The Cooks ABC – Bread Basics

By Alan Lugton, Cookery Manager

The warm aroma of freshly baked bread is almost universally accepted as a smell that inspires a deep sense of happiness and a little mouth-watering. Its origins are as old as the hills and embody everything that is good and wholesome.

Perhaps we treasure this experience so much because of how far removed we have become from the simple tradition of regularly baking our own loaves of fresh bread. This basic skill that once was the staple of every household is slowly becoming a footnote in the annals of history, “remember when we used to have to make our own bread”. For those of you who are longing to reconnect with your food or just watching your pennies, making your own bread is an extremely satisfying and rewarding experience, and is really quite simple.

What is bread?

Essentially bread is a mixture of flour milled from grain and water. This is combined into dough, shaped and cooked. From this simple equation come endless variations through the addition of other ingredients and changes in quantities.The most common ingredient added to bread is a leavener which creates air pockets through the dough making it rise to a light and fluffy loaf. Leaveners come in two main types:

  • Chemical – Such as baking powder which rely on a chemical reaction between its acidic and alkali compounds that then produce carbon dioxide that inflates the dough. These often work best in goods that have a more delicate structure.
  • Organic – Yeast is a common, living, single-cell fungus which lives all around us and left in the right conditions, will grow and multiply. You often find it dried in packets but you can buy it fresh as a block of paste. When added to the warm environment of the bread dough it reactivates and feeds off the sugars in the flour releasing carbon dioxide. Yeast works at a much slower rate than chemical leaveners but adds distinctive aromas and flavours that we associate with fresh baked bread.

Of course there is no point producing all this gas if there nothing to hold it together and trap the air. This is why wheat flour is most commonly used in the making of bread. It contains two proteins called gluetenin and gliadin which when combined with water bond together to make gluten a natural gum like substance. As you knead the dough the gluten becomes more stretchy and elastic which then traps the air in the tiny pockets it creates. As the leavener works these pockets expand to create light and fluffy dough.

Starch, a carbohydrate that makes up about 70% of flour by weight, also gets in on the act. When starch granules are attacked by enzymes present in flour, they release the sugars that yeast feeds on. Starch also reinforces gluten and absorbs water during baking, helping the gluten to contain the pockets of gas produced by the yeast.

Sometimes, a baker will let the dough rise several times, allowing the gluten to develop more completely and the yeast to add more of its flavours. When the dough is finally cooked — either in an oven, over a fire, or in a steamer, depending on what kind of bread you’re baking— the yeast inside it continues feeding, and the pockets of gas in the dough continue to expand. As the temperature of the cooking dough rises, the yeast eventually dies, the gluten hardens, and the dough solidifies.

Gluten Free Bread

Using gluten free flour to bake a delicious and light loaf of bread can work very well but will require the addition of other ingredients to mimic the effects of gluten. Many shop-bought products will use Xanthan Gumwhich is a fermented bacterial by-product that works very well but for a more natural product you can use a combination of various ingredients and starchy flours that will do the same. The Gluten Free Girl website is a great resource which explores this in more detail.

Here is a great little starter recipe for a basic loaf from the Real Bread Campaign to get you going. I thoroughly encourage you to seek out the recipes which work for you and have a little repertoire of three or four which suit any occasion and you know off by heart.

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