Category Archives: Uncategorized

Basic equipment for bread making

NB: I have included links to items that you can purchase from Amazon in the post. If you buy using this link I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

You can get started with bread making with just a few essential items of equipment. You might find that you have these in your kitchen already. If you would prefer to watch my video on this subject you will find it at the bottom of this article.

Essential equipment for making bread

As a minimum you will need:

  • A set of scales to weigh your ingredients. I recommend electronic scales rather than a balance scale as you can weigh as little as 1g on the electronic scale. But if all you have are balance scales then you can use a teaspoon to judge your salt and yeast. 1level teaspoon = 5g. Electronic scales are between £10-15. After using several brands I find that Salter are the most reliable.
  • A bowl. I use a plastic bowl that costs just a couple of pound from the supermarket. I use these because they are lightweight and transparent which makes seeing how well the dough is fermenting really easy. You can use any large bowl that you may already have.
  • A baking tray. Again I use baking trays that cost very little from the supermarket. If you can afford to I suggest getting a really good heavy base tray that you can preheat in the oven. This will improve your oven’s ability to retain heat as you open the door to load your loaf and a loaf will benefit from having a hot surface underneath it even if it is in a tin.

Those are your three essential items for making a good loaf.

Bread making equipment

Non-essential equipment but great to have

Additional items that come in handy include:

  • Really good oven gloves. I think that these might be more suited to the essential list if you want to prevent yourself from having baker’s arms. You can always tell a cook or baker from the burn scars running up their forearms. I use Matfer’s baker mitts, which are fantastic except you can’t wash them easily and they are an expensive purchase. I recently bought myself a pair of BHQ oven gloves which are doing a good job, but don’t come as far up my arm so I just have to make sure that I am being careful. I am notorious for catching my upper arm on the shelf above or the oven walls.
  • Loaf tin. If you want a sandwich loaf then you will need one of these. Buy a heavy one if you can and oil it before each use. Try not to wash it if you can avoid it, just wipe it with kitchen towel after each use. This will help season it, even it advertises itself as non-stick. Don’t use any tools to get a stuck loaf out. If a loaf gets stuck, place it upside down on cooling rack and with luck as it begins to cool it will retract and come out easily.
  • Spray mister. When you put your loaf in the oven you will need to steam the oven so that the crust stays most whilst the trapped carbon dioxide expands and causes the loaf to have oven spring. I find that spraying the oven walls and sides (avoiding the light and glass door) does a great job of this whilst avoiding potential burns through handling hot water and steam bursts. You should be able to pick one up from a DIY store or supermarket for a couple of pound. I recently bought a pressurised mister that I pump before use that works really well and produces plenty of steam
  • A plastic scraper. I didn’t have one of these until I got to the age of 40. Now I look back on all those wasted years… but seriously, these are fantastic tools to have in the kitchen. They will get the stickiest of doughs out of bowls, they will help you to shape your bread, they clear down a sticky side in no time. You can use them to get the hardened bits of dough out of unwashed bowls or off the side of your sink. They are great for spreading the icing on a cake. They will help when grouting the bathroom. They clear the ice off the car windscreen. Get one quick and then lament all of the years you spent without one.
  • A sharp knife or baker’s razor. This should probably also be the essential equipment because if you are baking a loaf without popping it into a loaf tin you will need to slash or score your loaf so that when it has oven spring it bursts where you want it to burst rather than at its weakest point. A baker’s razor is a bit of an investment but if you are a regular bread maker you will be glad of it. I use a Mure & Peyrot Bordelaise which has a safety cap. An important feature for me as I don’t want any razor related accidents.
  • A bread knife. Once you have achieved the perfect loaf you don’t want to ruin it by cutting into it with a blunt knife and squashing your loaf in the process. I have a Wusthof, which is a great knife that Rich bought me for my birthday as it is quite an investment. I also have my eye on an Opinel for a future Christmas present, which is a bit more reasonably priced but still an investment.
  • A temperature probe is also a very handy device to have in the kitchen generally. For bread, it helps to confirm that your loaf is cooked. If it looks a good colour, sounds hollow when you knock it and it reaches 90 degrees Centigrade then you can be sure your loaf is cooked.
  • An apron. You will get dough all over you, it is inevitable. Treat yourself to one of mine, hand stamped by own fair hand.

How to knead dough

If you come along to one of my bread making courses here in Ironbridge then you probably won’t be taught how to knead dough. I realise that this sounds a bit strange when I teach bread making, but about four years ago I decided that, after many experiments kneading your dough is unnecessary.

The stretch and fold method that I teach instead develops the gluten in the dough just as well. It is easier on your back, arms and hands. The stretch and fold method makes bread making accessible to most people. For example, I have had people with arthritic hands come along my course and realise that they can still make bread at home, when they had almost given up hope.

It is a lot less messy when the dough stays in the bowl. You don’t need to keep cleaning the kitchen surface.

You can fit your bread making around your day, because a dough that is developed using the stretch & fold method can be left for 10 minutes or up to an hour between each stretch and fold session. If you are busy working the dough will happily wait for you.

My favoured stretch and fold method is also gentle on the dough, which is preferable for fragile flours such as heritage grains and wholemeal doughs. When you knead doughs with a weaker gluten structure or with sharp pieces of bran the constant tearing of the gluten strands has a damaging effect. Gentle stretching and folding strengthens the dough without the constant tearing.

Kneading

However, I do realise that people love to knead bread. Some people find it really therapeutic and calming. Some relish the ten to fifteen minutes of physical activity. It’s a chance to focus just on the dough rather than the million other things that we are normally focussing on.

For these people I have filmed a video to show you the best way I know for kneading bread.

This method makes sure that your dough sticks to itself rather than to you or the surface because you are regularly letting it go and lifting it off the surface.

My top tip for when you knead is to not flour the surface. You have made the dough to the consistency that you want and if you add flour to the surface as you knead you will change that consistency to a stiffer dough, which may result in a brick of bread.

Which method do you prefer? Are you a kneader or do you like to stretch and fold in the bowl?

Freshly Milled Flour

In 2016 I treated myself to a tabletop Komo Mill for milling wheat grain into fresh flour.

komo mill for milling flour at home
My Komo Fidibus XL tabletop mill

Buying this tabletop mill was a game changer for me. Using freshly milled flour in your breads, cakes, biscuits and pastry makes a huge difference to the taste. Everything tastes, well, fresh.

At the time, the only place I could reliably buy local grain was from a lady called Jan who had a fantastic stall in Oswestry Market Hall. It was from Jan that I acquired the mill. Jan has since returned to full time, regularly paid work, which was a huge shame. However, that prompted me to do some research and after contacting the UK Grain Lab co-founder Steven Jacobs at OF & G Organic I discovered Mark & Liz Lea who grow a wonderful variety of organic grains just seven miles up the road from me at Kemberton.

Mark & Liz are wonderful, innovative farmers who are always experimenting with new grains and new markets for their grain. Last year we collaborated for their Wheat Walk. This a walk through their wheat fields for bakers and millers to show them the grain prior to harvest. I baked breads, biscuits and cakes with several varieties of grain to showcase their potential. It was a wonderful evening with the sound of skylarks and the scent of chamomile.

This year the wheat walk wasn’t possible because of social distancing but Mark filmed it for YouTube instead.

Since the harvest I have been testing their different grains for bread making potential. I love doing this, it appeals to my love of the science of bread making and the child in me that used to endlessly make mud pies. If you are interested in learning more about fresh milling and Mark and Liz’s harvest this year take a look at my new website millingfresh.com.

I can teach you the wonderful world of fresh milling when the cookery school reopens once social distancing eases. Get in touch if you would like to know more.

Freshly milled rivet loaf
Freshly milled Rivet ‘white’ and wholemeal

3 Common myths about bread making

There are quite a few myths about bread making that make it seem like a mystical art that is difficult instead of the truth about bread making is that it is easy and fits easily into your routine.

So, I am going to bust some of those myths.

Myth 1 Making bread takes hours of my time

This is definitely not true.

Bread certainly benefits from longer fermentation. If you allow your dough to ferment over several hours, or overnight in the fridge then your loaf will be tastier and have a better texture than a loaf that is baked from start to finish in 2 hours.

However, the actual time that you spend tending to your bread is a short few minutes a few times during those hours. This is the time that you will actually spend when making a loaf:

  • Gathering your ingredients, weighing them out & mixing them (5 minutes)
  • 1st stretch & fold (2-3 minutes)
  • 2nd stretch &fold (2-3 minutes)
  • 3rd stretch and fold (1-2 minutes)
  • Preparing your tin and shaping your loaf (5 minutes)
  • Turning your oven on (10 seconds)
  • Putting your loaf in the oven and steaming the oven (1-2 minutes)
  • Getting your loaf out of the oven and checking it’s baked and putting it onto a cooling tray (2 minutes)

I am being generous with those timings and it still only takes 22 minutes of your actual time.

Myth 2 I can’t make bread at home that tastes the same as one I can buy at a supermarket

Well, actually this statement is true, because the bread that you make at home will be much better than the one you can buy at the supermarket.

The difference is that a supermarket loaf, even one that is (supposedly) baked fresh in their in-store bakery is fluffy and tastes like you are eating a cloud. Whilst the bread that you make at home is not so fluffy and has a proper, substantial texture.

