Bread is, of course, a staple, something most of us eat every day, so it’s a crying shame that much of it is so poor – pappy, tasteless and limp, laced with additives and completely lacking in character. Baking your own gives you the opportunity to eat really great bread every day – and to have access to wonderful toast and breadcrumbs too. Even stale home-made bread is a benefit, with myriad satisfying uses. In short, I urge you to become the baker of your own daily bread. It does require a certain amount of time and commitment, but I promise you, the rewards are phenomenal.
I could offer you a standard simple white bread recipe – the kind you’ll find on the back of your bag of bread flour – but I want to go one better. Since I’ve been baking bread at home, I’ve discovered that you get a vastly superior flavour and texture in a hand-made loaf if it’s leavened with wild yeasts, and if those yeasts have been allowed time to develop their personalities. I don’t want to get too technical but, in a nutshell, the more time yeast spends feeding on flour, the more its secretions of alcohol and various acids build up and develop flavour. The truth is, slow-risen bread tastes better.
The bread we make at home now is almost invariably sourdough. It all began, as sourdoughs do, with what is aptly known as a ‘starter’ – a gently fermenting batter of flour and water in which natural airborne yeasts have settled and got to work. We acquired ours from Dan Stevens, my River Cottage baking chef, and you may be able to get hold of one too (from a friendly baker, or a friend who bakes). We’re eternally grateful to Dan, who showed us the way with sourdough and helped make it, literally, our daily bread.
But you can also ‘grow your own’ starter from scratch. It may take several days – even a week or two – to get going, but once established, all it needs is regular feeds of flour to keep it frothing happily away. When we want to bake a loaf (which we do, on average, every other day), we take a portion of the starter and combine it with fresh flour and water to make a ‘sponge’. This we leave overnight to ferment and develop flavour. The next morning we combine the sponge with more flour and some salt to make our dough proper, which we knead, rise, shape, prove and bake.
That may sound like a long-winded process but I promise you that, while it does take time, it does not take a great deal of effort. Your interventions are relatively brief – the yeasts do their work over several hours – but the baker doesn’t do any more hands-on work than the baker of a conventional loaf. If you’re still sceptical, all I can do is ask you to take a leap of faith. Try this method and you will produce bread with more flavour and texture than any loaf you’ve baked at home before. We love it!