Updated: Mar 13, 2019
So as we enter a new year, I’m sure a lot of you will have made the resolution to start baking your own bread and kudos to you if you have - it’s an extremely rewarding and satisfying hobby. Now you could just jump straight in, follow a tutorial like my ‘Basic White Bread Dough’ recipe, and be knocking out your first loaves this weekend (that’s what I’d do!). Or you might want to go down the more artisanal (painful!) route and make a sourdough starter, so that in a few weeks you can have a crack at baking your first sourdough loaf. The first option could take you less than 3 hours and the second option could take you as long as 3 weeks! But what is there in between? Once you’re a dab hand at your standard white loaf and you’re craving a little more excitement from your weekly bake, what can you do, where can you go? At this point a lot of people head down the sourdough route in search of ‘real bread’. But maybe you haven’t got the time, the patience or indeed the inclination to look after a sourdough starter. Or maybe spending the best part of a day elbow deep in flour, water and leaven isn’t your idea of a relaxing Sunday. Is there still something a little more interesting, a little more exciting to pursue, something wholesome, nourishing and damned right tasty you can make? Absolutely! All you need is that same ‘Basic White Bread Dough’ recipe mentioned earlier and the addition of a little extra time and technique to elevate a beginner’s loaf into something with a bit more personality, character and above all flavour.
First of all, there’s an easy win that you can implement to improve your bread straight away and that’s buy a better quality flour. When starting out I always advocate using one that’s cheap and easy to find. Like any good science experiment, you want to remove as many variables as possible, so using an ‘economical’ flour, like a Supermarkets own brand, means you can get the same flour every week and work on achieving consistent, repeatable results – it also helps keeps the cost of any mistakes (bricks!) down too. However, once you’re happy with your results and you can knock out a standard loaf with ease, then upgrading your flour is a surefire way to boost flavour. If you have a hunt around online, you can find bulk bags of high quality flour that doesn’t work out much more expensive than the Supermarket brands. I’ve been buying FWP Matthews Flours from Amazon; a 16kg bag works out at 88p per kg! This is fantastic value and the flour itself is amazing, you can really feel the difference when working with it and the flavour is wonderful. Check them out here: FWP Matthews
But once you’ve settled on your flour, what can YOU add? How can you use your baking skills and knowledge to amp up the flavour, texture and crust of your bread? The answer is a pre-ferment and on this occasion a Poolish – a proportion of the flour, yeast and water mixed together and allowed to ferment overnight to create some wonderfully complex flavours in your final loaf. We’re not talking sourdough levels of flavour here, but some lovely mellow, yeasty, malty, beery notes nonetheless. The lengthened fermentation time also improves the texture, tenderising the gluten and creating a softer crumb, whilst simultaneously giving you a more delicate and crisp crust. The method was developed in Poland, but was popularised in France during the 1840s and is now associated with many classic French breads including baguettes and fougasse. A classic Poolish uses equal weights of flour and water to create a 100% hydration 'sponge', but for my recipe I have simplified the process, using the total water from the bread recipe right from the start. So if you’re looking to create something a little more artisanal, a little more traditional, then get some Poolish into your life and take your bread baking up to the next level.
600g Strong White Bread Flour
2g Instant Yeast
600g Strong White Bread Flour
10g Instant Yeast
60g Soft Butter (Optional)
Flour/Rice Flour for dusting
Day 1 – Make your Poolish (before you go to bed)
In the bowl of a KitchenAid or a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, yeast and water from the Day 1 ingredients to create a thick batter.
Cover with Clingfilm and leave out on your kitchen counter overnight (8 to 12 hours).
By the morning it should be looking nice a bubbly. Give it a good smell and take in those wonderful aromas!
Day 2 – Mix your dough
Add all the Day 2 ingredients to the Poolish and then mix on a low speed (1-2) for five minutes. The dough should look smooth and well homogenised, pulling away from the sides of the bowl as it mixes. Scrape any dough off the dough hook, cover the bowl with a plate, tea towel or sheet of Clingfilm and allow to proof at room temperature for two hours or until the dough is lifting the cover off the bowl.
Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface being careful not to tear it too much and then using a dough scraper or a large knife divide it in two.
Working with one piece of dough at a time, flatten it out into a rectangle by pushing and manipulating it with the tips of your fingers. Then using the palms of your hands scoop both sides up simultaneously and fold them over so they meet in the middle, push them down to flatten them out and degas the dough a little. Now fold the two top corners in like you are making a paper plane, then hold the point that has been formed at the top and pull it up and over on to itself. Now with your hands flat, push the front part of the dough you have just rolled over, down, then reach around the top of the dough and roll it over again. Push the new front down and keep repeating until you have formed a nice taut roll.
Place each loaf into a tin (line with baking parchment or grease with a little butter and flour if you are worried about the bread sticking), cover with a tea towel and leave to proof at room temperature for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the dough is doming above the rim of the tin by about an inch.
Pre-heat your oven to 240c with an empty roasting tin on the bottom shelf. When you are ready to bake, put both loaf tins side-by-side in the oven and then pour a cup of cold water into the hot roasting tin and quickly close the oven door. The water in the roasting tin will produce steam for the first few minutes of cooking which will help your loaves 'spring' and also give them a nice crisp, shiny crust. Bake for 10 minutes at this temperature, then turn the oven down to 200c and continue to cook for a further 23 minutes. If the loaves are browning quickly, reduce the temperature to 180c instead and cook for 25 minutes instead of 23.
Once cooked, leave the loaves in their pans for a couple of minutes, (the steam from the bread will help release them), but then do transfer them to a wire rack otherwise they will get very soggy bottoms. Allow to cool for a couple of hours before slicing.