Sunday, March 7, 2010

Understanding Dough is the First Step Towards Bread Without a Recipe

*These instructions, if roughly followed, will leave you with two delicious loaves of bread. Once you understand the formula, you will be able to make any flavour of bread without a recipe.

Start with about 500 grams of bread flour. I know it is about 500 grams because my flour comes in 1kg bags and I use roughly half a bag. 500 grams looks like the volume of half a soccer ball in your bowl.

Pour over warm water until it is half way up the flour. Add 7 grams yeast. ( I know it is 7 grams because the yeast I use comes in 7g packages. 7 grams of yeast looks like a bit more than a tablespoon).

Wash your hands and take off any jewelery. Stir with your right hand, holding the bowl with your left. If you are a lefty, do it the opposite way. It should be sticky and wet, solid enough that if makes a sticky ball.  If it looks like pancake batter then it is too wet. No problem: Add more flour - about a fistful at a time.

Leave this to sit for 10 minutes. You are giving the flour time to absorb water. Without this introduction, you would need to add more flour and your bread wouldn't be as moist. You do want moist bread, don't you? So wait.

After 10 minutes, add about a teaspoon of something sweet ( those little yeasts need some sugar to keep them going, just like humans). I use brown sugar, white sugar or a bit of honey.
Also add about 1 heaping tablespoon of salt. You can eye-ball this one. It may seem like a lot of salt, but remember that you are making 2 loaves with this mixture and so each slice will need to have enough salt to bring out the natural flavours of the bread.
This is also your chance to add any flavours you want*

*If you are adding fresh herbs, add one handful of freshly chopped.  Add half that amount if you are using dried. If you want to add raisins, or dried fruit, soak it first so that it doesn't steal the flour's water. Add about 2 large handfuls. If you want to add bran, then at this time you will also need to add a glug of olive oil. This coats the bran flakes and again, prevents them from stealing the flour's water. Seeds are great additions. Add about 1 big handful.

Stir with your hands again. You will notice that the dough feels a bit stronger now. That is the gluten developing. Stir just until combined then plop the dough onto a very lightly flour-dusted surface.

Don't wash your hands yet. To clean the bowl, put some flour on your hands and use the pieces of dough on your hands, plus the flour as an abrasive to get all the sticky bits of dough off the sides of the bowl. Add those bits to the dough. Wait another 10-15 minutes.

Now you 'turn' the dough: Stretch the dough* into a long line, then fold it onto itself like a book. Rotate 90 degrees and do this again. Do this folding and rotating about 4 times, and you will feel the dough getting strong.  

*Add as little flour as possible. The dough should be a bit sticky, but you should be able to handle it and stretch it without making a total mess.

Put the dough into a lightly greased bowl. I use a bit of  oil, but butter is fine too. Cover it with a cloth and leave it is a warm place for one hour.   

After one hour, do that same 'turning' thing VERY gently, two times. You don't need to stretch it so long and I usually just do this stage keeping the dough in the bowl. Be gentle and DO NOT punch down all those luscious bubbles the little yeasties are working so hard to create! Wait another hour, and then 'turn' the dough again and then wait one hour after that. 

Stop moaning. This slow rise will allow all the flavours of the flour to develop and you will end up with a much tastier bread!

Finally, gently place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Use a sharp knife to slice the dough in half. Move one of the halves aside and place the other in front of you. Wet your hands and shake off excess water. Use your finger tips to GENTLY push down the dough into a square.

For a rectangular loaf:  Fold in the top corners and then fold over like an envelope. Flip it 180 degrees and do the same to the other 2 corners. Fold it over and use your right hand - karate chop style - to close any seams.

For a round loaf: Fold the corners into the centre, flip the dough over and tuck in the dough so that you form a ball. Hold the dough in your left hand, exposing the underside and use your right hand - karate chop style - to close any seams. Do the same with the other dough.

Place the dough in a greased and floured baking tin or on a greased and floured baking sheet. Let proof* 30 minutes and turn your oven to max in the meantime.

* This last rise is called the proof. All that rising before is called rising.

                                         In this picture is one rectangular loaf and one free-form rectangular loaf. 
Score your loaves with an x-acto knife, a CLEAN, never used razor (not one that you used to shave you sicko!!) or a serrated knife. ONLY slice 2 millimeters deep! Put your loaves in the centre of the oven and turn the heat down to 392 F/ 200 C.  Top and bottom heat and NOT on convection!

After 10 minutes, turn the heat to 375 F/ 190 C and cook another 30 minutes. You loaves are going to be a deep brown -- not burnt! -- and not 'golden'. If they are brown after about 20-25 minutes, take one out and check by tapping the top and the bottom. Listen: It should sound VERY hollow -- as in, your ear isn't touching the bread when you think you hear it sound hollow. You can hear the hollowness from an arms reach. If it is hollow-sounding, it is ready.

Take the loaves out and put them on a wire rack. And now the worst part: WAIT MINIMUM 30 MINUTES before slicing into that bread. It is going to be crackling and smelling fine, but resist. If you cut the bread when it is still warm you stop its final little cooking time.

30 minutes later: ok NOW you can eat it! Enjoy!


  1. why don't you add the sugar right upfront before mixing in water?

  2. The first mix, the introduction of water to the flour has to be a meeting between just them. It's chemistry that would be explained the best by Harold McGee in this book:

  3. Thanks for the post Jennifer!

    Tony Magenta


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