Homemade bread is a mix of time, patience and chemistry. But the end result is worth it.
Bread is one of the simplest food pleasures we know. It sustains and pleases us, from the making to the baking. Although there are so many ways for us to access bread, the act of making it from scratch —the blending of flour, salt, water and yeast into something new and different—can be a revelation for novice bakers. Yes, you can make bread.
“Making bread gentles the soul,” says Michelle Hooton, a New Brunswick-based home baker who runs Italian By Night at the Urban Deli in downtown Saint John, N.B. Michelle was 10 years-old when her mother taught her how to make bread. “I come from a family of bread makers,” says Hooton. “I had stood at the elbows of my family’s matriarchs for so long that bread making felt very natural to me. When she was at work, I would bake alone but would call her constantly as I moved through the recipes. It was a very clever way for her to have constant contact with me while she was at work.”
Bread making is a form of chemistry. Flour and water are combined with yeast and salt. The manipulation of the dough develops a protein called gluten, which gives bread its shape and elasticity. The yeast in the dough eats the naturally present sugars, producing carbon dioxide. That gas gets trapped inside the strands of gluten, causing the dough to rise. Those bubbles and that lift are what give the bread its texture. Salt is introduced to slow down the development of that carbon dioxide. But even with only those four ingredients, there are so many variables that you can play with: the type of yeast or leavener used, how the dough is manipulated, how long and where the dough is left to rise. All of these things can affect your dough, creating all kinds of wonderful breads for you to enjoy.
The making of bread implies a rhythm like breathing: dough rises and dough falls. And like breaths, they can also vary from time to time, day to day. “Bread can’t be hurried,” says Hooton. “You have to treat the raise times in bread recipes as suggestions. Depending on the conditions in your kitchen, the first raise could take anywhere from one and a half to four hours.” Those conditions include the ambient temperature of the room, as well as the quality and freshness of the yeast and flour. But time is a factor, not a hindrance, when it comes to baking bread. “The bread dough itself will determine how much time it needs and you need to be patient,” says Hooton.
For many bakers, making bread at home is not just an end to a means of having something to accompany a meal, or to slather butter or jam onto. It’s alchemy that happens in our very own kitchens. That alchemy comes from the yeast that makes the bread rise. But that yeast can come in many forms. Most commercial bakeries use yeast that is similar to the one found on supermarket shelves. It is ready in minutes and helps the dough rise quickly and efficiently. But since bread is a dish made of time, slowing down the rise of that dough can lead to more complex and flavourful breads. In France, many breads use what is called a poolish, a blend of water and flour to make a very wet batter that is impregnated with a tiny amount of commercial yeast and then left to ferment overnight. That batter is then incorporated into the dough that will become bread. Italians use a variation of the process by making a biga, which also helps in making tasty loaves. The incorporation of this previously fermented dough into a fresh dough helps bring about greater complexity of flavours to the finished bread. Bakers, both professional and amateur, extol its superiority when it comes to flavour.
Making bread is a meditative process that incorporates time and patience. That meditative effect is one that Aidan Scott Brunn also enjoys. But his bread is a little different. Brunn owns and operates Schoolhouse Gluten-Free Gourmet, a bakery that creates gluten-free baked goods for people with sensitivity to wheat and gluten. He opened Schoolhouse when he was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and so he changed his diet and his baking habits. “Gluten-free baking is challenging because the key ingredient that we are all used to, the glue that holds it all together, gluten, is missing,” says Brunn. “This requires other binders to be used in place, usually combinations of xanthan gum and guar gum and a leavener, generally eggs and combinations of vinegars, baking soda and baking powder. It doesn’t replicate the behaviour of gluten but it’s the closest replacement. Different types of baking require different flour mixes; for example, a flour mix made for muffins would not be used for bread.” Brunn realized that the challenge found in gluten-free baking could be just as rewarding as any other form of baking. It just used different rules and different flours, but in the end, baking bread still gives the baker the same sense of accomplishment. His baked goods are a popular item amongst customers at the Halifax Seaport Market, gluten-free or not.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if your bread is gluten free, enriched with a biga or a poolish. All that matters it the rhythm of taking those four simple ingredients and creating something so nourishing it is more than just an accomplishment: it is an exercise in gustatory meditation.
Tips on bread baking
Like any form of cookery, bread making is dependent on the ingredients. Flours should be kept in airtight containers to limit exposure to air and light. Flour, like many pantry staples, does have a shelf life. Many bakers suggest flour more than a year old should be thrown away.
Keep a journal of your bread-baking endeavours. Note how long things took to rise, what the temperature was like when the bread rose, things that you may not remember the next time you bake. All of these notes will help you be a better baker by understanding how you and your bread work together.
Other than kneading and occasionally tending to the dough, making bread takes next to no active time in its preparation. The rest is relaxation, both of the dough and of the making of it. People may be in awe of your bread, and think you slaved away, but really, all you need to do is sit and wait for it to rise.