Wednesday 1 July 2015

Why My Laziest Loaf is my Best Bread

The most common objection I hear to baking bread at home is 'I don't have the time', swiftly followed by 'I can't be bothered with all the faffing about.'. If these sound familiar this might be the post for you.

Science tells us that if you introduce wheat flour to water and leave them to their own devices, over time they will form a gluten network. A gluten network is what gives bread it's structure and allows it to rise: carbon dioxide produced by yeast reproduction inflates the little pockets in the gluten network. Hey presto! you have bread. 

That is basically all you need to know. So long as your priorities in making bread are taste and usability (meaning it's ability to make toast, soak up soup without collapsing and/or support the weight of your chosen sandwich filling?) you can make perfectly good bread with the minimum amount of faff. 

Here's a case study: 

Friday evening: I make a sponge of two parts strong wheat flour, one part rye flour (for flavour), four parts cold water and three grammes of dried yeast (not fast action yeast). I mix it up, cover it and leave it alone overnight. 

Saturday morning: I lift the lid and take a sniff of the bubbly, fermenting mixture that, without any help from me has spent the night in rampant reproduction. Next, life intervenes: it's sunny/I have to go out somewhere unexpectedly/I can't be bothered baking, so I decide not to make bread and stick the yeasty mixture in the fridge until later on. 
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Saturday tea time: I decide I'll make bread. So into a large mixing bowl goes 285g of the sponge, 450g of strong white bread flour, 5g salt, 15g honey, 15g nice olive oil. I stick a wooden spoon in it and mess the mixture about until all of the ingredients are roughly combined. Then I leave it alone. No kneading or other sweaty heaving around of dough. 

Next I work out that this bread will probably be ready to bake at the highly inconvenient time of 9pm. I mean, there is beer to be drunk; Casualty to be watched and scoffed at. So, into the fridge goes the dough. 

Sunday dawns. I get up and the first two things I do (aside from the usual first things men do in the morning) are take the bowl out of the fridge and put the oven on to heat up to a temperature approximately as hot as hell. This means in our case about 240 deg C, it won't go any hotter. 

Then I leave it alone again and do something else - take the dogs out in my case. An hour of so later I give the dough another short period of attention. 

Using a dough scraper I gently ease the dough from the bowl aiming to deflate it as little as possible (this is at odds with the old fashioned 'knocking back and proving' method, which frankly I think is mean when the yeast has done such a lot of hard work to inflate the dough). 
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Again, in the spirit of minimal involvement in this process I don't bother with any fancy shaping of the dough I simply gently fold the dough over itself a couple of times into an acceptable mound, typically this is a bit like an envelope fold, or folding it in thirds. Next I ease it onto a piece of baking parchment and then, using my patent piece of hardboard that is just narrower than the inside of our oven slide the dough onto the baking surface of the oven (I have a piece of thermal tile but preheated baking tray can work equally as well). 

Next I leave it alone again except for turning the oven down after 10 minutes to about 200deg C. There is a scientific reason for this but basically your bread goes brown and crusty at about 270deg due to the Maillard Reaction, that is why old-time bakers talk about baking in a 'falling oven', meaning a cooling one. 

So there you have it. These loaves are not items of aesthetic value unless you like rustic. If you want a fancy loaf to be a table centrepiece you can learn to make them, but fancy loaves definitely will need more dough-wrangling and skill. There are great bakers who can sell you loaves like that but if you are baking for taste and economy I don't think you can beat my lazy-loaf. 
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Oh, finally there is an added bonus to baking this way. Each time you extend the process by putting it in the fridge the yeast reproduces in a slightly different way producing different acids in the process. This makes the bread even more tasty and creates a very expensive-tasting loaf with barely any effort that will make your mouth water. 

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