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An introduction to hand baking bread.

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  • An introduction to hand baking bread.

    Many years ago when the Universe, and I, were young I spent a couple of years sailing from the UK around South America on a three masted Barque making “Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle” for the BBC. We had a doctor on board who was to double as cook but just could not bake an edible loaf of bread (sorry Sue). So we all took turns at baking in our coal fired Aga and with a little practice found all most everyone could produce a good loaf. If I had the night watch on long ocean passages when the weather was benign, and my watch could be entrusted not to hit anything, I would make croissant for the crews breakfast.

    Some tips for new hand bakers.

    To start with I would recommend you use dried yeast and a strong or very strong white flour (we can get into wholemeal and softer flours once you get proficient).

    Get a large bowl and pour in some flour, a teaspoon of sugar, a little oil (this will help stop it being as sticky when we get to the kneading), some yeast and mix well. Now begin to add warm water and stir with a stick or serving spoon. You may have noticed that I have not given you any quantities but I would not worry about it. It is all in the consistency of the dough, try and gauge the amount of yeast as per the instructions on the packet but it really does not matter too much it will just take longer to rise.

    A word about salt. Salt is very important in bringing out the flavour of bread but it retards the growth of yeast so if you are a beginner I would add very little salt to the flour until you are happy with your loaves and then start building it up to taste.

    Back to the dough, the aim at this stage is to make a rather wet dough adjusting the flour and water to end up with something you think you might just about be able to work with your hands, once we start kneading we are going to be adding more flour and so make it stiffer but most beginners make a harder than ideal dough because it is easier to stop it sticking to everything. It is a trade off keep the dough as soft as you can manage - it gets easier with practice.

    Prepare a large smooth work surface by giving it a very light dusting of flour, now give a heavier dusting in the middle and at the back (parking zone) and place two piles of flour to the left and right of the area you are going to knead on (to re flour your hands).
    Why this strange pattern? The aim of kneading is to stretch the gluten in the flour as you work it. It will gradually become more elastic and less likely to stick to you and the surface. You need to keep it moving all the time if you stop for a second it will stick to what ever it is touching. Do not flour the work surface more than you have to but flour your hands particularly the heel of the palm by the wrist, as the dough removes the flour from your hands use one hand to knead while you re-flour the other from the pile you prepared, the thicker flour in the middle is to prevent sticking when you empty the bowl onto the work surface before you begin to work it, the patch at the back is where you are going to put dough after kneading. If your hands or the kneading area become sticky place the dough on your floured parking zone scrape the work surface clean (credit card is good) and wash your hands with flour. To do this flour well and rub them together vigorously over the work surface so when you restart kneading the scrapings go back into the loaf - repeat as required.

    Flour your hands well and use a spatula to turn the dough onto the work surface, immediately start patting it into a ball and keep rolling it around and re-flouring your hands, at this stage it may be very sticky and difficult to knead aggressively. Gradually try and stretch it more rolling and stretching with the heal of your wrist, reform into a ball and repeat. It is very difficult to overwork dough by hand so keep kneading for as long as possible, 15 minutes first time less as you get better. Once you get used to it you can tell when the dough has ‘turned’, it becomes ‘glossy’, less sticky and springy to the touch. Return to the bowl cover and leave somewhere warm to rise. You are usually told ‘until it has doubled in size’ but I would not worry too much about that, the key is that the yeast is vigorously reproducing which you can see by the bubbles and stretching of the surface. Rising may take an hour or two (in the fridge it can take 12hrs).

    Flour your hands and re-knead the dough for a minute or two and cut it into two or three pieces with a floured knife. Work on a piece at a time and roll it between your palm and the work surface to make a thick sausage. Cut with the knife into little barrels, roll in flour and place on a lightly oiled tray with room to expand between each bun. Place somewhere warm and drought free to rise. Turn the oven on as high as it will go.

    Once the buns have doubled in size put them in the oven and after about 5 minutes lower the heat to high and when they look done take them out and place them on a rack to cool.

    If you have not baked bread by hand before I would recommend you try and do it everyday for a week, you will learn from the previous day’s mistakes. If you leave it too long between attempts you will forget, this is muscle memory, it is not intellectual, it is totally tactile. Forget loaves in tins for the moment they are more likely to collapse if you don’t get the dough perfect. If you want to try a loaf a much easier, and more impressive, loaf is the plat. Cut your dough into two chunks, one twice as big as the other, roll them in to two sausages as before (one will be twice as long as the other), bend the long one into a ‘U’ shape and place the short one up the middle of the ‘U’ and plat. Use a little water to glue the ends together so it will not unravel while rising. If you brush the surface with a little milk or egg wash you will get a dark brown glazed finish. This loaf is the perfect accompaniment to the French onion soup in the ‘Who the hell wants to eat canned tuna anyway’ thread.