When we bake bread at home (or in a proper bakery) we don’t use bread improvers, emulsifiers and preservatives. We just use flour, water, salt and yeast.

The bread we make at home tastes better and is better for our health. It is infinitely more satisfying to eat, not only because we made it ourselves, but because it fills us up more.

I promise you that once you get used to eating home made bread you will never want to eat bread bought from a supermarket ever again.

baguettes

Myth 3 Making bread at home is hard

I know all about this one. When I first started making bread at home, back in 2009, my loaves were terrible. They were dense. They went flat as soon as I put them in the oven and my family would have preferred it if I had put an actual house brick on the table than one of my loaves.

However, I promise that once you understand the basics of making bread you will realise that making bread at home is really easy. It doesn’t take a lot of time (see above) and you can fit the loaf easily around your day.

Follow these principles and you will begin to make great bread:

  • Wetter is almost always better. When I first made bread I followed the recipes to the letter and never adjusted the amount of water. Every bag of flour is different, the grain might have been grown in a different country, in very wet or dry weather etc. Lots of variables will affect how the flour absorbs water. Most loaves will be better if the dough is on the wet side (the exceptions to this are bagels, baguettes and croissants where the dough needs to be a bit drier than normal to assist shaping and the final texture). Add more water than you initially think you need. You will see a huge difference in the final resulting loaf.
  • Use the fridge to prove your loaf. This will improve the flavour and let you get on with your day. Once you have done your stretch and folds (or kneading) you can pop the dough, well covered, into the fridge for several hours or over night to prove slowly. Dough takes 10x longer to prove in the fridge than it does at room temperature. This slow prove improves the final flavour of the loaf and allows you to get on with your day without worrying about your dough. When you are ready to shape your loaf you can fetch it out, shape it and allow to come to room temperature, prove and bake it, or you can put it back in the fridge to prove again for several hours.
  • Practise shaping correctly. If you haven’t already, get a copy of my free ebook Top 3 Tricks To Make Better Bread which shows you how to shape a loaf (as well as how to stretch and fold your dough to develop the gluten fully and how to test when a loaf is ready to be baked). Shaping your loaf correctly helps it to expand in the oven rather than flatten out.
  • Take a look at my blog post Why does my loaf deflate in the oven? to help you decide when your loaf is ready to be baked.
  • My video on How to Make Bread the Easy Way will help to show you how easy it is to make bread at home and will help you to avoid the common pitfalls that surround bread making.

Your “aha’ moment

If I can make bread, then you can too. I was awful at it at first, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to let flour, water, salt and yeast beat me. I hope this article has helped you have your “Aha” moment that almost everybody that comes on my courses has. It is that moment when they realise what they have been doing wrong all along and how easy bread is to make at home after all.

Why does my loaf deflate in the oven?

A question I am often asked is why does my loaf deflate when I put it in the oven?

Your loaf looks fabulous, you put it into the oven and when you fetch it out it has deflated and is half the size it was when it went in. This is a really disappointing thing to happen.

Don’t worry, this is an issue that is easy to solve.

The problem is that the loaf has overproofed.

Understanding the stages of making a loaf:

The stages of making a loaf are:

  1. Mixing
  2. Developing the dough (by using the stretch and fold method, or by kneading)
  3. Fermenting the dough, allowing it to rise and become filled with air
  4. Gently shaping the dough
  5. Proving the dough until it is ready for the oven
  6. Scoring (aka slashing) the loaf
  7. Baking and steaming the oven
  8. Cooling

It is at point 5 that the problem lies. It can be really hard to judge when the loaf is ready for the oven.

What happens during fermentation?

During fermentation (stages 3 & 5) enzymes break the damaged starch molecules in the flour down into complex sugars and then into simple sugars (these are the enzymes that would do the same job if the grain was allowed to grow in the ground). The yeast then feasts on the simple sugars and expels carbon dioxide and ethanol. The carbon dioxide disperses through the dough and where it finds an air bubble it expands as a gas pushing against the gluten network that was developed and strengthened during the stretch and folds or the kneading of the dough. This creates pockets in the dough and rises the bread.

As bakers we learn to watch for the signs of fermentation. In the first round of fermentation when the dough is sat in a bowl this fermentation can go quite wild. the dough can double or even triple in size and as long as we haven’t added an excess of yeast or left the dough in a warm kitchen for far too long all is well. The dough still has some sugars left for the yeasts to continue to feast on.

Shaping the dough

We then shape the dough and leave it to ferment a second time. This is when we need to be more watchful.

