Baking a loaf of bread is something we should all do at least once in our life. It is simple. It is natural. It is fulfilling. Made from the most basic of ingredients – flour, yeast, salt and water – bread plays a role in almost all meals, be it center stage in a fresh sandwich, croutons in a light, summer salad or as an accompaniment to a winter stew. But for all its simplicity, bread is incredibly diverse, and boasting flavours from the sweet and delicate to the stout and full-bodied.
The true origin of bread is hard to pin down, but it is believed that leavened bread was discovered by the Egyptians, who stumbled upon fermentation by chance with a piece of dough which had become sour. We can trace, and indeed thank, everything from brioche to baguettes to the unearthing of leavened bread. However it was in the Middle Ages that the bakery trade really began to flourish and breads of varying kinds spread across the lands.
Today, the term bread incorporates the near endless lists of breads from around the world, each having developed out of local tastes and available ingredient. Traditionally, flour was most often made from wheat, but often, and increasingly, bread flour is made from rice, corn (maize) and rye. For maize-made bread, think flat breads and tortillas from Mexico and South America. Scandanavia and Germany on the other hand, are well known for their black, sturdy rye breads. And while bread is usually baked in an oven, it is sometimes cooked in oil, as in North Africa, or steamed, as with some Chinese breads.
Baking a loaf of bread – whether a gourmet foccacia, crispy flat bread or a chunky loaf filled with nuts, seeds and fruit – is a simple task, so there’s no need to be daunted. Simply roll up your sleeves, get out some flour and away you go!
Types of bread
There are different ways to categorise breads, and each bread can fall into several categories. Loosely speaking however, breads can be divided into:
Leavened bread – Any bread which has been leavened in some way, either through commercial yeast or the ‘sponge method’. Includes many of your common breads, from baguettes to packaged sliced bread.
Flat bread – Quick to make. Made without a leavening agent, they do not need time to rise or ‘proof’.
Lean bread – Made from plain (all-purpose) flour or bread flour with little or no fat (hence lean). Common examples include the French baguettes and Italian ciabatta
Wholegrain bread – Made from any wholegrain, including wholemeal wheat, cracked wheat, bulgur and rye to pumpernickel, sesame and sunflower seeds. Wholegrain breads are typically denser and sturdy, with an earthy, full-bodied flavour.
Sourdough bread – Sourdough is the most ancient form of making leavened bread. No commercial yeast is used, instead a mix of flour and water is used to attract airborne wild yeasts which feed on the starch in the flour, resulting in fermentation. The bread is characteristically sour.
Rich bread – These are made with substantial quantities of butter or egg which give the bread a sweeter taste and more yellow colour. Brioche, donoughts, scones and challah are common rich breads.
Bread Baking Basics
Making bread consists of three main steps:
Kneading – Consists of combining the water, yeast or leaven, flour and salt into a homogenous mixture. Whether by hand or with a stand mixer, kneading helps to incorporate the yeast into the dough and develop the gluten which gives bread its structure, crumb and chewiness.
Rising and Proving – Here the yeast or leaven is given time to rise or ferment. This usually takes about an hour at room temperature and the resulting dough is about double its size. Before the second, and final, rise or “proving”, the dough is punched or folded to even out any gas bubbles and then shaped into a loaf or rolls.
Baking – Whether you use a bake stone or baking sheet, make sure to leave a couple of centimetres space around your dough to allow for even baking, and always preheat your oven prior to baking – the dough’s initial contact with a hot oven is necessary in creating a well-risen, well-formed finished loaf. To check if you’re bread is properly cooked, give it a slight tap on the bottom, it should emit a hollow sound. You’ll also be able to gage by the colour – well browned is best for superior crust and flavour.
Serving and Storing
As tempting as fresh, warm bread straight from the oven may be, make sure to properly cool your bread before slicing. Technically speaking, your bread hasn’t finished baking until it is cool and the excess moisture has evaporated. You’ll also find less difficulty when slicing. For best results, remove bread immediately from the pan, cool on wire racks and use a serrated knife to avoid tearing or squashing.
The best thing about homemade bread is that it contains no preservatives – just pop whatever won’t be eaten within three days into the freezer. Otherwise, store your bread at room temperature in a paper bag or in a bread box.
Roasted Pumpkin, Pumpkin Seed and Feta Focaccia
Give classic Italian foccaccia a gourmet twist with crunchy seeds and chunks of soft pumpkin and melted feta. Perfect for thick, open-faced sandwiches or served simply on its own.
In a small bowl, mix the yeast in the warm water and stand for 5 minutes. Add the olive oil, salt and sugar and stir well. Place the flour on a clean surface. Make a well in the centre and slowly add the warm liquid using your hands to form a dough.
Knead for 5 minutes. If the dough is too wet knead in more flour till you have firm, springy dough. Lightly flour a large bowl. Place the dough in it. Cover with plastic wrap or a tea towel. Place in a warm spot. Let the dough rise for 1 hour or till it has doubled in size. Heat the oven to 190°C. Lightly flour a large baking tray. Place the dough on a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes. Lightly knead in the pumpkin pieces, pumpkin seeds and feta, making sure you keep some for garnishing the top of the bread. Form the bread into a log shape. Place on a floured tray and bake for 30 to 40 minutes or till the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Cool for 10 minutes before slicing.
Tip: Roast the pumpkin with olive oil and seasoning for 30 minutes on 200°C.
Kneading is best done using the palm of your hand and pushing firmly on the dough.
The bread can be made into any shape, just be sure to adjust the cooking time for thinner or fatter loaves.
Mixed Brown Seed and Date Low GI Loaf
Dense and chewy, with hints of sweet caramelised date make this a delicious bread for morning or afternoon tea. Serve it warm with butter or enjoy a thick slice with gruyere or old-aged cheddar.
Heat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line a large loaf tin. In a small bowl mix the yeast and the warm water and stand for 5 minutes. In a larger bowl, combine the flour, LSA powder, seeds and dates. Stir in the water, milk, sugar and salt till well mixed in. Pour the bread mix into the loaf tin. Sprinkle with seeds and let stand for 15 minutes.
Bake for an hour or till the bread sounds hollow when tapped.
A flat bread originating in Armenia, lavash is incredibly quick and easy to make. Traditionally used for wraps and kebabs, lavash is also delicious served crisp and golden as an accompaniment for dips or a warming curry.
Preheat oven to 190°C. Line a large baking tray with baking paper. Place the flour, salt, sugar, butter and the milk in the bowl of a food processor. Process into a smooth dough, 1-2 minutes. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and roll into a thin square. Carefully place the square on the baking tray. Brush with water and sprinkle with sesame seeds and poppy seeds. Roll the pin on the seeds to squash them into the dough. Bake for 10 minutes till golden and crunchy. Cool and serve.
Tip: You may use a pasta machine to roll out the bread, just use the widest setting.
Recipes by Camilla van Beuningen
Words by Yasmin Newman
Photography by Stephen Ostrer