Electronics and bread? - Yes, and pies and beer and growing vegetables and pickling onions, chutneys, picallillis and jams.
Right now I'd like to talk about bread though. I've making bread since 2008. I consider my bread to be equal to or better than anything I've eaten from supermarkets, bakers, farmers markets or anywhere else. That might be considered somewhat arrogant, but the reason is most likely that my bread is fresher when I consume it than bread I'm buying in, not necessarily because the bread is better. I'd prefer not to get too involved with what is wrong with packet/supermarket bread and how bread is 'done' differently on the continent and so on. Neither would I like to discuss how the Chorleywood Baking Process has ruined Britain. If you're looking for that debate, I'm sure it can be found on Google, or in some of the books in the bibliography. Insted I'll assume that the reader has decided to try to make their own bread because they want to, and that they are looking for some advice.
Books are an excellent source of information. Eveything I know about bread has come from a book or from my own errors, and some of the books I've read are in the bibliography. The problem is that text and photos sometimes fail to make things as clear as is necessary. The problem is compounded somewhat if the writer has a detailed understanding of the topic they are writing about. I'm hoping to avoid this by a mixture of text photos and video, and by not having a detailed understanding of the topic.
It takes between three and five hours to make most standard breads, but the majority of that time is spent waiting for something to happen. With a little practice, it is not necessary to keep an eye on the bread, so it's possible to do something else, or go out. Bread is made from flour, water, salt and yeast. Strictly speaking the salt and yeast can be left out, but for the duration of this page let's assume that the objective is to make a 'normal' loaf of bread or a batch of rolls.
Steps for Making Bread
The Interaction of the Ingredients
It's important to have some idea of what happens inside the dough due to the interaction of the yeast, salt, water and flour. Good books will enter into a lot more detail. The flour contains sugars, starch and protein. The sugars are consumed by the yeast and converted into carbon dioxide and 'waste products', including a small amount of alcohol and other hydrocarbons such as esters, which give rising dough some of its lovely smell. The salt balances the flavour of the bread and also acts to 'tighten' the protein (gluten) matrix. The kneading of the dough acts to stretch the gluten in the flour into long strands which are visible when the dough is being kneaded. The tearing and re-joining of gluten strands during kneading acts to form a complex protein structure within the dough. This structure captures the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast during fermentation. The overall effect is that the bread rises.
The flour must be 'strong' bread flour. Normal plain or self raising flour will not generally do. In the UK, strong flours are available from all main supermarkets as well as multinational millers such as Hovis and Allinson and local millers such as Shipton Mill and Bacheldre Mill. The 'strong' aspect reflects the higher level of protein, which is required to make bread.
The flour used may be, for example, wheat, spelt, kamut or rye or any other (although zero gluten flours such as rice flour could be a bit weird). Any mixture of flours is permissable, however using a flour with less gluten such as rye will yield a different style of loaf to that found in a supermarket. British wheat is fairly useless for making bread because the soil in the UK lacks sufficient nitrogen for growing the preferable strains of wheat. As a result, special strains of wheat are grown which suit the British soil conditions, but unfortunately this wheat doesn't make very good bread. British wheat is, in the UK at least, relatively inexpensive. To maintain a reasonable price for mass produced bread some British wheat is often mixed with Canadian or US wheat which has preferable characteristics. Occasionally, (especially with the ultra cheap packet breads) the advertising will make a point of "100% British wheat" or similar. In my view this is negative. It means the cost of production is minimised (the producer cares nothing for the quality) and that the product is inferior as it uses inferior (from a bread making perspective) strains of wheat.
Spelt is related to wheat and has more or less the same protein content. It grows well in Britain, and I prefer it to wheat. Spelt costs per kilo about the same as a good strong Canadian or US wheat flour. I heartily recommend spelt to everyone. If you're trying spelt using a wheat recipe, it might be worth remembering that spelt is slightly more hydroscopic (absorbs water more readilly) than wheat. If the consisency is not quite as expected, this may provide an explanation. I had this problem with a spelt sourdough based on a wholewheat starter some time ago. It was only resolved when I sought the advice of a professional baker at an agricultural show.
Most flours are available in "white" and "brown". There are various other names or numbering systems based on, among other things, the ratio of the grain which is extracted (a typical extraction rate for wholemeal/wholegrain flour is 81%) and word terms like "wholegrain". It always comes down to how much of the grain makes it into the bag of flour. White flour is either bleached (which is white like ground up chalk or talc) or unbleached which is somewhere between chalk white, the colour of the pages of a paperback book, the colour of a piece of planed pine and the colour of polenta. It depends.
I have occasionally heard that white bread may be improved (that is to say the dough may be 'improved', look up "flour treatment agent" on Wikipedia) by the addition of "a handful" of wheat bran. The exact means of improvement is not clear to me. I have not observed any difference either during the bread making process or in the eating.
Lastly, if you're thinking of making onion or garlic bread (where the onion and or garlic is in the bread as apposed to blended with butter and spread onto a slice of already baked bread), be careful. Something about onions and their relatives denatures gluten. You'll be able to build houses with your loaves as if they were bricks. The mouth feel of the bread after the gluten has been denatured is highly undesirable. I have only made this mistake once.
Baker's yeast is available in 'dried active' form which comes in sachets of about 7 grams where the yeast is in tiny cylinders of about 0.2 mm x 1 mm. Yeast is also available in 'dried inactive' form which comes in tins of aproximately 125 grams where the yeast is little balls about 2 mm - 3 mm in diameter. Finally, yeast is available 'live' as a block of compressed yeast cells. Unless you're undertaking a commercial venture, making many loaves every day, there is little point in using live yeast as it will become less viable (the number of active cells compared to dead cells) as it gets older, eventually going dull and grey and eventually black. It should be a dull mushroom colour and smell very faintly of mushrooms. Anything else is no good. There are various methods that involve putting the yeast in (sometimes sugary) water and seeing if it floats or sinks after a certain amount of time. See Elizabth David for an example.
The dried inactive (in a tin) yeast must be made active first by mixing with a little warm (26 C) water and sugar (honey, molasses, golden syrup, treacle etc. is fine and may add a subtle flavor to the bread, but the sweetness will not come through as it will be consumed as the yeast becomes active.) After 2 - 15 minutes the yeast will start to consume the sugar and bubbles will form on the surface of the water. If this doesn't happen the yeast should be abandoned and a new batch mixed. I prefer not to use dried inactive yeast.
Dried active yeast comes in a sachet. It does not require activation and can be added directly to the flour. I have found it highly repeatable and superior to the dried inactive yeast.
The salt may be sea salt or rock salt. I prefer fine sea salt as opposed to flaky sea salt because it is distributed more evenly into the dough. Much is made of the effect of salt on yeast (yeast is killed by salt, and I've heard chillies too), but the dried active yeast and salt must first be in solution to interact with each other, so until the water is added there is no danger of the yeast being destroyed by the salt. I usually mix both the salt and yeast into the flour such that they are both evenly distributed prior to adding the water.
In the UK, tap water is sufficient. The temperature of the water when it strikes the flour, yeast and salt mixture is critical. By trial and very considerable error I have found 30 C is perfect. If a digital thermometer is not available and 600 ml water is required, then the perfect temperature - more or less - can be produced by combining 410ml tap water with 190 ml just boiled water. Of course the temperature of the tap water has some effect.
Preparing the Ingredients
Often the quantity of ingredients is given as a percentage of the flour weight. The water is often called 'hydration'. 60 percent hydration of 1 kg flour would mean 600 ml water.
For 1 Kg flour,
Mixing the Ingredients
Put the flour into a large bowl or, if you're feeling brave, pour the flour onto a flat (preferably warm ie wooden not marble or granite) worksurface. Add the salt and the yeast (and oil if you plan to use it). Mix the ingredients. If not using a bowl, make a well in the mixture and pour in the water. Carefully bring the ingredients together. If using a bowl, the ingredients can be brought together using a wooden spoon. This is considerably easier.
Kneading the Dough
Kneading is best explained with a video or two. The obejctive is to strech the gluten matrix and make it more "complicated". When kneading starts, the dough tends to be sticky and lacks the silky texture that it obtains by the end. The kneading is complete when a small part of the dough can be thinned to the point where light can be seen through it without tearing. This test does not apply to wholegrain dough where tearing is inevitable in almost all situations.
Leave to Rise
The kneaded dough must be formed into a ball and left to rise. During this time the yeast feeds on the sugars in the flour and fills the gluten matrix with carbon dioxide. Pay attention to the texture of the dough prior to kneading, after kneeding and after rising for the first time. On a warm summer's day in the UK, about an hour is usually enough. In winter up to two hours may be required, but this is strongly dependent on the viability of the yeast and temperature of the room. The dough is sufficiently risen when it has approximately doubled in volume.
Once the dough has risen for the first time, almost all of the gas is removed so that the dough can be shaped into a loaf. Turn the dough out onto the worksurface. Remove the majority of the dusting flour and preserve it. It may be used later to dust the loaf prior to baking, or to cover the baking tray (if one is used) so the loaf does not stick to it. The action I prefer for knocking back is to push the closed fist of both hands into the dough. There is no need to abuse the dough. It is not possible to release all of the gas, and so when fully knocked back the dough will remain thicker than it was post kneading.
