Friday 8 February 2019

Four Tips to Help You Make Better Bread at Home

Why do people find baking bread regularly at home so hard? You can make bread that is far and away better than anything you can buy in a supermarket yet so many people try and then give up. 

A friend of mine went on a bread making course and made really good bread but couldn't quite match the success of that day at home. So what's going wrong with home-baked loaves?

Here are my top tips for baking better bread at home, and some of the reasons why we struggle: 

1. Following recipes: most of us use a recipe to bake bread, usually the recipe will give timing guidelines (this is especially the case if you've been on a bread-making course where you had to fit the process into a given time)  

Ignore the timings 

Making bread is a natural process and relies on the reproduction of yeast to make it swell and grow into the glorious shapes we know and love. In order for it reproduce it requires conditions that are conducive for it to get down to it (we all know that feeling).

Your kitchen may be different to that of the recipe writer, or from where you did your course so things might not happen in exactly the same time as you expect. Be patient, it will happen, get used to how the dough should look and feel rather than looking at the clock saying 'it should be ok by now'

2. Don't get bogged down by the faff! 

'I'd love to make my own bread but I can't be bothered with all the faff' says another friend of mine. 

Have a look at this post for a case study of how you can make good bread with less effort and make it fit your lifestyle, instead of sitting indoors waiting for your dough to rise. Make bread in a way that suits you rather than fitting your day around the bread. 

3. Ovens - the place where the magic happens: 

Ovens need to be hot, I don't mean just hot, I mean REALLY hot. 

When you gently slide your lovely swollen pillow of dough into the oven it needs to immediately jump up with a shout of 'Good grief that's hot'!  

There's a term that bakers use called 'oven spring'. That's a way of describing the rapid expansion of the gases inside your loaf the moment it enters a hot oven: that's what gives it that fabulous blooming rise and gives it the holey texture we associate with bread. The yeast has made bubbles inside the loaf as it reproduced and they expand as it heats up rapidly in the oven. 

Most domestic ovens are not good at being very hot, well at least not good at staying very hot when the oven door is opened (unless you are fortunate enough to have an Aga or similar hefty cast iron cooker). 

Another term bakers like to use is 'thermal mass' this is the capacity of your oven to retain heat so that when the oven door is opened the temperature doesn't dip too much. Increase your oven's thermal mass by baking on a baking stone or similar that has been preheated in the oven. I have one oven shelf full of fire bricks, and one with a cadged tile from the floor of a bakery oven (see picture). 

Whatever the thermal mass of your oven it needs to heat up properly before you are ready to bake: that means not assuming it is hot enough when the light goes out but giving it a good 45 minutes or so to get really hot before you introduce your bread to it. 

4. Crust: Are you disappointed with the lack of crust on your loaves? Most commercial bakers add steam to their ovens during baking. Also most domestic ovens are vented to allow steam to escape as food cooks: this is bad for crusty bread.

You can help to create crust by adding boiling water to a tray on the bottom of your oven as you put your bread inside, some of the steam will still escape but you will certainly get a crustier loaf than otherwise. 

Did you know that the crust to crumb ratio in a loaf makes different shaped loaves of the same bread taste differently? Amazing isn't it: so a round crusty cob with a large surface area will have more crust than a tin loaf where only the top surface is crusty and taste totally different. 

So don't give up, home baked bread is fabulous, come back and let me know how you go on. Send pictures of bread on Twitter @crofty  - you can't see too much bread porn!.. here's one I made yesterday. 

Sunday 15 April 2018

The not-so secret secret of Sourdough

I've been struggling to get my dough-mo-jo back recently. I got out of the habit of baking regularly when my mother-in-law got ill and then died. I used to make bread for everyone: about six or seven loaves of a Sunday, and it was good bread too, mainly sourdough. 

Once I got out of a routine though I seemed to lose the knack. Just over the last few weeks though my bread has been improving and I've kick started the sourdough. 

I wrote the blog post below quite some time ago; it features my late mother-in-law - I hope my stealing her heat pad didn't hasten her demise (read on and you decide!)... 

Culturing sourdough is easy, so why does much of the advice about it sound like a cross between necromancy and alchemy?

Why does sourdough seem so difficult?

Most amateur bakers have their own bread-bible for guidance, mine is Andrew Whiteley's Bread Matters, Dan Leopard's True Loaf is another, the sourdough starter recipes are consistently simple, here's one:

-Some organic wholemeal Rye Flour
-Some water
-Nature (or science if you prefer)

If you think I'm being flippant I apologise. In truth I struggled to get a starter going at first but the reasons were simple.

