Baking Bread

Lady Bean posted today about baking bread and how she’s never been able to get whole wheat bread to rise properly. This is a problem I used to have until my most recent efforts. I don’t know if it’s using different flour, different yeast, a good, warm place to raise the bread or being really tuned into the texture of the bread during the kneading process. It’s probably a combination of all the above, though I’d venture to say it’s mostly the kneading and the temperature of the raising location.

My Friend’s Mom Taught Me How to Knead Bread, The Dough Needs to Feel The Way She Looked!

I started baking bread when I was 13 or 14 years old. Growing up in Northern New Brunswick, Canada, home made bread was pretty common in most of my friends’ homes. My mother, being a relocated London girl, didn’t bake bread. Scones were the closest she got to a raised bread, and her scones were superb, but I had to go to the neighbours to learn how to perfect my bread baking skills.

I remember the first time I visited my friend’s Mom’s kitchen on bread-baking day. She’d invited me over to teach me how to knead, and had told me when to arrive. She had a big family, and so baked a dozen loaves at a time. When I walked into the kitchen, there was a huge mound of very soft, quite sticky – but not wet – dough on the table.

She started by explaining it needed to be that consistency when you started kneading, and you had to add the flour gradually. She showed me how to fold the dough in half, make a quarter turn, fold it half again, over and over and over. Then turn the dough over and do it the other way. Over and over and over.

She told me not to use my fists because that made hard, angry bread, but to use the heels of my palms, and to knead gently but firmly, to make a soft, pliable bread. She made me knead it for a very long time and I kept asking: Is it ready now? and she kept saying: Not yet, more. Keep kneading.

I couldn’t believe how long I had to knead that blob of dough! Eventually I got tired and she took over, and when it was ready she made me knead it again so I could feel it. I think that dough was kneaded for a good 20 minutes or more.

It’s the final texture I’ll always remember. Warm, soft, glutinous, elastic – kind of like the love handles all over my friend’s Mom! She was a voluptuous woman – many would say fat. The bread dough felt the way she looked! And when it was kneaded the second time, after the first rising, and ready for the second rising, it was firmer – but still soft and pliable.

Even as a kid I preferred brown bread to white, and almost every Saturday morning I’d set up in the kitchen to bake a batch of oatmeal-molasses bread, cinnamon rolls and a chocolate cake. At the time I thought nothing of it. I loved doing it and my family enjoyed the results as much I did. I didn’t realise until now that was a pretty exceptional way for 14 year-old girl to spend her Saturday mornings!

That was the culture of Northern New Brunswick. At school, girls were taught Home Economics and boys were taught Shop. I loved doing it. It never occurred to me that I was missing out on music, art, or drama! It never occurred to me until years later that it had skilled me in woman’s housework; it had made me a homemaker, yet had sadly ill-prepared me with the necessary mindset to earn the money to buy the home!

You Are What You Eat: Eat Organic

The home-baked goods I turned out as a kid imprinted me for life. Not only by taking the place of education in the finer arts – no music or dance lessons – but also by marking my taste buds. There’s no pre-sliced bread from a brand-imprinted plastic bag in my home!

These days I’ve become particular about where my food comes from. Not only where the final product comes from, but also all the ingredients. And that means I really do prefer organic.

I’m not going to get into an ethical debate here about the pros and cons of GMO’s or pesticides, suffice to say, our bees are dying, fish are turning up dead on shorelines, and birds are dropping dead out of the sky into people’s back yards. Something is amiss in our world, and if consuming organic products means I am making a conscious and effective contribution to preserving the planet, not to mention just plain eating better and therefore possibly extending my life by a few years, well then, I’ll eat as much organic as I can.

Back to the Bread: The Recipe and Method

I’ve been using Doves Farm Organic Strong Wholemeal Bread Flour, and for lack of any other choices, Doves Farm Quick Yeast. I’ve been playing around with the Traditional Wholemeal Bread recipe on the back of the flour package, and although I haven’t yet turned out a perfect loaf of bread, the quality has definitely been changing.

As I like a moist, stick-together, slightly sweet bread over a dry, crumbly loaf I’ve been adding organic oats, black strap molasses and honey to the mix. The proportions aren’t yet fixed, but it goes something like this:

500g wholemeal bread flour
100-150g large rolled oats
1/2 tsp sea salt
2-3 tsp Quick Yeast (note this is more than in Dove’s recipe!)
1 heaping T black strap molasses
1 heaping T honey
325 ml warm water
2 T vegetable oil (another increase)

If you have a double oven – top oven used for warming/broiling, bottom oven for baking/roasting – start by setting the bottom oven temp at about 125C.

Boil the water and add the salt, molasses, honey, oil. Pour this over the oats, stir, and set aside to cool to room temperature.

Measure and sift the flour into a large container. From this sifted flour, measure 250g and sift again into a large mixing bowl. Add the sifted-out wheat germ back in. Mix in the yeast. (I suggest using 2 tsp for your first effort). Measure out the remaining 250g flour (from the first sifting) and place in the sifter ready to use.

