I've been trying to make good bread at home for some time. At first my bread was stodgy and heavy and inconsistent. I just couldn't work out what I was doing wrong. The bread books seemed to contain conflicting information on kneading, ingredients and baking times. Many of the recipes included sugar or honey and butter but didn't explain why.
As time went on I persisted until I eventually I realised the things I was doing wrong.
Here are my main tips for bread baking in general
- Ignore the recipe times for initial dough rise. Dough does not rise at the same rate all the time. If the recipe says wait two hours ignore it. Always wait until the dough has doubled in size approximately.
- Ovens are not all the same. Many ovens take 30-45 minutes to reach operating temperature. This is why many baking books tell you to put the oven on before you start a recipe. An oven thermometer will give you an idea how accurate your oven's built in thermometer is. Only bake your bread when the oven is properly hot.
- If the dough hasn't risen do not bake it. I started off with stale yeast. I didn't realise this until it was too late. I had baked a loaf which was inedible. It was like a lump of foreign matter. Dried yeast has a shelf life so it's a good idea to keep it in the fridge until use. If the dough doesn't rise then get some more yeast and sprinkle it into the dough and knead it again and wait until it does rise.
- A good hot oven gives a better initial rise. If you can get your oven to 250°C then bake your bread for the initial 20 mins at that temp and then lower to 220°C.
- Commercial ovens produce steam to keep the dough moist during the initial rise. At home you can put a container of water at the bottom of the oven to achieve a similar effect. Or you can use a pre-heated Dutch Oven to bake. The Dutch Oven method works brilliantly and you will be amazed at how easy it is to get a fantastic crust and a light and well risen loaf.
- Ditch sugar and oil from your dough to start with. They only add extra calories. You can add them in later to see what difference they make. Keep it simple: FLOUR, WATER, SALT and YEAST.
For my simple no mess focaccia at home recipe these are the ingredients
- 500kg of strong white bread flour, any variety will do. In the UK Lidl do the cheapest at 75p for 1.5kg. But if you have the cash get organic unbleached. Ideally you want flour with a protein content around 12-13%. Very strong Canadian flour is often 14 or 15%. So avoid that if you are a beginner. Or if you have very strong flour add in 100g of ordinary plain flour to make it easier to work. Avoid flours with a protein content of around 9%. These are general purpose flours which are good for cakes. If you use these for bread making your bread will be ok but it will have a cakey crumb.
- 1 sachet of fast action dried yeast.
- 360ml of tepid water. I use 360ml because I like the focaccia I get from a wetter dough. It's hard to work but it doesn't matter since you work it in a bowl.
- 8-10g of table salt to taste. Start with 10g and reduce later to see at what level the bread is still palatable. No salt bread is awful. Since water test varies you may find you can get away with less salt where you are.
- A good bunch of fresh Rosemary (dried is ok and Parsley or Oregano work well too)
- Sea salt
- Olive oil for drizzling
One great thing about this method is that you do not make a mess of the worktop so you can make this bread in a small work space. It's ideal for a boat or caravan. You will need a decent supply of water though for cleaning up and I cannot guarantee you won't make a mess when you come to eat the bread. There will be crumbs everywhere!
Put all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl in any order you like. I use the bowl from my antique Kenwood mixer. Fill a jug with warm water and have this next to the bowl. Wet a hand in the jug and work the mixture together with your hand.
Depending on the flour you may need more water. Brown or wholemeal flours usually do. I find 360ml works for most white bread flour for this focaccia. I suggest starting off with white since it is more forgiving and you are likely to get a much better first result. If you have very strong flour (say 14% protein then use 75g of plain flour and 425g of the strong). Stronger flour has more protein and is harder to work.
Keep dipping your hand in the jug of water and mixing the dough until everything is incorporated. Use two hands if you prefer but I like to have one hand clean so I can scrap off the dough from my right hand with a plastic bread scraper.
Now use a pincer movement to chop the dough up with your hand. Then press it all together again and then do this again several times to make sure all the ingredients are well mixed. The dough should be wet and sticky. Avoid the temptation to add more flour. Do not turn the dough out onto the worktop and knead. It's not necessary. You will be stretching the dough in the bowl instead. It saves so much waste, mess and time spent cleaning up.
Now take a fistful of dough in one hand and lift it up and stretch it over the rest of the dough in the middle of the bowl. Turn the bowl around a quarter turn and do the same again. If the dough is very springy and hard to stretch add a bit more water.
When you have turned the bowl around and stretched the dough toward the middle a few times you will notice the dough starting to change. If the dough was really wet and batter like it will start to look more like bread dough.
Leave the dough for 20 minutes and then come back a repeat this stretching process. Wet your hand at each stage and with practice you will not get too much dough stuck to your skin. Scrape any that does back into the bowl.
Leave for ten minutes and stretch the dough again.
Now cover the bowl with a wet cloth or a plastic bag and leave to rise. Check up on the dough after an hour.
I find it usually takes around 1-2 hours to double in size in a warm kitchen. But sometimes it takes longer. You must wait until you think it has doubled in size completely.
While you are waiting for the initial rise to complete prepare a baking tray by lining it with baking parchment. If you have a very good non stick one then you may not need to do this but I find with this sticky dough you will be in trouble if you don't line the tray. Ideally the tray should have some kind of lip or sides to it but it's not essential.
The dough will be wet and sticky. Again resist the temptation to add more flour.
Wet your hands with olive oil and very gently turn the dough out onto the parchment in the middle of the tray.
Now gently press the dough out around the tray being careful not to dislodge the parchment. If it's very springy you will have to decide at which point it's futile to keep trying to spread it out. Usually I try to spread it out so that it's about an inch thick.
Now cover the tray with a plastic bag so that the plastic does not touch the dough.
After about 30 minutes to an hour check to see how much the dough has risen and spread. If it has risen again nicely or "proved" wet a finger and gently press the dough. It should spring back slowly and stop just before it's original level. It should also look pillowy and ready to bake. If it's not ready then leave it longer.
If you have forgotten about it and left it too long don't worry, it will bake and still taste great. If it has overflowed the tin then you can push it back in. It will be out of shape but it will still taste great.
Now put the oven on at 250°C if it will go that high. If not then 220°C will do fine. The higher temperature will help the bread rise better. The crucial thing is to be sure the oven has reached operating temperature before you stick the bread in.
Now get some fresh rosemary from the garden and chop it up or break it into small sprigs with your fingers. If you haven't got rosemary then oregano, parsley and sage all work well. And yes you can use dried instead.
Dip a finger in olive oil and gently make small holes all over the dough about half the depth if the dough. If the dough is deflating rapidly when you press your finger in then skip this step.
Drizzle olive oil all over the dough; generously but not swimmingly. Sprinkle over the rosemary and then sprinkle over some sea salt.
Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes and then have a look. If it's very brown turn the oven down and cook for another ten minutes. I prefer a rich dark coloured crust but cook until you reach your preferred colour. Around 30 mins.
When it comes out of the oven you must leave it to cool for a while and then lift it and remove the baking paper. Then leave on a cooling rack. It's best eaten warm.