If we have shaped the dough well, (take a look at this video for help with this), giving the loaf good structure and surface tension, then as the yeasts get to work the loaf starts to expand again, upwards rather than outwards.

Overproofing the dough

If we leave the loaf too long in a warm kitchen at this point then the yeast can begin to exhaust the sugars in the dough and the carbon dioxide can begin to push the gluten beyond its structural limits. At this point the dough may look well risen in the pan and look as if ready to bake when in reality it should have been baked perhaps 10, 20 or 30 minutes earlier.

If we put the loaf in the oven when it looks like we want it to look when it comes out it is highly likely that it is over proofed. The loaf has already reached its limits and when we put it in the oven the loaf will just deflate. The slightest knock and the carbon dioxide pockets in the loaf will push against the pushed to the limit gluten structure and the whole thing will collapse. If the dough is over proofed oven spring can’t happen and the dough’s structure collapses rather than springs.

The ideal point at which to bake a loaf is when it has risen but the dough still feels like it has some surface tension and that there is still potential in the loaf to grow some more.

What happens in the oven?

When you put a loaf in the oven chemical reactions continue to take place and the most important of these is ‘oven spring’.

The yeast has a last frenzied chance to eat some of the sugars as the dough reaches the yeast’s optimum temperature of 38 C and before it dies at 55C. This additional yeast activity is limited but it does have a slight contribution to the oven spring.

The most important contribution to oven spring is that the trapped carbon dioxide expands further in the heat pushing against the gluten network and rising the loaf further – oven spring.

This is why it is important that the loaf hasn’t already achieved its optimum rising before you put it in the oven. If it looks like a perfectly risen loaf (the size that you were hoping it would get to), then the chances are you left it too long before you baked it.

You want the dough to still have a bit of energy left so that it can have that last rise in the oven.

How to solve the problem of the deflated loaf

Next time you bake a loaf try putting it in the oven 10 minutes before you normally would. In other words, put the loaf in before you think it is ready to go in. Take a look at this video, which shows you what to look for in a loaf that is ready for the oven.

Remember to steam your oven. Steam allows oven spring to happen. If you don’t steam your oven the crust of your loaf dries out before the oven spring can happen.

To steam your oven you can use a plant mister to spray water on the sides and the floor of your oven as you load the loaf and as you are closing the door (avoid spraying a glass oven door or the oven light or they may explode with the shock of the cool water). Alternatively you can place a roasting tray in the bottom of the oven with a few bolts and nuts in the bottom and preheat with the oven. When you load the loaf pour in a cup of hot water into the roasting tray and close the oven door. This will produce a lot of steam for the first ten minutes of the bake. Be careful to stand back when steaming the oven so that you don’t burn yourself. Only add enough water to steam the oven for the first ten minutes. You want the oven to be without steam for the reminder of the bake so that the crust can crisp up.

Why is my sourdough dense?

Has your sourdough ever come out of the oven feeling heavy?

Mine has. Just this week in fact. I was asked if I could bake a loaf for a friend two days before the loaf was needed. My starter has been lying dormant in the fridge for about three weeks. I guessed that I might not have enough time to revive it properly before it was needed and I was right. So if your sourdough has ever been dense, I hope that my experience will help.

I had one day to revive the starter before I would need to use it if the loaf was going to be baked in time to be delivered to our friend.

I fetched the starter out of the fridge, threw away half of it and gave it about the same amount of flour as the starter weight and enough water to mix it to a loose slurry.

The past few days have been cold and wet and so the kitchen hasn’t been a lovely warm refuge for the starter. I left it for about 8 hours, discarded half again and repeated the feed.

The next morning, the starter was a bit bubbly but not as active as I normally like it to be before using. I decided to risk it. I took 30g and added 100g white bread flour and 100g water and mixed it well. I left it for another 6 hours and then used it to make my loaf. The resulting loaf failed to spring much in the oven, it failed to caramelise on its crust, remaining pale, insipid and with a few overly dark spots. The loaf feels heavy and the crumb is dense with a few large holes. All in all, a disappointing loaf. I knew it would be, but I thought I would risk it. Here it is, in all of its non-glory:

Dense sourdough
Failed sourdough

What went wrong with my sourdough?

As I discussed in yesterday’s post, to make good sourdough you need a good starter. Something that has life, is bubbly and vigorous.

Sometimes I can take a starter out of the fridge after it has been in there for a month or more and give it two refreshes (as described above, discarding half and feeding with flour and water) and it bounces back into life and is ready to go. Other times, it just needs a bit of extra attention. The cold, wet weather hasn’t helped. Our kitchen door is also our front door and it remains open a lot of time, unless it is really cold. So the last few days, there has been a definite cold draft in the kitchen. We are hardy beasts so don’t mind, the starter obviously decided that it did mind.

If I had given it an extra day and a couple of extra feeds and paid a bit more attention to it, placing it in a warmer spot, it would have recovered and bounced back.

Good sourdough bread starts with a good starter and if you don’t have that then no extra dough development or leaving it to prove for longer will help. To fix it you need to get back to basics. Take a spoonful of the lethargic starter and give it 100g flour, 100g warm water, give it all a good stir and leave in a warm place for 6-8 hours. Repeat enough times as the starter requires to get back to being its happy, bubbly self. If you don’t you will end up like me and our friend, disappointed.

And if your sourdough starter refuses to be bubbly…

A final bit of advice, that I tell all of my students – sometimes a starter gives up. Maybe it just gets fed up of being put in the fridge too much or the weather has been too warm for it. Sometimes you can refresh a starter 4-5 times and it remains as flat as a pancake. If this happens, don’t worry about just start again. Make a new starter. In a week’s time you will be making lovely sourdough loaves again.

Making bread is always a learning curve, grasp the opportunity to learn and improve.

Sourdough September

Every year The Real Bread Campaign organises Sourdough September to encourage people to try sourdough, whether buying it from their local bakery or baking it themselves.

Make your own sourdough

If you have ever thought about making your own sourdough but haven’t picked up the courage to do so, I say go for it. Now, is the perfect time. Have a look at my instructions for making your own starter and how to maintain it and if you start today next week you could be making your first sourdough loaf.

sourdough loaf

What is sourdough?

Sourdough is made with just three ingredients: flour, water and salt. Add time and you get the magic ingredient that transforms your loaf. Sourdough doesn’t have to be sour, you can control your dough to be really tasty without any sourness, so don’t let the name put you off.

Sourdough doesn’t contain any commercial yeast (commercial yeast being one of the three yeasts that you can buy – easy bake/active dried/ fresh). Instead you mix together flour and water and allow it time to bubble away and concentrate the wild yeasts that are found in the flour. Beneficial bacteria also get to work in that wild yeast starter and it is these that give your starter that distinctive tang. You can choose whether you prefer your loaf to have that tang of acidity or whether to use your starter when it is lively and young before the acidity has time to develop.

Common mistakes

Lots of people are put off making their own sourdough because it seems so complicated and maybe because they have tried and had distasters. I can understand this, believe me. The first time I made sourdough I was tempted too early to make a loaf. I had made the starter from scratch and on day four it looked promising, all bubbly and vigorous. I made my first loaf. The dough didn’t rise in the bowl very well, it lacked strength when I was shaping it and it baked like a flat discus that tasted, well, not very good.

What I should have done:

  • The starter needed more time to develop. I should have waited one or two more days for the starter to get fully ripe.
  • I should have taken a small amount of that starter and added a lot of flour and the same amount of water (30g starter, 100g flour, 100g water) and stirred vigorously and left for a further 6-8 hours for that to get bubbly and lively and then used that as the basis for my loaf (remembering to keep 30g back for my next loaf).

If I had followed these simple steps my loaf would have been so much better.

When you first make a starter (following these instructions) the gluten in the flour becomes very weak; the acidic bacteria have spent a week attacking it. If you give a small amount of that starter plenty of new flour for it to devour it become strong with lots of wild yeast and plenty of gluten strength. This will help the dough develop lots of strength as you stretch and fold the dough and the yeast will get to work eating the sugars and expelling carbon dioxide which will stretch the gluten walls and develop the airy texture that a good sourdough needs.

The strength of your starter dictates your final loaf, get this right and you will be one (or several) steps closer to making a delicious sourdough loaf all of your own.

Now is the time to make your first sourdough loaf or give it a try again if you have tried before. Keep practising and it will repay you ten times over with the pride you feel when you can put a delicious loaf of sourdough on the table.

Bread Podcasts

I love listening to podcasts whilst I do other things and my favourite, of course, are those related to bread. I have been listening to a few these past few weeks that I think you might like to listen to as well. So if you are cleaning the house, weeding the garden or sitting in your comfiest chair then take a listen to one of these bread podcasts.

Rock and Roll Farming Podcast

Will Evans is a farmer that interviews other farmers about how the motivation behind their farming practices. Recently he interviewed Mark Lea, an organic farmer in Shifnal, Shropshire. Many of you will know already that I use Mark’s wonderful wheats in my home mill to make the most delicious freshly milled bread. This podcast dives into why Mark and his wife Liz decided to turn their backs on conventional farming and go organic. It is a lovely and moving listen especially when you hear how they were motivated by the arrival of their very special son, Edward. When he was born with Down’s syndrome their perspective on life changed and any fear that they might have had before disappeared and motivated them to live the life they really wanted to live and to make a difference. You can take a listen to the episode here https://rockandrollfarming.libsyn.com/diversity-is-everything.

Mark’s wheat in 2019

Mark’s Wheat Walk on YouTube

This one is not a podcast, (sorry to mislead you), but if that interview has whet your appetite then hop across and watch Mark talk about this year’s wheat harvest. Thankfully, he was able to get his wheats in before the awful recent weather. Wheat prices are set to rise significantly this year because the harvest has been so awful. The very hot April and May followed by the wet and windy months since has seen the worst wheat harvest in the UK for forty years, so we are in for a rocky ride as bakers this next year. However, Mark’s wheat are safely in the barn and he has some wonderful varieties this year. Take a look at the wheats when they were still standing in the field https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tms4zL8uJSo

Flour Power: Meet the Bread Heads Baking a Better Loaf

This one dates back to October last year but it is definitely worth a listen as it talks about how farmers, millers and bakers are working together to make better bread. This is even more important with this year’s harvest.

The podcast talks about the legacy of Martin Woolfe, a wheat breeder who developed a resilient wheat population called Wakelyns YQ (Mark grows this one too) and how key players are working together to build a strong local grain economy, getting away from baking with the nameless wheat in a bag to baking with a grain that you can trace back to the field. This is one of my favourite things to do and it can really make a difference to your appreciation of the loaf you have made when you can name the grain and name the farmer that grew the grain, and if you aren’t milling it yourself, then knowing who milled it too. https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2019/oct/28/flour-power-meet-the-bread-heads-baking-a-better-loaf

What’s the yeast doing inside my bread?

If you want to hear about yeast and how it works in your loaf and beyond then this podcast is worth a listen. It’s fascinating, yeast is miraculous and research is showing that it can potentially save the planet. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3cszv62

Bread help

If you want bread advice then Stella Culinary can help. If you start with the Four Pillars of Bread and work from there you won’t go far wrong. Looking for a deeper dive into the science around bread? Then take a listen to Modernist Breadcrumbs.

My regular podcast listening:

I want to share the bread podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis. My favourite listen is Mark Dyck’s Rise Up podcast. Mark used to have a bakery in Canada and now interviews other bakers to understand what motivates and drives them. It’s a great listen.

In a similar vein Mike Hilburn interviews bakers for his Sourdough Podcast.


Reducing the amount of yeast

By reducing the amount of yeast that your recipe suggests you use your loaf will thank you for it. It will take longer to rise, but will be all the better for it, taste wise, as a result.

If a recipe suggests using 25g fresh yeast, use 15g instead. You could use as little as 5g fresh yeast fo a dough that uses 500g flour. If your recipe calls for 15g active dried yeast use 5g instead and if it asks for 7g (or a sachet of easy bake) then use 2g of easy bake instead. Your bread will still rise, but it will take longer. If you plan for this, reducing the amount of yeast that you use can be a huge benefit because it allows you to get on with your day whilst you dough rises slowly. If I have a busy day ahead I will use less yeast and just let my dough get on with slowly rising over 3-5 hours (depending on the temperature of the kitchen).

I have a video that will help you get the best out of yeast for your loaf.

You can also reduce the amount of yeast that you use by developing a pre-ferment using a tiny bit of yeast, which will, over a few hours, multiply the yeast cells to raise a delicious, chewy loaf that will last longer than your usual loaf. All bonuses. The following text is taken from my booklet on Advanced Doughs, so if you have been on my Ciabattas and Baguettes course you will already have this knowledge at your fingertips.

Baguettes
Baguettes made with a pre- ferment


Reducing the amount of yeast by using Pre-ferments

You can improve the flavour of your bread by using a pre-ferment. Your loaf will not only have a more developed flavour but also a chewier and glossier crumb and better keeping qualities. 

A pre-ferment is simply preparing part of your dough several hours before you make your final loaf. There is a lot of conflicting and complicated information about pre-ferments and many names for it out there on the internet so I aim to keep it simple.  

A pre-ferment differs from a sourdough culture because the pre-ferment uses commercial yeast rather than wild yeast from the air.  A pre-ferment cannot be endlessly revitalised like a sourdough culture. When it’s ready to use, it’s ready to use. An over-fermented pre-ferment will have collapsed and the yeast will have weakened the dough, stripping its gluten and this will make a weaker and flatter dough that will fail to rise.

The pre-ferment will improve your everyday bread, is essential to a ciabatta and makes a proper baguette.  It will also help to improve the flavour of a sweet dough, helping the dough to rise through the fats and the sugars. It can be used in any of your bread recipes to improve the flavour. 

