At the studio, sharing food with other people is a really important part of how we enjoy it and how we communicate our enthusiasm for it: when we really love something, we want to share it with other people. The idea of breaking bread is that of sharing a meal; you use the phrase when you’re sitting down with other people – whether they’re family, friends or new acquaintances. Thinking about this got us thinking about bread itself, and why it’s so important to cultures all over the world. Historians believe that bread has been an important part of human culture for over 10,000 years: there’s something incredibly wholesome and comforting about that thought.
However, the best bread, whether you’re eating it on your own or with others, or as part of a big meal or just as a sandwich, is definitely bread you have made yourself. Not many people have the time or the energy to do it all the time, but making bread is a much more rewarding experience than buying it from a shop, even if that shop is a lovely little artisan bakery. To get some top tips on how to bake a great loaf, we talked to two great bread bakers. Iain Shilto, is an incredibly talented personal chef who, if you’re lucky enough to have him cater for you, may well serve up some of his homemade bread along side his very very tasty food, and Ben Hawkins who is one of the founders of the Da Bara artisan bakery in Grampound Road, who won several medals, including a gold, at the World Bread Awards. They didn’t agree on everything – bread baking is more of an art than a science after all – but they did give us some great pointers and Iain has shared his super simple white bread recipe with us (after testing, we can promise it works a treat!).
Top 5 Bread Baking Tips
1 . Get your flour right
This is something both bakers definitely agreed on; the quality of your flour affects the quality of your loaf. As Ben said “good flour won’t rescue a terrible loaf, but bad flour can ruin a good one”. Iain usually bakes with flour from Baker Tom’s, and Da Bara buy their flour direct from the mill. You can bake with supermarket own-brand flour, but the results will just not taste quite as good.
2. Use fresh yeast
Both bakers use mostly fresh yeast. (Ben did recommend using instant yeast in pizza dough because it’s great for relaxing the dough). The best place to get some is your local supermarket bakery: just ask one of the staff. It’s usually very cheap or free. There are a lot of schools of thought on how to use fresh yeast, but neither Iain nor Ben worry too much about ‘activating it’ – they just add it to the dough as you would instant yeast. Iain thinks it’s actually easier to use than dried yeast – he says it’s a bit less temperamental.
3. Measure accurately
A good set of digital scales will make your life a lot easier. Pretty much every bread expert out there recommends weighing all of your ingredients, including your water: using volume is much less accurate. If you’re making a small batch of bread for home you’re also going to need to weight quite small amounts – often less than 10g, so a good set of scales will help a lot. Digital scales were Iain’s top tip for the most important thing to have, when baking bread at home.
4. The oven is the place it’s most likely to go wrong
As a personal chef, Iain uses a lot of different ovens, and he says it definitely makes a lot of difference to baking temperatures and times. The Da Bara bakers bake a lot of bread every night, and even they had a few burnt reject loaves when I visited. You need a hot oven to create a good crust, but that means it’s also easier to burn the bread. The best method is to cook very high for around 20 minutes and then reduce the temperature. Get to know your oven, and be flexible with baking times. You can also recreate the steam used in posh catering ovens, which really helps create a crunch crust, with a steam bath – when you turn your oven on, pop a roasting tray in the bottom of it, then, when you put your bread in, fill it with water from the kettle.
5. Experiment and have fun.
Experiment with different types of loaves and different shapes: Iain makes a lot of different kinds of bread from his base dough – focaccia and ciabatta as well as more standard loaves. The Da Bara bakers use flours from three different mills – experiment to find a flour that results in a bread you love to eat, whether that’s a stoneground white flour, which results in a much more wholemeal-y loaf, or even spelt or rye flour. The more bread you bake, the more you learn; Iain recently learnt that proving dough in the airing cupboard is possibly not the best plan, when he forgot about a batch and had to clean it off all of his clean laundry.
Iain’s Super Easy White Bread Recipe
500g bread flour
10g fresh yeast
350g water (warmish – around 22 degrees)
Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Rub a little bit of oil onto a piece of clingfilm and cover the bowl. Leave in a warm place for around 30 minutes.
Shape the dough into a ball, return to the bowl, cover and leave for another 30 minutes.
Shape your dough into a loaf, or if you are making a split tin loaf, shape it and place it in the tin. Prove again for another 30 minutes.
You can prove your dough for longer if you wish, but it will now have proved sufficiently to make a great loaf. You can slash your loaf open if you like, and coat the top in oil or flour, but none of that is actually necessary – it just changes your loaf slightly.
Bake your loaf in the oven, with a steam bath, at around 230 degrees for 20 minutes and then 190 degrees for 20 minutes. Be flexible with the times and keep an eye on your loaf.
Once baked, let it cool for as long as you can, and then tuck in with some good salty butter.
Enjoy – and remember to share your bread with other people. There are deep biological roots in our culture whereby sharing food signifies group belonging and familiarity. People sharing food appreciate each other at a profound level: when you share food, you trust people enough to put your weapons down and relax a little.
FOOTNOTE: This article was inspired by (and can be enjoyed more by listening to) our favourite online radio station – the one-and-only Breakin’ Bread – a London based online radio station playing rare grooves and funky tunes. In the infamous words of Ian Molly Meldrum – do yourself a favour and check them out: