I am certainly very far from being an expert in baking, but since I’ve been baking bread for a while now I thought I’d share little tips that I’ve found helpful.
- Give it time. It’s often the case that you’ll add all the ingredients in the right amount but the dough will feel extremely sticky. My impulse at this point used to be to add more flour until I get something more workable. However this can result in a denser, rubbery loaf. So instead, it’s best to keep working the dough to activate the gluten. Maybe 5 or 10 minutes of kneading later, almost by magic, the dough will be transformed and will be wonderfully elastic and silky smooth.
- Knead it yourself. Of course, using a stand mixer and a dough hook attachment or even a bread-maker means less physical effort is required and if you are baking on a large scale you’ll want to be as time-efficient as possible. But for recreational bakers like me, I think it’s so much more enjoyable to be able to touch the dough and feel it changing. I find that kneading is a great stress-reliever and I love that I’m doing something that I watched my grandmother do almost every day when I was growing up. A less sentimental reason for using your hands instead of a machine is that it’s easier to overwork the dough with a stand mixer which would lead to a stiff bread.
- Cut and scrape. At first I thought it was another unnecessary kitchen gadget. A little plastic paddle (like this one) is so low-tech it’s surprising how much easier it makes working with dough. It’s not fun having to wash sticky dough off your hands. It’s also not good if in the process of transferring sticky dough you tear the gluten strands. Using this, you can scrape the dough out of a bowl or off the kneading surface with relative ease. If you do end up with the annoying dough hands anyway, it helps if you pour some flour on your hands and rub them together to at least get rid of most of the dough.
- Tap your bread. In most of the recipes I’ve tried, the actual baking time for my loaf has been different to the one in the recipe. This depends on the strength of your oven and your flour/yeast/starter. My advice is, when your bread looks nice and golden brown and you suspect that it might be baked, lift it up slightly and give it a few taps on the bottom. If you hear a hollow sound, it means your bread is done.
- Make it pretty. I love looking at pretty loaves in bakery windows and I’m always trying to make my bread look nice as well as taste good. It’s quite fun to play around with different slashes before baking. These are not just ornamental, they help the loaf rise in the oven. Another little trick is to sprinkle some flour on the loaf right before you put it in the oven, I think this gives it a lovely, rustic look.
Do you have any bread-baking tips that you would like to share?