Pre-ferments can make up to 50% of the final dough. The more you use the less time is needed for the first and second rise of your bread. The less you use, the longer the fermentation time, but the better the flavour development of your final loaf.

There are three main types of pre-ferment – the poolish, the biga and the pate fermentee. 

Pate fermentee

Pate fermentee means ‘old dough’. It is often used by traditional bakers to improve the flavour of their loaf.  It is as simple as retaining a piece of dough after the first rise and before shaping and popping it into the fridge to use the next day in the next loaf. Pate fermentee has salt in it, something to consider when you add salt to your final dough.

So, if you are baking regularly at the moment, consider taking 50-100g of the dough and wrapping it well and placing in the fridge. You can then add more flour and water (and a reduced amount of salt, say 6g to every 500g flour as a maximum) to this ‘old’ dough and use this to rise your loaf instead of using yeast. This ‘old’ dough will be good to use for a maximum of three days.

Poolish

The poolish is often used in French bakeries. It is a wet pre-ferment, 100% flour, 100% (or more) water and a little bit of yeast. It is left to develop between 8 and 16 hours. The amount of yeast that you add depends on several factors. If you want to use the poolish in 8 hours time you need a little more yeast than one you want to use in 16 hours. If it is summer and the kitchen is warm then you will need less yeast than on a cold winter’s day when the kitchen is cold. 

You don’t add salt to a poolish until you make the final dough.  As a guide, I use one-eighth of a teaspoon, or a pinch, of easy bake (aka instant) yeast to 100g flour and 100g water and leave it to get very bubbly on the surface and then add 400g flour, 200g -250g water (adding the extra 50g as and when it is needed according to the flour) and 5-10g salt and make bread in the usual manner.

Biga

The biga is Italian and very similar to a poolish, except that it is a much drier mix. You use 100% flour to 50-55% water and a little yeast.  Because it is a drier dough it takes longer for it to reach full fermentation. This means that it can be made up to 18 hours (kept in the fridge) ahead of making up your final dough. It is less likely to lose its gluten strength than a poolish and because of the longer fermentation time it means that it potentially has time to develop extra flavour with the acetic and lactic acids having more time to get to work. So, I will use one-eighth teaspoon (or a pinch) of easy bake yeast to 100g flour and 50-55g water and mix to a smooth dough. Leave to ferment until doubled in size (several hours in a warm kitchen or 18 hours in a fridge) and then add 400g flour, 275-300g water and 5-10g salt and proceed as usual.

You can choose whether you give your final dough an extra boost with a little more yeast. If you add more yeast then you reduce the time the dough needs for its first and second rise.  If you do add more yeast then reduce the final amount by at least half. So, if you normally use 5g of easy bake in a 500g loaf then you will only need 2g of total easy-bake yeast in a dough using a preferment. This might be 0.5g in the pre-ferment and then 1.5g to use as a boost in the final dough. 

I hope this helps you to reduce the amount of yeast you use to make delicious bread. If you need any more bread help, I am always at the end of an email. You can also take a look at my article all about the 3 different yeasts available and how to use them in your loaf.

If you would prefer to not use commercial yeast at all then this may be the time to think about starting your sourdough journey. I have a post about making a sourdough starter here.

Making and looking after a sourdough starter

Making sourdough bread can be incredibly rewarding and the bread can be incredibly delicious. When a loaf goes right you will always want just one more piece of bread for your dinner or one more piece of toast for your breakfast and you will have to force yourself to walk a suitable distance away from the bread board.

Sourdough can also be frustrating. Although, do not let that statement put you off. Part of the pleasure of sourdough is that it presents a challenge. Relax about it, don’t worry if the loaf you have made isn’t perfect, next time it will be better and the next time after that.

There are a number of factors that affect the fermentation of the dough, including the weather – it will react differently on a warm day to a cold day. The biggest factor though will always be the health of your starter and if you can get that right then your loaf will always be good and sometimes it will be great. Again, my advice is to relax about it. It really is very easy, if you have been given a starter then you can keep it in the fridge form the get-go. If you are starting from scratch then it will need your attention for a few minutes twice a day for the first five to ten days, after that it too can live quite happily in the fridge only needing your attention the day before you want to bake.

Three sourdough starters
Three vigorous starters. White at the bottom, wholemeal in the middle and rye at the top.