Make a well in the flour, stir the oats and water mixture, and pour this into the well. Mix thoroughly with a spoon. Really mix it!

Then start sifting in the remainder of the flour, adding a little at a time, mixing with the spoon until it’s a sticky ball, then mix with your hands (wear those plastic gloves they use in restaurants if you don’t want sticky hands!) Keep sifting in flour and mixing with your hands until it’s a soft, sticky ball.

Sprinkle flour on a warm kneading surface and knead for 10-15 minutes, until it feels smooth and pliable. Keep sprinkling the sifted flour onto the dough and work surface to stop it sticking to the kneading surface, but not too much flour! You can also use oil to stop it sticking to your hands.

Smooth and pliable means the dough stretches but doesn’t split and crack too much. This is where you know if your proportions are right. If the dough splits and cracks every time you stretch it, you know you’ve got too much flour. To get the exact consistency takes experience, trial and error.

Once you’ve done this kneading, form the dough into a smooth ball and place in an oiled bowl, cover with a clean cloth and place in your raising location. I use the top oven of my cooker, which is warm, but not hot enough to cook anything, having been heated by pre-heating the oven below. Place the bowl with the dough on a rack to lift it off the hot oven bottom.

Leave it raise for an hour or until double in bulk. If it raises too fast, you’ve used too much yeast, if the dough sticks to the bottom of the bowl with a bit of crust, the raising temp was too high! It’s a science!

After the dough has raised, poke it with two fingers, then punch it down with your fist (this is the one time you can use your fist!) Turn out onto a floured kneading surface and knead again for 10-15 minutes. You’ll get the feel for the changing texture as you knead.

The kneading is really important as this is what gives your bread its texture, because it releases the gluten, which helps stick the bread together and also helps the bread to raise. Whole wheat flour requires more kneading to activate the gluten. It’s hard work. If you want to develop good, strong arms, kneading bread by hand is a great work out!

Once you’re satisfied that you have a nice, smooth, stretchy dough, shape it into a ball, cover it and let it – and yourself – rest for ten minutes. The bread’s also been working hard!

While it rests, turn your energy output down a few notches and oil two loaf pans, or simply oil a baking sheet. When the dough has rested, cut it with a knife to divide it into two, then shape the two pieces of dough into two loaves. If you’re baking on a baking sheet, shape it into two rounds.

Cover the shaped loaves with the cloth and put back in the raising location for 30-45 minutes, or until double in bulk. In the last 5-10 minutes of the raising time, turn the cooker up to 200C. When the loaves are raised, and the oven is up to temp, place them on a low rack in the cooker and bake for 25-40 minutes.

When the bread is done, remove it from the oven and turn out of the pan and place on a wire cooling rack. If you tap the bottom of the loaf and it sounds hollow, it’s cooked!

The oats in this recipe make the loaf moister than a standard whole wheat bread, it also helps stick it together, but it’s the kneading that will determine how crumbly (or not) your bread is! The molasses makes it darker, the honey (or Golden syrup if you prefer) makes it sweeter and gives it a distinct flavour. You must balance and adjust the quantities of oats, molasses and honey or syrup to suit your palate!

If you think this is too much work, buy a bread-making machine!!!! Though the satisfaction from kneading your own bread is akin to that of a cat who likes to jump on your lap and knead your lap with its paws. Enjoy the process, enjoy the results!

10 thoughts on “Baking Bread

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  1. Thank you for this! I love baking my own bread and too have had issues with whole wheat not rising the second go around! I can’t wait to try your recipe!

  2. Thank you for your comment on my blog! Your post on bread baking is very informative and I might just come back to it to try the recipe. I used to have a bread machine but the loaves never really came out to my satisfaction. I’ve been baking (mostly) by hand the past 2.5 years or so. I use a stand mixer for the kneading(the HORROR!), but I don’t think I could handle the amount of kneading required by hand to get a good bread. I’m excited to try some wheat bread now! 🙂

    1. Glad you found the post informative. When you try the recipe, pay attention to your measurements; remember the cooking utensils you used. Quantities and kneading time can really effect the outcome! Using a hand mixer for the beginning is fine, but when the mix is too dense for the mixer, you need to knead by hand. You can always teach a family member how to knead, or friends, and make it a communal effort – everybody taking a turn kneading. When I bake bread it’s a four to five hour effort. I really work up a sweat kneading! When you try it, let me know how it turns out.

  3. I was chatting with a chef the other evening and he told me you shouldn’t cut the dough with a metal knife – rather use something plastic. Apparently it will raise better metal changes the chemical composition.
    `…and today I was picking the brain of my local organic baker. He told me every time the temperature changes he has to adjust his recipe, and to not have exact quantities is necessary because everything is affected by a change in temperature, and you must always adjust to fit.

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