Before we get into the meaty stuff and start baking our first loaves read this guide for a quick overview of all the process involved in baking bread.
Together, we’ll cover what you need to know about getting started, how long it will take and the equipment you need to start making beautiful loaves at home.
What is bread?
Bread is a really simple food that's been eaten throughout history. From the ancient Egyptians discovering it, British peasants collectively taking dough to the local bakehouse, to causing of a revolution in France. Bread is an important, yet delicious food that is well-loved.
How do you make bread?
To make bread, only a handful of ingredients are needed, flour, water, salt and a levain (made from yeast). As they combine they develop a structure derived from the gluten in the flour. Whilst the gluten structure forms, the yeast produces essential organic acids and carbon dioxide gas. Kneading, time and temperature are used to generate the fermentation of the dough. An enhanced gluten network and flavour are created during the dough fermentation process.
After sufficient development has occurred, the dough is shaped, proofed and once it's risen high enough it's baked in the oven.
Where did bread come from?
The legend has it that in Ancient Egypt, wet wheat has left on a warm stone, probably by accident. A few hours later the farmer returned to find that the mixture had risen.
The Egyptians experimented with baking and adding salt to make the bread. The earliest signs of baking bread date back to around 9500 BC.
It is known that wheat and other grains were cultivated around this time. Humans were confident at cooking with fire by this time therefore we would expect that some sort of loaves or rolls was being produced, however, it has not been proven.
The discovery of commercial yeast
After the successful development of yeasts used for brewing, similar synthetic strains were fortified to produce bread.
The strain developed for bakers yeast is Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. It is the strain used in all bakers yeasts and can be found organically in sourdough cultures.
Before bakers yeast appeared in 1880, a sourdough starter method was used.
The use of bakers yeast allows production levels to be increased, with fewer quality variables.
How popular is bread today?
Bread is one of the most popular sources of food in the world. Most food staples across the globe are inexpensive, plant-based foods which are full of energy.
There are more than 50,000 edible plants in the world, but just 15 of them provide 90% of the world’s food energy intake. Rice, corn (maize), and wheat make up two-thirds of this.
Bread provides calories and minerals that are easy to digest. In essence, it is an essential food source, whilst it can also be improved to become a product of beauty.
Why should you start baking bread?
Making bread at home has traditionally been a skill that all homemakers knew. It’s not as popular these days, however, it has never been easier to get started.
Being able to make tasty bread for you and your family is a seriously rewarding and healthy hobby. It’s also something that you keep learning. There is never too much knowledge and even experienced professional bakers learn every day.
What I love about baking
What I love about baking is that I still don’t know everything about it, it's not even close! There are so many local staples and alternative methods that you simply can’t know everything about it.
Bread can be elaborate to impress, or simple to indulge. Healthy, or naughty. The possibilities are endless and it is satisfying that such simple ingredients are used to make it.
How fast can you learn how to bake
Hopefully, with the right beginner's bread recipe you’ll have success at the first attempt. Whether your first attempt is on point or not, keep practising and your bakes are bound to get better. After 3-4 months of baking once or twice a week, most beginners feel competent and comfortable working with dough. Though it's often sooner, I’ve known people grasp the basics in a couple of days!
Choosing the bread ingredients
To make bread, you will need flour, water, salt and a levain (yeast). Of course, other ingredients can be added, but these are the essential ones. Let’s go over some pointers to help you to select the correct varieties of each.
The flour used to make bread contains more protein than ordinary cake or all-purpose flour. When the flour gets wet, the soluble proteins wash away to leave the gluten. The hydrated gluten becomes the basis of the bread structure and determines the elasticity and extensibility of the bread.
There are different characteristics that varieties of flour provide so I’ve found that switching flour to a “proper” mill seems to resolve many baking problems. Look for flour with a protein content of 11 - 13%, anything higher than this can cause bread to come out dense. Flour absorbs water at different rates therefore it usually takes a couple of attempts and adjustments to get a new recipe or flour to work well. The flour used for quickly made loaves should have a higher protein content than long, artisan products.
The selection of the flour will determine much of the flavour. A lot of home bakers get bored with the flavour of their flour and loose interest. The remedy is to ditch the supermarket own brand and source from a mill.
I buy two or three 16kg sacks from Shipton Mill every 6-9 months for home use. Those of you in the States may use King Arthur Baking Company. This method works well for me and is excellent value for money.
The flour should smell pleasant and aromatic - If you take a whiff and pull a face it’s not going to make anything nice! Though not all of these smells come out after the oven (see - dough fermentation process), they do reveal the health of the wheat used.
Flour needs water to wash away the insoluble proteins and for the gluten to extend and unravel. It also bonds the doughs ingredients together. Any drinking water is ok, there is no need to use bottled water unless there are high levels of chlorine in your area.
If the dough is overly sticky, use less water next time.
Levain’s are raising agents that are used to create gas and make the bread rise. The most common one is yeast, but others include sourdough, pâte fermentée, and bicarbonate of soda.
They all produce gas in one way or another. How they do this and what other properties they bring to the dough are explained in the how to select a levain post.
If using yeast, it doesn’t really matter what type of yeast you use. The recipe can be adjusted to compensate. Instant and fresh are added directly to the mix whilst active dried yeast has to be activated in warm water for ten minutes beforehand.
Sourdough is a little trickier! It has more variables and often scares new bakers so you might prefer to give yeast-made bread a go first. If you want to bake with sourdough, I have a sourdough bread recipe for beginners.
Salt controls the behaviour of the levain. It provides strength to the structure of the dough by controlling the rate of yeast fermentation, alongside improving flavour.
Without salt, bread becomes tasteless and unpleasant. It also lacks gluten strength which can lead to irregular crumbs and crusts.
I prefer to use sea or kosher salt as it is pure for most of my baking. I'll check the labels just to check there are no anti-caking ingredients added. Though it’s possible to use table salt, and I do from time to time and don’t notice much of a difference.
The equipment you will need
What’s great about baking is that you can make it with just a set of scales, a bowl and an oven. The other equipment is used to speed up production or improve quality and consistency.
Here are a few tools that will give you the biggest benefit initially. For a full list head to the baking equipment essentials page.
For bread, the oven used should be convection, preferably with the option to heat the bottom element independently. If you don’t have this option, using a second baking stone above the bread helps massively to control the exposure to the heat.
If you struggle with baking in your oven or have a fan - only oven you should consider baking in a dutch oven. Using one will limit the range of shapes and styles that you can make, however, they are perfect for making sourdough.
The stages of bread making
I’ve broken down the steps taken to make bread into 15 stages. We don’t necessarily use every stage in every loaf, but you’ll find it useful to understand each one and the reasons they are used.
You can view this now in the stages of bread baking post