Let's go back to the recipe and consider each ingredient:

Organic wholemeal rye flour -sourdough relies on natural yeasts in the air and flour to give it life. Therefore the freer your flour is from artificial messing about the better chance you have of seeing some life from it.

Water - again the cleaner and purer the better, if your tap water doesn't have chlorine in it all the better (chlorine's there to kill bugs, we want to encourage them). Our water is chlorinated - it still works ok
Nature (or science) - yeasts multiply best between 28-32 degrees centigrade (apparently).
This was where my error lay. Time after time I'd mix a gloopy slop and wait for bubbles to form, sniffing tentatively and hoping for that tell-tale fruity tang that let's you know the yeasty blighters are reproducing.

Again and again it either dried up or went mouldy.

I returned to bread- guru Whiteley's advice and it struck me: consistent temperature.
I set about searching for a consistently warm place, but with no hot water tank, drew a blank.

Then I had a eureka moment: this was very similar to brewing. I investigated a variety of brewer's heat pads, which all looked promising. Then I remembered my mum-in-law's arthritis. All that remained was to whip the fleecy heating pad from her feeble grip and we were set.

It works a treat.

What? Her arthritis?... Err...
Anyway I have had a sourdough going for months now. So long as I use it and refresh it once a week, replacing old with new each time, it delivers vigorous, bubbly life to my loaves every time.

(The only secret is to make sure the Moon is in Gemini when you start your culture, that and the naked goat-dance in the garden.) 

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Food Fight! - Is There a Class War Over Food?

There's a food fight going on though it's more like a class war. And, as often is the case in war, the rich and the powerful are calling the shots while the rest of us fire the bullets. 

Last week food journalist Marina O'Loughlin put her head above the parapet when she reviewed a new branch of the Wetherspoons in Ramsgate, Kent. You can read what she said here, but going off the social media response, you would think she had murdered a kitten rather than give some robust views on what was essentially poor quality food. Immediately she was badged as elitist for criticising basically bad food. 'Don't you dare mess with our Wetherspoons, you middle class metropolitan hack!' came the tribal response. 

This fits with the drawing of battle lines hinted at in Dr Jessica Paddock's research of farmers' markets. Her work at Bristol University investigates social inequalities associated with everyday eating. She discovered that predominantly working class people consider themselves to be out of place and possibly not welcome at farmers markets: a sort of 'not for the likes of us' entrenchment in the minds of poorer people. My own observation is that the same attitudes are equally prevalent in farm shops: the buying populations of say Aldi and those in farm shops don't seem naturally interchangeable. 

You could argue that this delineation is just market driven: farmers markets simply sell higher quality, more expensive foods that less well off people cannot afford, so they don't go there. Equally you wouldn't expect the people who go out to eat in Wetherspoons to sit down at Anton Pitrowski's new restaurant Rosk  for example. So it's no wonder that Marina Loughlin experienced the excoriating feedback she received from the pie and a pint public.

But hang on, wasn't one of the reasons for introducing farmers' markets to shorten food chains; bring us closer to the producers and make decent fresh, well made food more easily available; to try to break the stranglehold that the supermarkets have? Don't we aspire to decent fresh food for all? Where did this elitist, middle-class image that farmers' markets have, come from? Why do Wetherspoons loyalists staunchly defend poor quality food as a defining working class characteristic?

Dr Jessica Paddock herself admits that this division exists, she says:
'My research focused on a market (of the distinctive artisanal kind) and a community food co-op selling fresh fruit and veg at affordable prices...those on low incomes still wish to eat good food (their absence [from farmers markets] being both about price and cultural discomfort among those with some money to spend on 'good' food'. 

'[They] find they do not belong in a farmers' market kind of space, and therefore frame sustainable food as snobby or for the middle class'.
Farmers markets seem to sit with the high-end artisanal craft products rather than simple decent food. They may be vitally important in retaining and developing traditional food craft like charcuterie and many would argue that such producers push up quality by showing us how food should be made properly thereby raising our aspirations and expectations. This though seems to simply feed the foodie culture that working class people view as middle class and elitist. 

In Marina O'Loughlin's response to the outpouring of anger at her slating of Wetherspoons' food she points out that there are many independent cafes and restaurants selling reasonably priced decent fresh food: her criticism is not snobbery it is fairly aimed at poor cooking. So why don't the Wetherspoons public seek out better food? I guess that most of them think that that is how food should be, it perhaps tastes similar to the processed diet experienced by a great many people on low incomes. So when you have enough spare cash for a treat and head to the chain that is Wetherspoons you can understand why a Guardian writer's criticism might make you huffy. 

