The Lost Art of Breadmaking

Making bread is easy.

Sure, the difference between producing a basic white loaf and some artisan work of beauty comes down to skills accumulated through years of experience. But a basic loaf is, nonetheless, a simple beast. Flour, yeast, water… and a bit of salt. That’s it. It’s a formula that is used the world over and has been in existence since mankind first managed to drag itself out of a loincloth and into the kitchen.

So why… WHY… is there so much dreadful bread out there?

I’m not saying for a moment that all eateries should bake their own bread. It’s a lovely thought but, in all honesty, it’s just not feasible. Sandwich shops, roadside buttie bars, pubs, schools, youth clubs, hospitals; none of these places can realistically afford the time and/or resources to bake their own daily requirements. In order to provide the service expected of them in these modern times they must buy-in certain commodities, including bread. But then, this is nothing new. Even back in ‘the good old days’ before industrial-scale bakeries and food-production plants the majority of people didn’t bake their own bread at home. Neither did local taverns, inns and restaurants. They bought-in from their local bakery. Beautiful, freshly baked bread collected or delivered each day, sometimes twice a day, was the staple of whole communities. In the UK, this was largely the case right up to the 1950s.

Day old stale bread, no longer in its prime but still full of flavour, formed the basis of some of today’s much-loved British classics: bread and butter pudding, summer pudding, bread sauce, trifle (yes, trifle was originally made using bread rather than a sponge), and many more. Nowadays most people will use a sliced loaf straight from the supermarket shelf to make these dishes. Why? Because they can buy a loaf of sliced white from Sainsbury’s and know that it’ll still be perfectly fine to use 3 days later. It’s so full of shit that it takes an eternity to go stale.

And when I say shit I don’t simply mean E-numbers and carcinogenic preservatives. Our food laws, compared to somewhere like the US, are relatively strict and the labelling of those ingredients are equally as strictly monitored. What I mean by shit is anything that strays too far from the basic formula of bread making – flour, yeast, water, salt.

If you tried to make a standard supermarket sliced white loaf at home, you would fail. Its production methods go against everything a home baker holds as gospel. For a start, the ‘dough’ is more like a batter. It can’t be kneaded in the classical sense, it’s simply too wet. It has been developed in order to go from raw ingredients to finished loaf in the shortest possible period of time, meaning that proving times are almost non-existent. And as any good baker knows, the flavour of a loaf – along with the quality of its crumb – comes from the proving of the dough. This is where the yeast does its work, converting sugars into carbon dioxide as it feasts on the flour. As it does this it imparts a flavour into the dough; the longer it feeds, the more flavour it produces, and it will continue to do this as long as there is sufficient food to maintain it. Cut out that element and the yeast is there for no other reason than to raise the loaf – flavour is irrelevant. In order to retain its moisture on the shelf, a commercial loaf contains a disproportionally large amount of fat. A basic traditional loaf will often incorporate a glug of oil or a little white fat for this purpose, but a commercial loaf uses much, much more. And we’re not talking extra virgin olive or rapeseed here – it’s all about the bottom line, and whatever’s cheap.

So it’s relatively tasteless, full of ingredients that don’t need to be there, and churned out in the UK by the wagon-load. But hey, demand dictates supply, and the only reason it’s made by the wagon-load is because we buy it by the wagon-load. Thankfully, things have begun to turn a corner over the past few years with supermarkets opening on-site bakeries to produce an actually quite decent array of breads (in most cases). Where things fall down is in the catering industry.

Good eateries bake their own bread. If they can’t do this, they procure it from a good bakery.

Not-so-good eateries buy it in part-baked, frozen and often at the cheapest rate possible. After all, it’s only bread, right? It’s what gets sandwiched inside it that matters.

No.

No. No. No. No. NO.

