The simplest answer to the above question is flour, water, a little salt and yeast (not even yeast if you’re making sourdough). However, it’s not as simple as that! A great deal can and does go wrong.
More than any other type of baking, bread dough is unpredictable. Variation on types of flours, quantity of water, and temperature are all variables capable of changing the dough substantially.
In order to produce a loaf deserving of the effort, we need a certain amount of experience. Failing that; we need access to insightful knowledge. One based on science as well as experience.
The best advice for honing your bread making is to learn variables. These are achieved by using the same flour you’re satisfied with and varying the amount of water by 30g-50g. See and feel the contrasting results on how the dough behaves. Following this experimentation: substitute a third to half of the flour for a different flour. You will be observing how slack the dough becomes, speed of rise, shaping and overall effect on crumb and crust.
To help bypass the disasters and assist you in producing a satisfying loaf, both in terms of taste and appearance, read: Common problems with bread dough, and how to fix them.
What ingredients do you need to make bread?
- For a novice baker, a good flour to begin with is this strong white flour from Matthews Cotswold Organic. To add some flavour and give it a ‘country loaf look’ without compromising on the softness of the crumb, add a little wholemeal or dark rye flour.
- Experienced bakers wanting to try something different; I highly recommend this white artisan Italian ‘00’ flour from Molino Marino. I’ve made yeast doughs with this flour and have been immensely impressed by its depth of flavour. For a yeast loaf this had the closest aroma and taste to a sourdough loaf. It proved well and had a good oven spring. Producing an attractive open crumb texture that’s normally associated with long fermented doughs.
- For an easy and reliable dough use a quick active yeast such as Fermipan red dried yeast, which can be added straight to the flour. It will start to activate as soon as water is added.
- Looking for a sourdough tang without the effort of spending days cultivating a starter? These convenient individual sourdough sachets are ideal. They contain freeze-dried lactic acid bacteria strains (the bacteria which gives sourdough its distinctive character) and are activated when making the dough.
We discover how important a small addition of salt is the very first time we forget to add it! It’s that confused look on your partner or children’s faces when they eat the unsalted loaf and don’t know how to politely say, “this bread sucks… rather have shop bought!”
- Stay away from table salt and use a pure salt like this sea salt or kosher salt, because we tend to use less salt. Crush the salt crystals in a pestle and mortar before adding to flour.
What equipment do I need to make bread?
Equipment can make the difference between producing an adequate loaf and a loaf to be proud of.
When it comes to equipment I would prioritise above all an instant digital thermometer – especially for bakers who are starting out. Here’s why:
- Living in a country where temperatures can reach zero and below, it’s crucial to know the water temperature when adding it to flour. This will avoid mistaking a sluggish dough from an inactive dough.
- Taking regular temperature readings of the water and the effect it has on the temperature of the dough throughout the year, will result in quick learning - and therefore adapting. This means you can manipulate the dough to suit your schedule.
- The temperature of the water for a 500g flour recipe can vary from 22°C to over 30°C depending on time of year, in order to bring the dough to right temperature.
- After initial mixing of the dough, the internal dough temperature should sit ideally between 22°C and 26°C, to ensure favourable optimum environment for the yeast to grow.
- A digital thermometer is key in my sourdough baking. I use it to control the water temperature when feeding my starter and dough. As well as keeping a check on dough temperature during cold months.
- It can also help immensely to ascertain if loaves are fully baked – by taking the temperature internally when you think a loaf is ready, once out see if it is. Start to build a guideline for the next loaf.
Any scales will do at a pinch. The reason for strongly recommending a digital version is:
- Learning how to bake bread is actually learning about flour. When making a 500g flour recipe, adding or holding back 30-50g of water makes a difference to the dough’s rheology: The dough’s behaviour.
- Use the same flour more than once, change the quantity of water, and make notes. See the change of how; dry, sticky, slack, malleable the dough becomes.
- Manipulating the amount of liquid and taking notes will develop baking skills to handle all types of dough.
Bordelaise Lame, Grignette, Scoring Blade
- Buy a professional blade. A sharp knife simply won’t do. There’s a learning curve using a lame, but practice will make you perfect the technique. Cut deeper than your instinct tells you to. You need to see the top of the dough separating like a layer from the underneath of the dough. You can go over the same cut if it’s not cut well enough, just re-trace the same line.
Banneton, Proving Basket
- A banneton basket supports the dough during its last stage of proving.
- Produces a professional artisan looking loaf.
- Read through What is a Banneton article for tips on how to season it, the best way to use one, and which to choose.
- For the familiar sandwich and toast loaves you’ll need a loaf tin. Loaf tins are wonderfully practical to use.
- They support the dough during its last rise.
- Visually, it’s easy to measure how far up the tin the dough has risen. Avoiding over-proving.
- Baking in the tin is convenient, and it’s feasible to bake more than one loaf at the same time.
A dough scraper is to making bread what a wooden spoon is to cooking – you can’t do without it.
- Dough scraper is essential to divide dough into smaller loaves, rolls or buns.
- A practical tool to lift and move dough on the surface.
- A useful device to help shape high hydrated or sticky doughs.
- Nothing gathers and cleans up surplus flour on the surface like a dough scraper.
- It’s used in general cooking for scooping up chopped ingredients: Once used, never forgotten!
Natural beechwood scoop
Amongst your tools there should be a large scoop solely dedicated to flour:
- Stops cross contamination with other pungent smelling ingredients.
- Because of the open lip; means having control of flow from large to very small amounts of flour when tipping into the bowl.
- Flour scoops don’t have to be washed. Best avoid washing. If you do, make certain they’re fully dried before use.
Stoneware baking cloches are advantageous because:
- The base can be used for the last prove, which means the dough can be baked without being moved.
- No need to create steam in the oven. The dome of the cloche creates its own moist environment to allow dough to rise.
- The bread baking cloche is the solution for home ovens which cannot reach the high temperature for a good thin crisp crust.
Cast Iron Pot
A cast iron pot acts in the same way as the stoneware cloche, creating its own steam allowing for oven spring. The main difference being, you don’t use it to prove. Obviously, the plus of the cast iron pot is its multi-purpose use.
Baking paper ensures no sticking of the loaf – Ever! No one wants to experience the heart felt disappointment, watching their hard work sticking and ripping when pulling a stuck loaf off a baking sheet or the pot.