Starting a sourdough starter:
TIPS:
Use organic flour to get your starter off to the best start. Organic flour will have more yeasts and good bacteria in it than a flour that has been treated with pesticides and fungicides.
Tap water is fine to use, unless you live in an area that has highly chlorinated water. In the UK, our tap water is acceptable to use. If you really want to, you can use spring water, but I have always used tap water.
The yeasts work best when oxygen is freely available to them so stir your starter regularly to give the yeasts an oxygen boost.
You can choose which flour you use in your starter but I would recommend that you start with wholemeal rye flour as this will be the most vigorous. In the photo above I have three different starters, this is only for the purposes of my sourdough courses. You only need to maintain one and you can change it from one flour to another by giving it a refresh. If you wanted to change a rye starter to a white starter then take 1 tablespoon of rye starter and add 100g white flour and 100g water and stir briskly and leave to rise for 6-8 hours. You can then use it or repeat to build up a stronger white starter.
Day 1
In a small pot mix together 25g organic flour (your choice of white, wholemeal or rye) and 25g water. Give it a brisk stir. Cover lightly and keep in a warm place. Not too warm, anything over 55℃ will kill the yeasts, so don’t keep it on the back of a warm oven. Leave it for at least 8 hours or for 24-48 hours, stirring every so often. It may develop a few bubbles, this is unlikely to be the yeasts yet, so don’t worry if these bubbles disappear the next day.

Day 2
Add 25g flour and 25g water and give a brisk stir. Cover lightly and leave again for at least 8 hours and for as long as 48 hours. Stir it a couple of times during this period.

Day 3
Add 25g flour and 25g water and stir. By the end of the day you should have some bubbles appearing. Don’t worry if you haven’t keep persevering. Your starter won’t be ready for use yet and will have an unpleasant smell. 

Day 4 
If your starter is now becoming too large you can discard half of it. Add another 25g flour and 25g water. Stir briskly to incorporate air.  

Day 5
Add 25g flour and 25g water. By the end of this day your starter should now be bubbly and vigorous. It should no longer smell unpleasant, but have a hint of sweetness and a smell like apple cider vinegar. If it is like this you can use it to make your first loaf. If it hasn’t developed the fruity smell and still seems a bit lacklustre with few bubbles then keep giving it a daily dose of 25g flour and 25g water and stirring vigorously a couple of times a day. (My first starter wasn’t ready until day nine). It will take longer if your kitchen is cool, for example.

Once it has developed that pleasant fruity apple cider vinegar smell you need to give it a good boost.  It has spent the last five to ten days being weakened by acidity and enzyme activity so now, to get it ready for making a loaf, add at least three times its weight of flour and water at a hydration rate of 67%. So discard all but 50g of the starter and add 150g of flour and 100g of water. Give it a brisk stir. 

Once it has rested at room temperature for at least six hours it will be ready to use.

How to maintain your starter:
Now you have a mother starter. You can now keep this perpetually.
I keep my starter in a plastic jug with a piece of clingfilm draped over the top. The clingfilm keeps any dust out of the starter. Every couple of weeks I decant the starter into a clean jug so that I avoid having crusty bits of starter up the sides as this is where bad bacteria will be given a helping hand to breed. By using a jug I can better see how well it is rising after each feed. Do not keep in an airtight container. It will build up pressure when fermenting and the pressure will have no way of escaping and the container may explode.

Unless you are using your starter three or four times a week to bake then my advice is to keep it in the fridge most of the time. Once you have an established starter it will happily slow its fermentation down in the fridge and then you can give it a boost to wake it back up the day before you want to bake again. This method reduces waste and minimises the amount of time you have to spend to maintain your starter. If you leave your starter at room temperature you will have to feed it daily to keep it healthy and then you will have to discard half each time you feed it. Discarding so much flour can become frustrating and expensive.

Once you have a healthy, active starter and it has got all vigorous and bubbly then pop it in the fridge. Remember to label it or a family member might throw it away mistaking it for something else. This does not lead to happy family relations!

The day before you want to bake your next loaf bring the starter out of the fridge. My starters have sat happily in the fridge for three weeks or more, so don’t worry if you have been away on holiday or not had time to bake, your starter will wait for you. Have a look at the starter. If there is a black mould sitting on top, this is bad news. You will need to throw it away and start again. If there is a liquid hooch sitting on top (a bit grey and smelling very vinegary) that’s fine, strain it off and discard. Most likely, the starter will have grown a crust or skin. Take a clean spoon and lift this off the top and discard. Underneath you will have a soupy mixture which was the same colour that the starter was when you first put it the fridge. Discard all but a couple of tablespoons. Add 100g flour and 100g water and give it a really brisk stir. Leave at room temperature for 6-8 hours and it should have become bubbly and vigorous. If it still seems lethargic, repeat by discarding all but a couple of tablespoons and adding 100g flour and 100g water. It should double in size. It is then ready to use in a recipe and pop the unused portion (always remember to keep back at least 1 tablespoon) back into the fridge for next time.

I hope this helps demystify the process of starting and maintaining a sourdough starter. If you have any questions please feel free to get in touch.