Go to New York, walk into any deli and ask for a sandwich. What d’ya want it on? will come the reply, whereupon you will be presented with a list of at least 3 or 4 breads, quite often more: rye, marble rye, pumpernickel, sourdough, wholegrain, onion, wheat, hoagie… that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In France, Spain, Italy it’s a similar story; fresh bread everywhere. From the Baltic to the Med, the Adriatic to the Black Sea coast, when it comes to fresh bread they’re far ahead of us. Or rather, perhaps we’ve moved so far ahead of them that we’ve lost the value of our own bread making heritage. There are some fantastic bakeries here in the UK. Much like the real ale resurgence of the last 20 years, artisan bread making has flourished in the past decade. But it has remained very much a luxury item, a treat to be had as an exception to the rule; here, Frankenloaves are still king.

Cheap bread at home is one thing. I get it. Times are hard, money is tight, cheaper is better for much of the population. To tell people that they’re wrong for buying the stuff would be to tell them that they should spend three times as much on the bread they buy, and to hell with the heating bills or clothing the kids. They are right to buy cheap bread. If the budget’s tight and mouths are to be fed, cheap and filling is the logical way to go. What’s wrong is the simple fact that they’d have to spend 3 times as much if they wanted to buy a freshly baked loaf. A ‘premium’ brand loaf – a Warburton’s or Hovis, say – will cost around the £1 mark for a standard sliced loaf, whereas a supermarket-own brand will generally be half that – around fifty pence. These are standard 800g loaves.

So let’s do some maths.

Strong white bread flour will cost around £1/kg (retail). Dried yeast costs around 65p for 125g – which is enough yeast to make about 15 loaves; fresh yeast is even cheaper, but is normally bought in less home-baker-friendly 1kg blocks. Water costs next to nothing, and salt is a couple of pence per loaf. So…

For an 800g loaf of plain white bread you will need 500g flour, 7g dried yeast, approx. 350 ml water and 10g of salt. That comes to roughly £0.55. Add-in a glug of oil and fuel costs to bake it, and you’re looking at about seventy pence.

So you can make a basic white loaf, at home, for 70p. If you do this on a regular basis, and therefore buy larger quantities of flour (reducing the cost) and fresh yeast, you can easily take that total down to 50p. And whilst that’s no saving over a supermarket sliced loaf, by God does it taste better. It tastes better because it actually tastes of something. Time is a huge luxury, I know, and convenience often dictates our food choices. I get that. All I am saying here is that convenience bread is not the only option, and price is no argument.

Which is why – to come full circle – I grow so weary of visiting hotels, pubs and restaurants that still serve shitty bread. They have the staff, the time, the purchasing power and (supposedly) the knowledge to produce their own bread – or at least source it from someone who does – yet they simply can’t be bothered. Bread is just bread. It’s an afterthought.

The saddest thing is that this is only true because we accept it.

So we shouldn’t.Next time you visit a reputable looking eateries, ask them “Is this bread homemade?”. And when they say, “no”, look disappointed. Tell them you’re disappointed. Shame, my friends, is the way forward.

 

Basic White Bread

500g strong white bread flour

7g dried yeast (or 15g fresh yeast)

10g salt

15 ml (1 tbsp) olive or rapeseed oil (*optional)

350 ml warm water

  1. Place the yeast into a bowl and add 2 tbsp of the warm water. Mix well and leave for 10 minutes – it will begin to foam slightly, showing that the yeast is active.
  2. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in its centre. Pour in the yeast mixture, the oil (if using), and the remaining water.
  3. Gradually incorporate the flour into the liquid in the well until you have a loose dough. Transfer the dough to a solid worktop and knead it for 10 minutes to activate the gluten. To do this, hold the dough using the heel of one hand while you stretch it away from yourself using the heel of the other hand. As you knead you will notice the dough becoming more elastic and easier to handle.
  4. Place the kneaded dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with greased/oiled cling film, and leave it somewhere warm to double in size – approx. 30 minutes.
  5. Lightly knead the dough for 2 minutes and shape it into a bloomer, or place it into a greased loaf tin. Cover and leave to prove for 30 minutes.
  6. Bake in an oven preheated to 220ºC for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 180ºC and bake for a further 30-40 minutes. The loaf is ready when golden in colour and when the base gives a hollow sound when tapped.
  7. Allow to cool before eating.
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