Today I will be teaching a friend how to bake bread.
Incidentally, I am also back on the LCHF diet as of yesterday to reconcile myself and the mirror, but there’s no reason for that to deter me – I have one of those Scandinavian-model effortlessly-slim boyfriends, and he can eat all the bread I’ll end up baking. I’d hate him for having such a figure while eating whatever he likes – and chocolate! – if I didn’t love him so much! But, I digress.
The friend in question is a single young man, university student, and loves to cook. And bake. Or try to – as in his case, and in his own words, his attempts at yeasted bread simply won’t rise and result in a brick. And we aren’t talking about sourdough-starter bread here, which ok, I admit, can be a temperamental piece of… dough. So, what could be possibly going wrong – is it the yeast? No, baking with yeast in Sweden is popular and so the regular supermarket-available fresh yeast it, it works like clockwork. Is it the other ingredients? Flour? No, can’t be – flour here is locally produced and is very, very good, even the plain kind. Is it something else? What? – I just told him to come on over with a sack of flour and we’ll bake bread together and see what gives. You’ll see what gives later or tomorrow is my guess, after we solve the mystery.
So, what’s the deal with baking your own bread at home? Supermarkets are full of bread, and it – at least superficially – is a fairly cheap grocery item. Or is it?
Turns out, not really. Pick up a bag of bread and check the back of it – see how much it weighs and what goes into it. Then check the price for a bag of flour and some yeast (water and salt aren’t really high-ticket items), and suddenly you realise – it does cost one heck of a lot more than flour. Even counting yeast. Even if you buy the higher-priced bread flour with higher protein content. Store-bought bread tends to be expensive even for the price of the raw materials, and as to the quality you are getting – eh. In Sweden, the situation is better than in a lot of other countries I’ve lived in, but even here the bread is still… eh. Some of it is healthy and wholegrain, but then it is either expensive, tastes eh, or both.
And besides, the stuff you get from the shop just doesn’t have that freshly-baked smell as the bakery loaves. And those are expensive. We are talking about a small (half-kilo) loaf going for 50 sek (about €5) for the artisan-style stuff. And, is it better than the things I can make at home after a few months’ practice? Let’s not pretend here that I am some sort of master baker – I so am not, never taken a baking class in my life, in fact. Microbiology – yes. Baking – no. Though the skills do overlap.
And the answer is – well, no, it’s not. It’s about at the level of my initial attempts at baking, and the sourdough bread I’ve produced recently knocks the socks off most things I’ve seen in bakeries. And if someone as lax at the whole instruction-following as me can manage it, so can you. Going back to the price question – a 2kg bag of flour makes several loaves – and for the good stuff, it costs about 20 sek (€2). And even if you count the energy in (some 1-2 sek per loaf in a home oven if I remember correctly), it’s still worth it in price. Oh, and you can put anything you like in it. And salt and season it as much as you prefer. And the effort, especially with minimal modern machinery (we are talking a handheld mixer – I don’t even own a bowl mixer!) – is very, very small.
Not to mention, most bread you’ll bake at home (unless it’s dessert!) will be healthier as it’ll contain better ingredients, less random additives, and almost certainly less sugar.
So, now that we’ve established it’s worthwhile, what stops people from baking?
One of a few things, apparently. What kept me from baking bread for a long time was that it’s harped about as being difficult. The kneading is labor-intensive, supposedly, and it can fail to rise, or it can collapse in the oven. And don’t even think of trying sourdough – that, supposedly, will stink up your endire kitchen, if not the entire house! The horror! And all of those rumors conspire to tell you that you shouldn’t bother. There’s perfectly good bread in the supermarket, after all… Well, that’s a load of what comes out of a cow’s back end, frankly.
Baking bread is easy. (The more mysterious and fascinating is the case of my friend who’s coming in two hours!) Before you decide to learn about sourdough like I did a few months ago, you should try commercial yeast – simply because it’s easier. It’s like a well-trained dog: you tell it to sit and it does. You tell it to run, and it does. You learn and you gain confidence and experience. Sourdough bread is utterly gorgeous – far superior to the regular commercial-yeast bread in many cases, but well, that’s like taming a wild animal for a pet: very doable, but takes some understanding of the beast. Hence, get a dog (commercial yeast), and practice first.
Learning to bake with regular yeast, aside from providing you with lovely fresh bread on reasonably short schedule – accomplishes this – it teaches you to handle living yeast (how to not kill it and make it thrive and rise your bread), and it teaches you to develop gluten. There are as many methods here as there are bakers – some knead the heck out of it, some use and swear by a bowl mixer, some mix it and then do stretch-and-folds*** and avoid kneading altogether, and I use a handheld mixer with a couple of dough hooks until the dough comes together, and then use stretch-and-folds myself. Once you have learned these two basics – keeping yeast alive and developing gluten, it’s a short step in patience to proofing your bread (allowing it to rise properly), and a hot oven – and if yours is difficult, you can always ‘cheat’ a better oven with a pizza stone or a cast-iron dutch oven (casserole) if you really want to make it easy.
There are gazillions of yeasted bread recipes around, but if you want mine, there are a couple of really easy ones I’ve posted here, here, and also here. And by easy, I really mean easy. And there are, obviously, pictures!
So yes. Bread. It’s inexpensive, it’s easy, it’s delicious and you should absolutely make it at home – for your own eating pleasure, the sense of accomplishment, for proving the myths wrong, for the sake of your wallet, and for various friends who’ll love eating it, and if you give them a loaf, will totally adore you for it. I promise.
*** The link is to a website made by a guy named Mike – a baker in USA – which I found amazingly helpful in learning about baking with sourdough bread from point zero. It also has a lot of good tips and techniques, and even videos which are wonderful at explaining and troubleshooting your baking process. It may look like a lot of text, but it’s very worthwhile to those wanting to learn to bake. Sure, you can get a baking book later, but when starting out – free – and good! – advice, what’s not to like?