    Other points to note, keep the dough as wet as you can work it, heat the oven up well in advance, steam in the oven increases crust, practice makes perfect.

    Good luck, the only down side of baking your own bread is you will never be quite content again unless you have a very good bakery near by.
    Last edited by JJackson; July 6, 2020, 03:10 PM.

  • #2
    Re: An introduction to hand baking bread.

    It is enormous. It does illustrate very nicely your fear of the motor conking out as you passed under the bow, however.

    I'd like to add small additional hints to ensure success, start with bread flour (I assume that is what JJackson meant when he said "strong" flour) and make white bread rather than whole wheat to begin with. It takes a bit more skill to make a good loaf of w. wheat than it does plain white bread. And when you add the liquid called for, make sure it is as warm as your blood. Test aka the old baby bottle milk test on the inside of your wrist. Too warm and it kills the yeastie beasties, too cold and it won't rise as quickly as it should. And last, when you put it in a covered bowl to rise, make sure you pour a little oil in the bottom of the bowl to begin with. After oiling the bowl, put the dough into the bowl and rotate until all sides of the dough is lightly coated in oil. This prevents the dough from drying out and preventing the dough from rising evenly.
    Once you master white bread we can talk about a few favorite breads and how to make them. One of my favs is a cheesy herb loaf. Yum!
    Please do not ask me for medical advice, I am not a medical doctor.

    Avatar is a painting by Alan Pollack, titled, "Plague". I'm sure it was an accident that the plague girl happened to look almost like my twin.
    Thank you,
    Shannon Bennett


    • #3
      bump this


      • #4
        Visiblement, il y a un urgent besoin de vocabulaire partag?.

        On commence par la diff?rence entre:
        - farine de meuniers
        - farine de minotiers.

        Pour disposer de la bonne allure, il faut choisir la premi?re .

        Ensuite, vous avez les trucs du type levure ( tr?s souvent g?n?tiquement "?volu?e" ) ou votre propre levain. Dans ce cas vous pouvez partir de bien des choses, c'est ? dire bien des fruits.

        Enfin, pour la cuisson, suivant le type d'appareil en usage, le proc?d? est diff?rent.

        Proposez vos versions de ces points , j'apporterai mon ?clairage sur la base d'une pr? formalisation ...


        • #5
          A long time since I wrote anything about bread but I suspect we have a few new bakers as bread does not keep well and COVID is making popping to the bakers somewhat riskier than usual.

          A general introduction to baking.
          If you look at a bag of flour it should have an indication of the protein content which is critical for baking. Flour suitable for pastry will have a protein content of about 8% for bread you want 10% minimum and more for wet doughs or very long proving times. You may also see a W number like W320 (which is a high protein flour) lower numbers are lower protein. The protein content hydrates when water is added and, with a little help from kneading forms long chain polymers which give the dough its elasticity and the strength not to collapse. You can mix strong (high protein content) and weak flours to achieve what ever you need. Having a very strong flour is helpful if you are baking mixed grain breads as the other grains will not have the gluten you need so a small amount of very strong flour can give you some structure while retaining the flavour of the other grains.
          Raising, proving etc.
          There are many techniques used for different types of bread but in general you kneed your dough which develops the polymerisation. It does not really matter how you kneed as long as it stretches the dough, but does not break it which would snap the polymers you are trying to develop. The dough is then left to rise now the yeast is reproducing and producing CO2 and alcohol as waste products. The CO2 bubbles are again stretching the dough around them further aiding the polymerisation.
          Bakers tend to give ingredients as a percentage of the dry weight of the flour so 1Kg of flour with 600g of water would be a 60% hydrated dough. Hydration varies from about 50% to over 100% depending on the desired result.

          If anyone who has been baking a simple loaf and wants to try something a little more challenging I have working recipes for Croissant, Ciabatta, Baguettes and Panatone. I would not recommend any of these unless you can fairly reliably churn out a simple white loaf but am happy to help if you have tried any of these and not got quite what you expected, they all require some extra techniques none of which are very tricky once you have practiced them a few times.
          Some links to wet your appetite.
          Baguette -
          Croissant -
          Ciabatta -