Rising to the challenge

PUBLISHED: 17:19 03 February 2014 | UPDATED: 17:19 03 February 2014

Leon Pearson, artisan baker at Slow Dough, Unit 2, Stutton Lane, Tattingstone, Suffolk.

Leon Pearson, artisan baker at Slow Dough, Unit 2, Stutton Lane, Tattingstone, Suffolk.

Want to know how to bake the perfect loaf? Ask Leon Pearson, of Tattingstone

They call bread the staff of life. When there is little else in the cupboard, there is usually bread to sustain us.

Practically every country, every culture has a version it is proud to call its own. Whether you’re in a Parisian café lavishing golden butter on a crisp baguette, or mopping up a fiery sauce in Asia with a steamed rice bun, there is comfort in their simplicity and familiarity and in knowing wherever you are in the world at least you have bread.

I honestly believe nothing beats a proper loaf. You can keep your plastic, white, value bread with its pappy texture and insipid cardboard flavour. While not everyone can afford to, or find time to, buy an artisan crafted bread every day, something we can all aspire to do is bake our own.

The ingredients are cheap enough – flour, water, salt, yeast – but the sum of these parts will be something much more delicious than anything that comes out of a packet.

I spoke to Leon Pearson, head baker and owner of The Slow Dough Bakery in Tattingstone, to find out how to make a truly good bread at home, from scratch. >

Do we need to be fussy with our choice of flour?

I’d say as long as you use strong bread flour I don’t think you have to be too choosy. English bread flour is not always as strong as flour from countries such as Canada and Russia, but most importantly, never use plain flour.

You’ll have to treat wholemeal flour differently. It absorbs more water so you have to allow more to compensate. If you have a recipe for a white loaf and you think it would be more wholesome with wholemeal flour, you could mix half and half, and you might want to add an extra 5% water.

What’s the best kneading technique?

A good, vigorous knead for around five minutes will work for a kilo of flour, which should make two large loaves. It doesn’t matter how you knead, it matters that you stretch and fold the dough over. Imagine it’s a big elastic band and keep pulling it back on itself. That’s how you develop the dough. It’s definitely a good idea to knead by hand so you can feel the texture. In a machine it’s easy to over knead and there’s a danger the dough will get too tight and it won’t expand.

How can you tell dough is ready?

The method I use is to form the dough into a ball, take a piece between my fingers and pull it away gently. If it springs back it should be ready. If, when you pull a piece of dough out it stays out, it probably needs more kneading.

How many rises should bread have?

I normally say two rises. Knead the dough in one piece then leave it for its first rise, which can be anything between one and 24 hours at a temperature of between 25C to 27C depending on the bread. During the first rise you would deflate the loaf. Some punch down the bread but I use the continental method of stretching and folding. After that you divide the dough into the number of pieces you want and shape it, then have a second rise before it goes in the oven. The first rise is where the flavour is developing by breaking down the sugars. The longer the rise, the better the taste.

With the second rise generally you don’t want the dough to be risen all the way, only three quarters of the way or it will be overproved and too flat. Your loaf should still have a bit of energy in it so it can continue to rise in the oven.

Can you rescue bread that hasn’t risen?

If it hasn’t risen at all it might mean there was something wrong with your yeast – it might have been dead or too old, or you didn’t put enough in. If it has risen a bit, leave it to rise for longer.

Should home cooks use baker’s yeast or dried yeast?

As far as I know you will get the same result with both but baker’s yeast is more convenient for commercial bakers. It’s easier to portion out, cheaper and easier to mix in as you don’t have to dissolve it in water first.

If you go into any high street bakery where they bake their own bread on site from scratch they won’t normally mind selling you a bit of baker’s yeast. I think Sainsbury’s and Morrisons do this.

Do we have to put salt in bread?

It’s very difficult to make bread without salt because it tastes insipid. About 1% of the final weight of bread should be salt because as well as flavour, what it does is control the yeast acidity. Without it, the bread will rise too quickly without having a chance to ferment properly. Dough that rises too quickly tends to be quite sloppy.

What is the best way to get a crusty loaf?

A crispy crust is a lot to do with steam. If you introduce a lot of steam into your oven for the first 10 or 15 minutes of the bake it will help the bread to rise without forming a skin so early.

Place water in a tray in the bottom of the oven and turn the fan off in the oven if you can for the first part of the bake.

What’s gone wrong if bread has a crumbly, cake-like texture?

It would mean there’s not enough gluten. What’s happened probably is that the dough wasn’t strong enough so the yeast hasn’t started working. It hasn’t been able to hold the air so it ends up quite dense and crumbly. Make sure you are using strong bread flour, and if it’s still cakey make sure you are kneading enough.

How can you stop bread splitting?

One thing to try is slicing the top of the dough before it goes in the oven which will control the weak spot, rather than the dough finding somewhere to burst through. It’s important with any loaf that you cut the top as you will get a better appearance.

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