooner. I’ve got three kids requiring sandwiches at least 5 days a week*. So now I’ve come around to kneading rather than waiting.
Actually, I barely bother with the kneading either. Because I also now know some of the basics of bread-making**, I know that I don’t have to knead the dough WITH MY OWN HANDS for 10 minutes if I don’t want to. I just get my mixer to do it. (Some people love to knead dough because they find it relaxing. I have nothing against kneading, but I don’t find it especially relaxing. Satisfying, yes. Hard on my wrists sometimes, yes. Relaxing? No. Especially at work, where we are making up to 5k of dough at a time.)
And this is why I say that bread-making isn’t hard. You can pretty much throw everything in a bowl, walk away for a few hours, come back and make a pretty loaf or two, then an hour later pop it in the oven. After another hour (or less, if your oven is more advanced than mine), you’ve got a delicious loaf of home-baked bread to slather with butter or cram full of cheese. Or even to save for your kids’ lunches.
* It might seem ridiculous that I make all our own bread when I can perfectly well buy bread for sandwiches — as the Author often points out after I’ve set the dough to rise at 8pm. But I started baking bread for my family when we were extremely poor, and what was a necessity then has morphed into a luxury: not only can I control the quality of the ingredients better, I can vary the bread infinitely to create new flavours whenever I want. And — most importantly — unless I were to shop at an artisanal bakery, homemade bread tastes so much better. All this for about £1 per week. Why would I stop?
**The technical bit: Bread requires only 3 ingredients: flour, water, yeast. (Salt and sugar are optional extras which are almost always used and which help make the yeast work and also make the bread retain moisture and give it more flavour.) When the flour, yeast and water are mixed, an enzyme is released which creates maltose. As the yeast cells eat the maltose, they release carbon dioxide. The flour contains gluten, which is what gives it the ability to stretch, so when the yeast releases its gas, the flour traps the gas in little stretchy pockets and the dough starts to rise, rather than break. Kneading and moisture help the flour develop its gluten, but time will work just as well, which is why the no-knead bread works but requires a long time to rise.
The basic bread recipe – your gateway!
Makes 2 loaves
- 1 kg flour
- 2 tsp salt
- 20 oz. water, slightly warm to the touch
- 2 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp yeast
- 2 oz. oil (olive, sunflower or rapeseed oil are fine)
Mix the sugar, water and yeast together and wait until the yeast starts to bubble. Meanwhile, put the salt, flour and oil into a stand mixer bowl and attach the dough hook.
Add the bubbling yeast mixture to the flour with the mixer on low, and let it run for 10 minutes. (At the beginning, check to see that the flour is completely incorporated – sometimes it gets stuck at the bottom of the bowl.)
(Alternatively: If you want to knead old-skool style, put the flour, salt and oil in a regular mixing bowl and stir in the yeast mixture with a large spoon. Once the water is all in and the flour looks craggy, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it by pulling all the dough into the centre, and then pushing it down and away from you. Give it a quarter-turn clockwise and fold the top towards you and again push the dough down and away. Give it another quarter-turn and repeat all the steps for about 10 minutes. The dough should be quite smooth and elastic by the time you are done. Put it in a large, lightly oiled bowl.)
Whether you have kneaded by hand or in the mixer, cover the bowl with cling film or a tea towel or even a pot lid, and leave it to rise until doubled (about 2 hours).
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it very briefly. If the dough is quite wet, you can sprinkle on some extra flour at this point and knead it in. Cut the dough in half, and now you’re ready to shape!
Take one half of the dough and fold it in towards you. Keep going until the dough is the shape of a very fat sausage. Now gently roll it back and forth on the counter to make it even and approximately the same length as your bread tins.
Pop the dough, seam side down, into an oiled tin, and repeat with the second half of the dough.
I like to sprinkle my bread with flour after I shape it – partly because I like the look, partly because I like the crust it gives – but you could use an egg wash of 1 egg mixed with water or milk, or just milk by itself, or even oil.
After you sprinkle or brush the loaf, leave it to rise for about an hour. Again, you want it to double in size. When it has done that, put it in a pre-heated 180C oven and bake it for about an hour. The crust should be nicely browned and if you tap the bottom of the loaf, it should sound hollow.
What if you under- or over-cook it? Look, if it’s undercooked, the worst thing that can happen is that it will be doughy, which some people think leads to a little tummy ache. If it’s overcooked – well, let’s put it this way: I baked two loaves of bread for TWO HOURS once, and they were still edible! Granted, they did get quite dry by the third day, so then I made them into croutons. What I’m saying here is that there is some leeway, so don’t be afraid to get baking!