Shape into a Loaf or Rolls
The knocked-back dough can be formed into a ball and allowed to rise for a second time, or it can be formed into the final shape at this point. Provided a sufficient amount of sugar remains in the dough the yeast will continue to respire so three or four risings may be possible. Generally I prefer one rise and then 'prove' (form the dough into the final shape and allow to rise for the last time). This is the minimum that is permissable. If dough is kneaded, then formed into the loaf shape, proved and baked, it will not be acceptable. The yeast needs time to contribute esters and other "waste" products to the dough which give bread the commonly expected flavour, texture and smell.
Leave to 'prove'
After forming the dough into the loaf or roll shapes, it has to prove (rise for the last time). I find that this takes about half the time of the prior rising. The dough will not get as big as in the first rise, but I have found a dependable 'oven spring' (see "Bake" below) can be obtained by this approximate timing rule. Allowing the prove to continue for as long as the initial rise does not produce oven spring.
Slash the tops (optional)
With about ten minutes proving time left, pre-heat the oven to (at least) 250 C. Often the upper part of a loaf is cut in such a way that the gluten matrix acts to pull the cut open. This opening will be immediate, as soon as the blade has cut the thin crust which inevitably forms when the dough is proving. I like to flour the loaf first and then cut it so that the cuts are bread coloured after baking and the non-cut parts are dusted in flour. It depends on the style you're going for and personal preference. Several sources describe the use of a bread knife and a razor blade and various other implements to perform the cut. I prefer a bread knife for the simple fact that it works well and I have one in my kitchen.
When I started baking, I was allowing the dough to prove for too long so that there was little to no oven spring. A result was that the slashes did not open and it was clear there was something wrong. To mitigate this, I started cutting the dough at the start of proving so that the slashes would open as the dough rose. This does not produce the desired effect, as the shape of the slashes is altered by the rising dough. If you know what you're looking for it's evident that something has gone wrong. The bread is however perfectly edible. I would advise trying various directions of cutting as it will cause some thought as to how the gluten is brought into tension by the loaf forming process.
For a 1 kg flour weight I bake for 10 minutes at 250 C then a further 30 - 40 minutes at between 150 and 170 C depending on the colour of the crust after the first 10 minutes. If, like me, you have a conventional electric fan oven you may find that the part nearest to the fan burns somewhat and that turning the bread about 5 minutes in to the bake prevents this. To make up for the temperature loss caused by opening the door 12 minutes at 250 C may be required insted.
I recently baked some rolls in a friend's oven which was non-fan electric and they took 31 minutes, I was expecting them to take 13 - 15 minutes at 230 - 250 C.
Various sources make a lot of using a baking stone, and/or putting a metal tray in the oven and pouring boiling water into it just prior to putting the bread in. The latter is supposed to mimic the effect of a modern professional baker's oven which is steam injected. Some sources suggest that the bread should be placed on the bottom of the oven. I have found that a loaf proved in a tin may be placed into the hot oven (as quickly as possible, to maintain oven temperature) on the floor of the oven or on the first shelf (wire rack). The key is to avoid the oven cooling too much. The temperature is critical in producing the rapid expansion of the dough (oven spring) at the start of baking which causes the dough to grow considerably in size and opens the slashes very wide. I don't bother with the boiling water business although I did it religiously for about two years, until I neglected it once and found I could get the same results with and without.
Leave to cool
Once the bread comes out of the oven, try to avoid cutting it up for at least two hours. The bread continues to cook while it is cooling. Cutting it up when it is still warm means that the inside is quite moist, and it will stick to the blade of the knife, making it difficult to slice. If the bread is baked in a tin, it should be removed from the tin as soon as possible after baking and allowed to cool on a wire rack. If this is not done the parts of the crust in contact with the tin will go soggy. If I'm baking in the evening I'll often take the bread out of the oven at about midnight and slice it in the morning before going to work.
Slice (if a loaf) and freeze
Cut the bread up, saw it with a continuous motion, avoid hacking at it. Buy a good bread knife. Try to keep the slices an even thickess. Put the bread in freezer bags and freeze immediately if it will not be consumed on the day it is cut. Freeze rolls too. Bread made with water, yeast, salt and flour has no preservatives and probably only two or three E numbers in total. These are probably all in the salt and act to stop it sticking together when it is damp (anti-caking agent). There is nothing to stop the bread going stale, and it will do so within 18 hours if it is not frozen or eaten.
Bibliography - Worth Reading
Bibliography - For the Coffee Table
July/August 2012. Updated January 2015.