Proving Improvements – Getting the Hang of the Basics.

In this, the second slice of my doughy journey, I’ll describe some of my experiences, and some of the things I found most useful, whilst learning to bake bread.  Read about my bready beginnings in the first part, here.  It bears mentioning that, as I write this, I am still very much in my “fresher” period of baking; a few months in with some loaves I’m happy with under my belt, but I’ve still a lot to learn.  My hope is that, by writing as I do so, I’ll help those at a similar stage, and learn from the communal wisdom of the baking blogosphere as I go.

Having chanced upon a pleasing first-ever loaf, my second disavowed me of any delusions of grainy grandeur I had developed, I had experienced both satisfaction (making me want to bake) and the challenge of failure (making me want to bake well);  I had to try again. With the rock-hard dough disaster, I found the initial rise to be underwhelming, and so in an attempt to encourage it along, put it in the top section of the oven, where the grill-pan normally lives, and as a result, the dough dried out, and the outer surface began to crack and “cook”.  By the time it got to the oven, it looked a mess, but I convinced myself it was worth proceeding.  I did, and the result was inedible, beyond tearing a bit of ill-formed dough from the centre, when I somehow broke through the brick-like outer shell. Tragic.

My First (successful, and deliberate) Loaf

However, I was not put off, and my next loaf was far more respectable.  It was edible, rose more steadily, and had a more reasonable crust.  The next few loaves continued with a steady improvement in quality.  I started to get more of a feel for the dough, and my confidence began to grow.  Rather than bore you, dear readers, with an incessant narrative description of my bakes, I shall summarise my early learning in the form of a list:

Knead, knead, then knead some more…

ElinorD kneading bread dough

Go on! Give it a yank! Image via Wikipedia

Whilst I recognise that there are well-respected methods (that I’m keen to try) that use very little kneading, if you are going about the bake in a typical, 10-or-so minutes of kneading, manner, then don’t be shy.  Really stretch the dough, keep at it (if it’s possible to over-knead bread, then I’m yet to do it), and you’ll reap the rewards.  My most recent loaf I kneaded for 20+ mins and my dough was smoother and more pliable.

…But try not to add too much flour

Many recipes advise you to add more flour if you’re finding the dough too sticky.  This will stop the dough being as sticky, but will also make for a more dense loaf.  When kneading, lightly flour your work surface, keep the dough moving, and keep kneading.  It will become less sticky, and you’ll have maintained the balance between flour and water, which governs crumb structure.

I think of adding flour while kneading, in this instance, like stabilisers  on a bicycle: if it helps you along at first, then use it, but try and get-rid as soon as you feel comfortable.

Pay attention to how you shape the dough

The shaping of dough is a skill in its own right, and worthy of an article of its own.  I started by just patting the dough into the rough shape I wanted.  It produced edible loaves, but when I started being more deliberate, and following the advice of Dan Lepard, Tom Herbert et al, then I produced a more attractive, and better risen, loaf.
If you’re producing a round, Boule-type, loaf, for example, then, having kneaded your dough, pinch the top of your dough and bring it towards the middle, then turn the dough through 45 degrees and do the same. Repeat until you have worked all the way round the loaf, having tucked in the edge 8 times (I think of a compass – N, NE, E, etc.). Then place your dough for proving with the “seamed” side (the side towards which’s centre you’ve been pulling the dough) underneath.  For a better explanation, by an expert, with helpful pictures, see Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf.

Humidity is the friend of your crust

When you put on the oven to heat up, put in a baking tray underneath the bottom shelf, onto which you’re going to put your loaf.  When you put your loaf in to bake, add a cup of water to the baking tray.  If it sounds like a faff, try it once, and you won’t go back.
Whilst I’m here: Bake your bread at the bottom of your oven when possible.  It took me surprisingly long to cotton on to this; none of the recipes mentioned it, yet I believe it is one of the ABCs of bread.

Leave the bread to cool

Trust me, I know how torturous the wait can be: warm, freshly baked bread is as lovely a smell as there is anywhere in the world, but your bread will thank you for leaving it to cool.  And who doesn’t love their bread grateful?!

A Baker is Born…

As I continue to bake, I feel a change coming over me.  I find myself wanting to bake, for the sake of the bake.  I find myself looking ahead to plan my next night of kneading, and the joyous transformation between putting dough into the oven, and bringing out bread , boosts my mood like substances less healthy than anything you can make with flour.  My family, and girlfriend, are asking if I’d bake bread for this occasion or that. I feel like I’ve cracked it!   It being a half-decent basic white loaf.  Small victories!

If you think I’ve got something wrong, say so in a comment, I’d be glad of the advice!

8 thoughts on “Proving Improvements – Getting the Hang of the Basics.

  1. Nice post Will! I’ve yet to create my first proper loaf (as in not a dense doughy brick) so will have to give it a try this weekend.

  2. Hi Will

    You’re right – it looks as if we are at about the same stage! Exciting stuff this bread- best of luck and let me know any tips you pick up!

    So far, I have noticed that my doughs rise much slower than it suggests in the books – around 90 mins-2hrs. Maybe just because it is colder up here?!

    Can’t wait to try today’s attempts- River Cottage Bread Handbook!

    Happy baking – Claire x

    • I found if I leave them at room temperature they do. I put them near a radiator or heater, as I don’t have an airing cupboard anymore. I also found that the temperature of the water makes a difference, as it effects how quickly the yeast activate – I aim for tepid water – about body temperature. I made it with water that was colder once, and it took longer to rise.

      Look forward to reading about the River Cottage results!

  3. Hi Will, like you, I’m at the stage of getting reliable loaves, both wheat & sourdough, but it’s taken me a year . I also love baking for the sake of it – I went on a couple of courses at loafonline in Birmingham – brilliant, Tom Baker is such a great teacher – patient and interested..I use his sponge recipe, and get really consistent results, both white & wholemeal. I also make sourdough, with the starter from the course, which I have kept going with all types of flour – white, rye, wholemeal, depending on how lively it is.
    The method I have started to use, (even with the sponge) and it works every time is from here –
    when I work from home, I can make bread without getting too floury – it’s worth a try, and I just leave it in our kitchen/dining room, so it’s a big old space, and not particularly warm. If I start the mix at around 7.45, stretch every 45 mins, may be 3 times, maybe 4, then shape into a tin, and leave again for the final rise, bake for 35-40 mins, I can have loaves by lunchtime..
    Sorry to ramble, but the River Cottage recipes are also good..

    • D’you know, Simon, I read that article the other day! Via Dan Lepard on twitter I think. I’m planning on trying out the little-to-no kneading methods. Thanks for the tip off!

      Courses sound great, I have so much still to learn, but I’m becoming completely obsessed! I had a very successful sour-dough starter underway, very lively after it’s first week, but just before I could bake with it… I dropped the jar. Big, big, weeps. I shall be starting again very soon, and blogging all about it, naturally.

      Thanks for reading!

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