I make my own bread. This wins me almost entirely undeserved admiration from many, especially when I admit (or confess) that I do not have a breadmaker. When you have limited kitchen space you learn to do without inessential gadgets, and a breadmaker (if you have a freezer) is very definitely inessential.
The key ingredients of making bread are flour, water, and yeast. Oil and salt aren’t key but the bread will taste much better.
You need a big bag of flour. (Three pounds/1.5 kilos.) I’m assuming you live somewhere you can get potable water from the tap, and that you have a means of boiling water. You need yeast.
Yeast comes in four basic forms: instant yeast, in small packets, which you mix with flour and which seems to work fine, probably due to some kind of evil magic. Dried yeast, which you buy in tins, which looks like small whitish-grey nodules. Fresh yeast, which you buy in blocks from wherever will sell it to you – where I live, the only source is a health food shop that gets in a supply once a week. And sourdough starter, or wild yeast, which you can make yourself or buy in packets.
Yeast is a fungus. Warm water and flour are the environment in which yeast grows. Yeast grows more slowly in a cold environment, but is killed dead by an environment too hot – if the water (or the dough) is too hot for you to handle, it’s too hot for the yeast to live in. Flour and water makes a solid paste which yeast enlivens into a dough, and the dough is held together as a coherent yet lively lump because of the gluten in the flour. The less yeast you add to the dough, the longer it will take to rise, and the better your bread will taste.
Gluten is a stringy protein that isn’t soluble in water – and providing you don’t have coeliac disease, it’s great stuff. When you buy flour to make bread, check for gluten levels – you are ideally looking for a high-gluten flour, which will be labelled “strong” or “bread” flour. You can make bread of sorts with any kind of flour – but the higher the gluten (and the longer you knead the dough) the better it will rise.
If you are using instant yeast: Do what it tells you to do on the packet. This may include evil rituals. The bread will rise perfectly and look lovely so long as you follow instructions, and is almost sure to taste better than anything bought plastic-wrapped and pre-sliced.
If you are using dried yeast: In a bowl, mix say about a quarter of a pint of boiling water with the same amount of water cold from the tap, dissolve a small amount of sugar in the warm water, and sprinkle a dessertspoonful of dried yeast over the liquid. Wait. After 10 minutes or so, the dried yeast will bloom – large white blossoming fungal growths will appear at the top of the liquid. You have achieved yeast. Mix this yeasty liquid with flour and more warm water and a bit more sugar and a large pinch of salt until you have achieved dough.
If you are using fresh yeast: You don’t need to use as much. Fresh yeast can be kept in the fridge for a week, or (cut it into small pieces) kept frozen for several months. In a bowl, mix say about a quarter of a pint of boiling water with the same amount of water cold from the tap. Put a piece of fresh yeast about the size of the first joint of your thumb into the warm water. If it’s frozen, you need to allow two or three minutes for it to defrost and dissolve: otherwise, just mix it into the water immediately, using a wooden spoon or a whisk, and then mix this yeasty liquid with flour and more warm water and a large pinch of salt until you have achieved dough.
If you are using sourdough starter: Reserve starter mixture from your last sourdough adventure and keep in the fridge. (If you want to make sourdough starter from scratch, you’re on your own. There are recipes. They all seem to take 3 days and involve some stenches.) Remove starter mixture from fridge and pour off the clear liquid that will have accumulated on the top. Add a cupful of flour. Pour boiling water into a jug, and when it is just cool enough for you to touch, add carefully to the flour/starter mix – the starter will be cold from the fridge, so you can start with hotter water than you would with fresh or dried yeast. Not too hot, or you’ll kill the yeast in the starter: a good rule is that if it’s too hot for your hands to handle, it’s too hot for the yeast. Put the starter mixture to one side and leave it for a while – if it’s a warm room and a strong starter, it could be bubbly and lively again in an hour: if a cold room or a weak starter, it might take as much as 12 hours.
(If in 12 hours the mix still looks flat, you may be able to refresh it by adding some pulped fresh fruit – a soft banana or peeled grapes or a very ripe peach are all good. Add some more flour and warm water, too.)
