I make a lot of bread. Nearly every day. Pizza dough, brioche, Challah, sourdough, olive loaf, cinnamon buns, English muffins, you name it and I’ve probably baked it. And if you’re around me for any amount of time you’ll hear me glibly say “it’s amazing what you can make with just water, yeast, and flour! And salt!” But my simplistic recipe is a lie and everyone knows it’s a lie because to make even a rudimentary loaf of bread you will need a few techniques. In a sense, making bread, then, is like making a football team.
To make basic bread you will probably start with a “volumetric” recipe* and one simple technique: kneading the dough. Think of this as the West Ham of bread recipes. You’re not going to get overly complicated here, just scoop and measure some basic ingredients, apply a little hard work on the kneading board, let it rest, punch the dough down, shape the dough, let it proof, bake it and if you’re lucky you will probably get some decent bread.
The luck part is that for beginners the bread is hit or miss in terms of density and how much “oven spring” you get from the dough. Sometimes you end up with a nice, airy bread, and sometimes you end up with a brick. This has to do with several factors but are almost entirely down to either over-proofing (letting the dough sit too long) and/or improperly kneading the dough.
This is an inherent problem with West Ham bread: you aren’t getting overly complicated with any techniques because you don’t really know what you’re doing. However, with time and practice, you can get the basics down and create consistently decent bread. You won’t win any state fairs, but you will almost certainly impress your co-workers or some easily impressed people at the Daily Mail.
There’s an even easier loaf of bread which requires almost no technique and very little in the way of bread making skill: the artisan bread in five minutes a day recipe. Just like anyone can play a game of pick up football, anyone can make their bread. It’s a great place to build confidence and it was my first venture into bread making and I still use their basic technique for pizza dough. But the thing is, there’s a lot of technique crafted into the recipes (it’s all about hydration and fermentation) and you don’t want to veer too far from what’s given unless you know what you’re doing.
After you make your first hand-worked loaf, it seems to me that you have a choice: pursue baking or stand pat with your regular old loaf of bread. Some people just start adding things to their bread. But it’s not as simple as “just adding stuff” to the list of ingredients. Milk, sugar, honey, eggs, whatever, are all popular additives but they change your bread. And to make something consistently good, you have to know what you’re doing, you can’t simply punt the ball up the pitch any more.
Some people are happy with just that first loaf and quit or fall back to their basic after trying few additions and failing. But other people want to create something unique. For me, I want to make something that’s reminiscent of my childhood. One of my favorite memories is taking two Marks down to the bread lady on a cold morning and running home as fast as I could with a warm loaf of bread in my arms, my little brother trailing behind me yelling out “wait up!”. But there was no waiting up because you didn’t want to lose that butter-melting warmth. It was the first piece that was the best and as the eldest I chose who got that piece, usually me. That perfect first piece from the heel: crackling on the outside, warm and slightly tangy on the inside, slathered in soft butter. That’s bread to me.
That kind of bread can’t be faked. It starts very slowly, with a natural yeast starter. Flour and water are brought together and the natural yeast in the air either catches and starts to ferment or not and you start over, and over, and over. It can take weeks to form a strong bond but eventually your yeast comes alive and gets married to these wonderful little bacteria called lactobacillis. Some starters have been around for as long as Arsenal and certainly longer than a club like Chelsea. But they all have two basics: yeast and “good bacteria”.
Your starter is the basic building blocks of your bread, your Vermaelen and Mertesacker. Upon that solid foundation, all else builds.
Take some starter and feed it some more flour and water – let it sit over night. You’re increasing the volume of yeast and bacteria now, ready to inoculate and ferment an entire loaf or two. A more expansive version of the back two, this is the guy who runs the entire show, distributing the yeast and bacteria to the entire loaf. This is your Mikel Arteta.
Now your starter is ready and from here you have myriad options all with various names, various techniques, additions, and different systems of delivering the bread from the flour and water. However, your unique yeast and bacteria combination imparts a unique flavor in the final outcome of the bread, regardless of what you’re making.
Now you add the bulk of your other ingredients, which are basically flour and water. And at this point, you begin to structure your bread. Will the crust be crisp and crackling or soft and brown? The crumb moist and tight or have a nice, large hole structure? Personally, I like to add a little rye flour, my Cazorla to the all-purpose white flour that forms the bulk of my Bread Lady Sourdough. That rye flour brings its own bacteria and slightly different flavor to the party. Just something in the bread that you wouldn’t expect but which dances along playfully teasing out different flavors all on its own.
After I let it rest for a while, I then add salt. Salt is a counter-intuitive additive to bread once you know what its purpose really is. Salt isn’t in the bread to make it salty per se but rather salt retards the growth of yeast. In our fast-paced world where we can get a loaf of bread in a few seconds at the local mini-mart, we often think that slowing things down somehow makes things worse. Slowing things down by adding salt and putting the bread in the refrigerator develops flavors that you simply can’t get any other way. Is it fair to say that Arsenal’s fullbacks are the salt and cold? They change the speed of the game by how far they go forward or how far they sit back. Maybe Jenkinson is the salt and Gibbs is the cold.
Before the cold temp, though, we need to develop the gluten. Since I’m making a rather wet dough, in order to develop a nice hole structure in the final bread, I use a jazz-like technique of improvising in the bowl. With a flexible rubber scraper, I scoop under the dough and pull the bottom of the dough to the top. Then turn the bowl a 1/4 turn, scoop, and stretch. I do about 30 strokes like this, then let it rest for 30 minutes and do it again. You do this until the dough starts to develop structure. You’ll know when it’s developing structure.
The last time I was scraping my dough it reminded me of Arsenal’s patient probing of the opposition defenses. There’s often a lament by the Arsenal faithful, born from impatience, that Arsenal “try to walk the ball into the net” but just like the scrape and stretch technique, there are subtle changes going on behind the scenes. The same way that Podolski, Gervinho, and Giroud keep pulling on the defenses of the opposition, I pulling the defenses of that dough and before you know it, a shaggy mess starts to develop long strands of gluten and the whole thing begins to hold a shape.
That’s when you turn the dough out onto the board and switch techniques. With the same scraper, stretch the dough from the center to the exterior. Once it’s stretched out, you simply fold it into a letter, form into a ball, and let it sit in a greased bowl. Do the same thing again 45 minutes later. Now, the dough is ready for the cold. Put it in the cooler and let it sit overnight, the game is over, your dough is ready.
The next day, you bake the loaf. Baking the loaf is it’s own game with its own techniques and special tricks. Maybe I’ll write about that one day. For right now, suffice it to say that there’s a bowl of dough in the cooler, slowly growing, and ready to greet my oven in the morning.
One last thing you should know. When you buy a loaf of bread from the store, there are a lot of ways that companies can cheat to make “sourdough.” They can add something called “sour salt” to imitate a natural sourdough flavor – the kind of flavor that only develops over time – the way Chelsea have done. They can also add instant yeast to make the sourdough rise faster, the way that Man City have done. Be wary of store bought bread that’s not from a local bakery and read your list of ingredients carefully. There are a lot of chemicals in bread these days, “bread doping” I call it.
There’s no bread doping in my fridge. Just a living ball of water, flour, yeast, salt and technique. Oh, and the bonus about having sourdough? It’s self-sustaining.
*A recipe which calls for the ingredients to be measured by volume.