So if good food is for all of us where do people in food poverty, for example access and learn about it? How do you get to know that prawns can taste better and not be chewy. Certainly one of the criticisms of Food Banks has been that food given to the poor is what we expect the poor to eat: tinned and processed foods. 

Bucking that trend are some food banks (Oldham for example) where cooking classes are given, and especially Liverpool's Can Cook programme seeking to smash the traditional Food Bank model.

I'd argue that there is a better over all solution. Certainly in the Northwest our town markets remain a go-to alternative to the supermarket where you can conceivably do a big shop. I'd like to see farmers' markets have the hipster taken out of them and put artisan makers alongside traditional fruit and veg stalls. Let's see Wetherspoons customers rub shoulders with Masterchef-watching hipsters: one buying venison and red wine sausage, the other buying bangers for mash at teatime - each though made with the same attention to quality by the same producer.

I'd love Wetherspoons customers to read Marina O'Loughlin's descriptions of their food she and give a wry chuckle at her descriptions like I did, knowing enough about food to know she is right and say 'fair enough'. 

So who am I writing this for? If you are a food writer, a journalist an academic or food policy maker; a Food Bank volunteer, a campaigner or a town planner I'm writing for you to spur you on in the battle to take decent fresh food out of niches, to stop making it seem special and get it alongside what most of us buy each day.

In this class war it is in the interests of the big beasts like Wetherspoons to have people feel that they are the champions of the less well off; they would love to have people feel that that is where they belong; that that food is for the likes of them. So let's fight back: support projects like Can Cook (take a minute to have a look at it, it's fab), and influence where you have influence. 

Let's stop making well cooked, well produced food seem so up itself. I like Masterchef as much as anyone but can't help thinking that sometimes it seeks to elevate food above most people's aspirations, rather than getting alongside them to encourage and inspire them to eat better.

Good food IS for the likes of us. All of us.

Friday 29 September 2017

The Not-So-Shocking Supermarket Chicken Shocker

Were you shocked by the Guardian/ITV expose that allegedly uncovered a catalogue of food standards breaches? Their undercover reporting appeared to reveal unsold chicken that had been returned to the factory was being repackaged and sent out as fresh. They discovered labels changed on crates of chicken that altered the 'killed' date to both extend the shelf life and change the identification of the source of the birds, making traceability meaningless. 

You shouldn't be shocked. 

I doubt that anyone who has ever worked in a target-driven industrial set-up will be quite as shocked. You see, as much as supermarkets, with their faux-farm labelled packages, like us to have an image of our food coming from a bucolic, green-and-pleasant land farm, the truth is that the vast majority of supermarket meat - especially chicken - is produced on an industrial scale with industrial values. 

Equally, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) were quick to point out that an effective and efficient audit system was in place and reeled off a list of audits that were meant to prove that all is well in our industrial food system. I think they intended it to reassure us but it doesn't does it? What it says is that in spite of the FSA these alleged target-cheating practices still happened and, according to witnesses are endemic.

Not so long ago we saw stomach turning footage of an abattoir worker literally throwing sheep onto a fast moving conveyor belt. Two things were clear from the secretly filming: one cruel practices were taking place unchecked, but also the worker was clearly struggling to keep up with the pace of work that was demanded of him. He sacrificed animal welfare for the sake of keeping up with the production target required.     

Target driven cultures do not encourage workers to produce products enriched by the wholesome values that company bosses say they aspire to. Targets drive people to achieve the targets - often no matter how that is achieved. 

This might be fine where volume is everything, where widgets are made to a standard specification for example and they either are, or aren't right. But this is our food, and food embodies a whole raft of other attendant issues. Things like animal welfare, health and hygiene, and public trust to name a few. 

I would argue, and often do, that factories are no place for food production. 

Next time you meet someone that has worked in a target driven culture ask them what tricks they learnt to cheat the targets. I've worked in one and could tell you a few. Fans of targets might tell you that it is simply that the targets in this case were the wrong ones - if you get the targets right, they say, you will get good, measurable performance that encapsulates the values and regulations you want applied to your food. 

I would argue differently - I am a fan of systems thinking, a completely different approach to work and the way to manage it. For a readable and witty look at targets and how they constantly fail us in the public sector, I'd recommend this blog. 

In the meantime, lets not throw our hands up in horror that workers cheat in order to achieve what they believe the company wants of them. Let's accept that food made in factories is inherently driven by profit: feeding the nation with wholesome food is a secondary (if at all) driver. Food from factories is simply a commodity to be traded. 

