Although a pre-sliced loaf of bread is the epitome of modern convenience, I think that everyone should try making their own bread from scratch at least once in their life.
It will take a little more time and effort than heading to a supermarket and purchasing a loaf, but making homemade bread is an infinitely more satisfying experience.
No expensive equipment is required (other than your oven, of course). There are dough kneading attachments for electric mixers and automatic bread machines that can handle all the hard work, but do try making bread with your own hands at least once.
Bread flour is preferred because it has a higher protein content than other flours. More protein makes your bread dough more elastic, giving you a better result. However, you can still make perfectly good bread with all-purpose flour, and I’ve done so very successfully on more than one occasion.
1 cup lukewarm water
30g caster sugar
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 packet (approx. 12g) dry instant yeast
420g bread flour
Makes 1 loaf (about a dozen half-inch slices).
Step 1: In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients except the bread flour. At this point, you’re trying to wake up the yeast (or to see if they’re even still alive). The temperature of the mixture needs to be like warm bath water, or 45-50°C (115-120°F) if you own a thermometer. Any colder and the yeast may not wake up; any hotter and you risk killing them.
So after 10 minutes, your kitchen should smell just like beer and a nice heady foam should have built up on your liquid mixture. This means your yeast are alive and well, and ready to get to work.
Step 2: Mix in the bread flour. It will look straggly and disgusting at first, but keep mixing away. If you’ve been working with a spoon or a spatula up to this point, you’ll probably need to roll up your sleeves and use your hands as the dough begins to come together. Keep squishing the lumps together and eventually you’ll end up with a lump of dough and a relatively clean bowl.
Step 3: Dump the dough out on a clean work surface and knead for at least 10 minutes. The science of this stage is that you’re developing protein strands in the dough called gluten. The more gluten you develop, the better your bread is able to hold on to the air given off by the active yeast.
Despite what other (professional) bakers might tell you, there really isn’t any proper way to knead bread dough. You just want to keep working with the dough to develop its elasticity. My way of kneading is just to push down on the dough with the heels of my palms so it flattens, roll it back into a ball, and repeat.
Again, some bread purists will tell you to knead until the dough is smooth and elastic enough to be stretched thin without tearing. That takes forever to achieve by hand. I find that 5 to 10 minutes of kneading will giving you a nice elastic dough.
Step 4: When you’re done (or completely exhausted), just pat the dough back into a ball and toss it back into your mixing bowl.
Leave your dough in a warm place for about 30 minutes. This should be enough time for the yeast to create enough air to inflate the dough ball to twice its original size.
In the mean time, grease and flour your loaf tin. (I used a baking spray.)
Step 5: Turn out the dough on your work surface again and knead for a minute or two. Then, shape the dough so it fits into the base of your loaf tin.
Leave it for another 30 minutes to rise again and fill the tin. This is also the time to preheat your oven to 175°C (350°F).
Step 6: After the second rise, bake your bread for 30 minutes. To check if your bread is done, just tap the top of the loaf. It should sound hollow.
Turn your bread out of its tin and let it cool before slicing.
It’ll never be as pretty or as uniform as commercial bread, but you can be proud that you’ve made this loaf with your own hands. And you’ll definitely be amazed at how great it tastes. (It’s really so good that you can eat it on its own!)
Once you’ve mastered basic bread-making, the sky’s the limit. After the first rest and rise, you can shape your dough any way you want. Divide it into small balls for bread rolls, or into three long sections and plait them together. You can even just leave it as a roundish lump for a free-form country loaf. Or knead in other ingredients like herbs, seeds, nuts, dried fruits, or even chocolate chips! For high-fibre wholemeal bread, just substitute a third of the bread flour for wholemeal flour.