When the starter mix looks bubbly and lively, reserve part of it – put it back in the fridge for next time. Mix the rest with flour and more warm water and a bit more sugar and a large pinch of salt until you have achieved dough. Leave the dough to rise – with a sourdough starter, this could take anything from 4 to 24 hours, depending on factors such as:
1. How much starter you added, proportionate to the rest of the flour;
2. How warm the room is in which the dough is rising;
3. How much gluten there is in the flour you used;
4. How much you kneaded the dough before you left it to rise.
The nice part about baking with sourdough is that the dough is very forgiving: it rises slowly and it stays good to use for hours. You don’t need to worry if you end up leaving the dough to rise while you go to work, so long as you plan to be home from work within 24 hours: just oil the dough and cover the bowl with a cloth so cat hairs don’t get in.
Kneading the dough: You start by mixing a yeasty liquid into a dry mixture of flour, a little salt, and whatever other flavourings take your fancy. (You can also add oil, judiciously: this will make the bread moister.) At first this mixture will be wet and sticky. After a while, when it seems fairly cohesive, wash your hands and rub some grease on (oil, butter, margarine) and really knead the dough – pummel it, punch it, pick it up and hit it down against the counter. When bread dough is ready, it won’t stick to your hands: it’ll be a smooth, cohesive, warmish lump, neither stiff and dry (too much flour) nor loose and sticky (not enough flour). You can always add a bit more warm water or a little more oil if it seems too dry, or a bit more flour if it’s too loose (what bakers call a “slack dough” – the mixture behaves more like a liquid than a solid). It’s hard to describe what the right texture of dough is: but once you have the feeling of it in your hands, you never forget. If there’s not enough liquid in the dough, the loaves will never rise: if there’s too much, the loaves won’t hold themselves together well. Don’t be discouraged if your first attempt turns out wrong: just bury the results after dark at a crossroads with a stake through its heart, and start again. You will know when you got it right.
The first and second rising: Once the dough is properly kneaded, oil it (just pour a little oil into the bowl and turn the dough over in it twice or so) and leave it to rise until it’s doubled in size. This needs a warm room, but one that’s comfortable for you to sit in without a sweatshirt should do. (Yeast will still rise if it’s cold; it will just take longer.) For instant yeast: what it says on the packet. For dried yeast: two hours, more or less. For fresh yeast: one hour, more or less. For sourdough: three to 24 hours. Factors which affect rising: how much yeast you used, how warm the dough/the room is, how much gluten in the flour, and how hard you kneaded the dough. This is the first rising. Once the dough is doubled in size, more or less, break it into pieces and shape it into loaves or rolls or pizza bases or your initials or whatever takes your fancy. Grease your baking dishes and (ideally) put it into the oven where you mean to bake it. Leave it for the same amount of time again, more or less, until it again doubles in size. (With sourdough, try not to make it more than 12 hours, but sourdough is forgiving.) This is the second rising.
Baking your bread: Use metal loaf tins or pie pans or pizza pans or whatever you like, really, but: steel/iron is best. Ceramic isn’t good. Whatever you use, it has to be able to withstand a hot oven, and it has to be able to conduct a steady heat. Use a lot of grease: solid fat, not liquid oil, I think has the best results as far as making sure the rolls/loaves don’t stick to the pans. I use ghee a lot, when I’m not baking bread for vegans – clarified butter. Solid margarine, suitable for baking, is also good. Or real butter, if you’re feeling wealthy, but you need a lot. How long it takes to bake a loaf is obviously dependent on how hot your oven is, whether it’s fan-assisted, and how big your loaves are: to check if a loaf is done – if the crust is browned – slide the loaf gently out of the pan and tap on the bottom crust. If the loaf sounds hollow, it’s done. (If the loaf won’t slide gently out of the pan, either you didn’t use enough grease or the loaf isn’t anywhere near done: find out which.) Don’t be discouraged by making mistakes.
Don’t forget that although making bread takes time, most of the time you don’t need to do anything: bread rises by itself. And even bread made with poor flour and instant yeast smells and tastes wonderful when it’s freshly baked.
Things you can do when you make your own bread include instant lunches. Use good quality wholemeal flour, fortified with oats and/or soy or gram flour. You can work some grated cheese into the dough for extra protein and flavour.
When the dough is riz, instead of making it into loaves as the recipe probably sez, take a nice cooked sausage (of course of good quality – I use Wicken Fen – ) and wrap the dough round into a long roll with a sausage filling. The dough should completely seal in the hot sausage.
Bake in the oven till the bread’s done. Cool on a rack, and freeze.
Prep time – maybe an hour or two every couple of weeks, stretched over an evening.
Prep time the day you eat it – zero. Just take one out of the freezer, put it into a paper bag or a lunch box, and plan on eating it an hour or two later.