If, like me, you do not like this sort of food manufacture, make it your mission to buy food from places where the supply chain is short and people can tell you where the food came from. A good butcher can usually tell you where their meat was killed and where it was farmed. You don't need me to tell you that is not the case in a supermarket. 

Tuesday 4 April 2017

What Our Local Card Shop Says About Shopping Locally

Congratulations Michelle!

For thirty years Michelle has sold local people greetings cards from her shop Celebrations in Lees village centre near Oldham. It was the anniversary of her launching the shop last week. The shop is successful, by Michelle's standards at any rate - she never wanted to be rich, just make a living. On the day of the shop's anniversary she was surprised how many people wanted to wish her well and say thank you for being a witness to and, in a small way, a participant in the events of their lives for thirty years. 

Michelle's shop is a model of what local shopping means, and perhaps gives us a clue about what things might convince people to spend their money locally with small retailers and producers. 

So what is it that made us want to wish Michelle well and makes us choose to spend our money at Celebrations, rather than choose a greetings card online, or at a supermarket where it might well be cheaper? 

If you spend a moment browsing the aisles of cards you often overhear the conversations that, I think, demonstrate the added value that Michelle gives to her customers. She has empathy in bucket loads: I have heard her sensitively help someone who is clearly at a loss to choose a card for a bereaved friend; I have seen her be giddily excited with someone on the birth of their first grandchild, and I have seen her guide (usually) a man to choose a card for his partner with sensitivity and tact. 

You don't get that in Tesco (other soulless retailers are available for you to avoid). 

The big retailers bang on about value, but value brands usually mean cheap. They are missing the point by a mile but are winning the battle to convince consumers that the only value in their shopping experience is the cost of the products they purchase. 

Perhaps when we think about the next marketing move for small retailers we should think about promoting the real value in shopping locally. The value gained from a relationship with someone that understands the product and understands how the retailer can add value to that product (like Michelle with her empathy or your local food producer/retailer with their knowledge and skill that ensures you get value in your food). 

In the meantime here's to Michelle and her thirty years of greetings cards that have seen us through the ages of our sons when you got badges on the front of cards, through our parents big birthdays, our bereavements and our births. 

Tuesday 31 January 2017

Do You Really Choose the Food You Buy? - Take Back Control.

There is a growing movement of food revolutionaries fighting to help you take back control of how we choose what we eat. 

You didn't know there was a fight to be had? Read on...

Who decides what food you buy for your family? Surely you do right? It is you that writes your shopping list picks items from the shelves and  place them in the trolley. But lift the lid of the products we choose  and it is much less clear who is choosing what we eat.

I've written before about the hidden contents of processed and packaged food, the sort of foods we trust  other people to prepare for us, particularly the big food manufacturers. Investigative journalist Joanna Blythman's book Swallow This sets out the stark reality of the questionable contents of much processed food.  Even with the protection of our own Food Standards Agency there are many ingredients in our food that have no food value yet are lawfully included solely for the purposes of making food easier to pass through machines, and therefore more profitable; and these processing aids do not need to be listed as ingredients.

Recently though, the worrying prospect of having less stringent food standards foisted on us as the result of post-Brexit trade deals has become a distinct possibility For example the US profit motive encourages  intensive farming systems many of us wouldn't endorse, and allow the use of pesticides that have been banned in Europe for some time.

This article in the Guardian newspaper explains how such a trade deal could have us importing food farmed in ways we disapprove of with chemicals we believe to be harmful. Yet if you eat processed food - tinned meat goods, or ready meals for example- you may well not know that your food comes from those sources.

Those of us with enough money may already be buying ourselves out of such worries by shopping ethically, buying fresh fruit and vegetables, and selecting organic produce. But where you have less cash there is even less choice: Buying food at the cheaper end of the price range means having less choice about where it comes from.

So we don't always have the choice we think.

Rooting and Fruiting, Todmorden,
I recently discovered the Food Sovereignty movement, established by groups of third world farmers forced into near starvation when big business farming organisations made their small-scale farms unviable as businesses. By sharing resources and  knowledge,  and  working from the principle that farming should be primarily about feeding people rather than making money food producers are fighting back to make fresh food accessible and affordable for everyone.

In the UK we have our own Food Sovereignty movement  a sort or reaction to the temporary Food Bank solution that sometimes means people in food poverty are forced to eat poor quality food. Groups of allotment growers, guerrilla gardeners and other community minded food producers are forming a network of sustainable, local food producers whose motive is not solely individual profit.

Take a look at our own  projects in Oldham, or Salford's Incredible Edible and cross the border to Yorkshire to see the innovative Yorkshire mushroom growers at Rooting and Fruiting.  These vibrant growing communities are a world away from the large-scale globalised agri-giant organisations that try to convince us that our attitude to food production should be that it is best carried out at a distance by those that know best. I think we know better than that, don't we.

