For many years I was quite wary of baking my own bread. It was not so much the baking that instilled fears but the yeast. I had known some disastrously dense bricks in my time. For years my bread-making was limited to soda breads: quick cobs that rely on bicarbonate of soda and a dash of buttermilk. And then, three years ago, something changed and I have not looked back.
To my amazement I found fresh yeast in my local organic grocery shop. I had not seen any since I was a child growing up on the continent. The inch square putty-coloured blocks changed my relationship with yeast and kick-started a weekly bread-baking routine.
Fresh yeast smells more intense than dried yeast. Once dissolved in warm water, it releases a wonderfully ‘cosy’ smell. There is no other way to describe it. Watching my first batch of yeasted bread in over a decade rise was also a revelation. When I handled the dough after its first proving, it felt fluffy and springy. The finished loaves were crunchy on the outside and airy yet chewy on the inside.
Since this wonder putty coaxed me back into baking with yeast, I have tested dried granulated yeast and discovered it works just as well as the fresh stuff. The key to using yeast, even temporarily dormant dried yeast, is to not let it hang around. It is a living enzyme that loses its potency quickly. The best way to use a packet of dried yeast before its vigour fades is to make bread on a weekly or fortnightly basis.
As yeast is a living thing, it is also important to remember that the same recipe can produce very different loaves. The modern food distribution system has got us used to homogenised products. Some domestic cooks even adopt processes to emulate such consistency: e.g. heating the water to the same temperature every time, measuring out the mix of flour precisely… However, as temperature, air humidity and freshness (of both the yeast and flour) all influence the end product, I prefer to celebrate variation rather than aim for uniformity.
My basic bread recipe
- 750g strong flour – I use a mix of strong white flour, strong brown (or malted granary) and a little brown spelt flour, with an approximate ratio of 2 or 3 of brown to 1 of white flour. My mix depends on what I happen to have in the cupboard
- seeds – usually a small handful of linseed and about the same of sunflower seeds but I have been known to add fine pinhead oatmeal or pumpkin seeds depending on supplies
- 60g fresh yeast or 30g dried yeast*
- 15g salt
- 430ml tepid water
- a splash of olive oil, some recipes say 1 tbsp but I just work by eye
Put all ingredients (except the oil) in a bowl/mixer and knead thoroughly (with a dough hook if using a mixer). When the dough starts to come together but is still ‘craggy’, add the oil. Leave on a floured baking sheet to rise for about an hour, covered with a warm damp cloth. Knock the dough back, knead briefly and shape it into two loaves. Some people religiously use bread tins but as I am too lazy to buy any, I just form torpedo shaped loaves and bake them on an oiled tray. Bake for 20-25 mins in a hot oven, i.e. 220C or 425F (a little less if fan assisted) or Gas Mark 7. After the prescribed time, tap the base of the bread. If it sounds hollow, it is ready. If not, turn the oven off and let it continue to bake for 5-10 minutes in the residual heat. Leave the loaves to cool on a wire rack.**
These days I make a mix of plain and flavoured breads. Before adding the oil, I break off about a third of the craggy dough. I make a large plain loaf first and then add freshly chopped rosemary leaves or caraway or fennel seeds to the craggy dough before mixing in the oil. Due to my lack of loaf tins I tend to bake these flavoured loaves in terra cotta pots.***
Despite the bad press that carbohydrates and gluten have received in recent years in the West, there is a reason why bread (in some form or another) has been a staple in many cultures down the ages. Bake your own loaf and you too can discover what a joy a good, fresh loaf is!
Practicalities for novice bakers
* Fresh yeast needs to be dissolved in the warm water before adding it to the flour. There are two types of dried yeast: instant or fast action dried yeast that can be added directly to the flour mix or dried active yeast. If you are using the latter, add it to the warm water and wait for it to froth (about 10-15 minutes) before adding it to the flour mix. The water needs to be hand warm to activate the enzymes in the yeast but never hot as this would kill off the enzymes.
** If you do not have a wire rack, you can leave the loaf to cool on the top of a gas stove or the even the concentric rings of an electric one, anywhere where some air can circulate below the loaf so it does not sit in residual moisture whilst cooling down.
*** Many baking books and programmes would have you to believe that you need all manner of equipment for baking. Nothing is further from the truth. If you soften butter before baking bread or biscuits, you can get away with a wooden spoon or hand whisk the way generations have done before the advent of electric equipment. Use a cup or glass instead of pastry cutters to punch out biscuits. You can even use old tins (ones that are not coated with plastic) for steamed puddings (see Lavender & Lovage’s Spiced Mixed Fruit Roll).