If you want a manifesto for taking back control of the food you choose here are some suggestions:

  • Buy food from people you can have a conversation with about where it comes from, and who can answer questions knowledgably and with interest
  • Try to shorten your food chains - buy food where there is only one or two steps between the person producer and yourself
  • Buy organic when you can. Organic meat is expensive - that will help us value it more: eat less but eat better.
  • Support your local growing organisations and Food Sovereignty organisations in person preferably - get involved.
  • Grow your own food and waste less - be creative about what you eat, use leftovers

Feel free to add your own suggestions - let's work together and take back control of the food we feed our families. 

Saturday 26 November 2016

The Need to Knead

Across the globe bakers knead. Wherever wheat doughs are made, kneading happens. Jane Mason, founder of Virtuous Bread is currently working on The Travelling Bread Oven, a film celebrating bread across the globe. She says:

introducing flour to water

'...there are all sorts of stories of turn of the last century bakers in Mexico kneading with their feet, and I think everyone knows the story of the Greek baker who kneads the dough by rolling it around on his burly, sweaty chest.  Are they true?  Who knows.  In every country I have gone to, the bakers - whether home or professional - knead...'

Yet the mystical, almost alchemical aura that kneading seems to have makes it equally enthralling and intimidating for new bread makers; and for some even the idea that bread making requires physical exertion is quite simply off-putting.

According to science though, it doesn't have to be like that. Kneading dough is simply a method of speeding up the biological process of gluten development. Gluten is the term for two protein molecules, glutenin and gliadin, present in wheat flours and some other related cereals. In the presence of water they form bonds to create a stretchy gluten network. It is that network that gives structure to breads by trapping carbon dioxide produced by yeast and allowing them to rise.

Yet many bakers have observed that after a rough mix, and without much additional intervention, wheat flour and water will form a gluten network. The Glutenin and Gliadin molecules form an orderly network on their own given time.

Not pretty but great bread
So if the thought of dough-rolling across a hairy chest makes you shudder, or if you have been in a physical relationship with dough for a while and just want to be less kneady, there are other options.
Some grains other than wheat have very little gluten but bags of flavour. In much of Northern Europe rye breads are a staple and require little manipulation of dough to create rich and flavourful breads.
People with joint problems may find that the squeezing and stretching of dough is not possible: no-knead doughs may be a solution.

 With his book My Bread, writer and baker Jim Lahey reportedly revolutionised New York's home bread making by showing how thick crusty breads of a quality usually associated with the best craft bakers, could be made with less effort than traditional bread making methods. Using wetter doughs and a Dutch Oven pot to simulate bakery oven conditions he showed that virtually no kneading is required. For those still sceptical, food scientist Harold McGee sets out in his book On Food and Cooking how the detailed chemical processes that result in the formation of a gluten network really do not need much help from us other than to introduce flour to water.  

And if all that science sounds too much like school, Suzanne Dunaway's book No Need to Knead uses lovely descriptions of her New York/Italian upbringing to make the point that the there is no place for a dough-wrangler in her kitchen. Each author makes the case that no matter how much we might enjoy wrestling a few kilogrammes of sticky mass into silky submission we don't have to do it. 

Home bakers have the advantage over professionals in that they do not necessarily need to fit their baking into an eight-hour bakery shift. This means that some form of kneading or dough manipulation is more or less essential to create bread in an eight-hour bakery shift. Yet it is still possible to reduce the amount of kneading. BBC Food and Farming Award finalist E5 Bakehouse, for example, stretch and fold dough at intervals rather than carry out a single concerted knead.
Wetter doughs make for holier bread

By learning to work with wetter doughs creative bakers can not only exploit the property of water to reduce the amount of kneading required but also create wonderful holey and wholesome European breads whose doughs almost defy attempts to knead them. A glistening pillow of ciabbata dough waiting to be gently divided into ubiquitous slipper shapes is a lovely sight.  

Yet as I hear myself describing them I can't help but think that I'm approaching this from the wrong direction. I'm not making an art installation, or writing a poem. I want bread making to be at the heart of people's lives in a way that is practical, nourishing and useful. The need to knead, or not, is about helping people find ways to make real bread that fits all kinds of ways of living. If discovering that we don't have to knead teaches us anything it teaches that there are even more ways to help people introduce good real bread into their lives. Knead if you like, but if you always thought breadmaking was not for you because of the need to knead, help is at hand.

Previously appeared in True Loaf, the magazine of the Real Bread Campaign