Someone’s grocery list consisted of a jumbo can of instant coffee, 72 rolls of double-ply toilet paper, 36 brown eggs, and four 10-kilogram bags of all purpose flour…or so I guessed, while staring into the yawning chasm of an empty flour shelf.
While ramen and baked beans are go-to items in this time of isolation and distancing, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the flour shortage. Surely if someone was relying on ramen to get them through the next month, this person was not also planning to undertake homemade bread.
But I think I was wrong, because popping up on Facebook now is the evidence that the country is indeed baking fresh bread — or at least trying with commendable effort. And I wondered, is quarantine an opportunity for home bakers?
Bread making is the perfect quarantine pastime. It takes a long time, requires loving attention, provides hands-on fun, and then at the end you get to eat something.
So this post is for all you bread newbies, clutching your leaky 10-kilo bag of AP flour, and trembling with overwhelming self-doubt. Before you think, “What have I done? Bread is impossible,” remember that this is one of the oldest foods in the world. People made bread before measuring cups, oven thermometers, and electricity. You have all that, plus a lot of time on your hands.
So what’s in a bread? Flour, leavening agent, water, salt. That’s it. To make a perfectly excellent loaf, you just need four ingredients. Recipes might call for the addition of butter, eggs, dried fruits/nuts/seeds, but the soul of bread is just four ingredients.
So let’s get down to bread essentials (or if you’re ready, head over to a recipe):
Let’s take a look at what you’ve picked up, flour-wise. Is it all-purpose? Whole wheat? Bread flour? Multigrain? Rye? Much — but not all — of your bread’s flavour is going to come down to your flour. I’ve made some delicious bread with plain old AP flour, even when recipes called for bread flour. Bread flour has a higher protein content, which can help with gluten development, but if I’m honest, I find the two pretty interchangeable.
I tend to mix flours (a little AP/bread flour, a little whole wheat or rye, etc.) to change up the flavour profile of my breads, but keep in mind that whole grain flours usually need more hydration because these tend to be more absorbent flours.
You’re also going to want to add some salt. I’ve made low-sodium breads, but I always prefer a bread with a decent amount of salt.
Most doughs are going to rise using yeast, whether instant yeast or a sourdough starter (that’s a whole other animal…kind of. YouTube offers a slew of great videos on how to begin a sourdough starter. It takes about a week). Soda bread uses baking soda, but since I found plenty of that at the market, and no yeast, I’m going to assume you went with yeast. Congratulations! Now just pop your yeast in some warm water for a few minutes to activate it, and then carry on baking.
The leavening agent will allow your dough to go from a little ball to a big balloon, filling the bread with air pockets and improving the final crumb (the texture inside your bread).
Gluten development in your dough is what allows for a fluffy, springy final product. Some recipes call for little or no kneading, allowing higher hydration and long rising times to develop the gluten. Other recipes will call for folding or kneading — gently pulling and stretching the dough — to develop those helpful little gluten proteins.
Bread making is chemistry. I think it’s one of the big reasons it can be an intimidating prospect, even to people who know their way around a kitchen. A good flour-to-water ratio is key to a successful bread, and it is all about ratios. That’s why cutting a recipe in half or doubling it doesn’t always work. If you wish to modify a recipe to make more or less, pay attention to the ratio of water to flour.
I bake most of my breads in a covered dutch oven. This keeps the moisture trapped inside with the bread until the final ten minutes, when I remove the lid. I find turning off the oven but leaving the bread inside once the baking has finished allows the crust of the bread to caramelize nicely. Tapping the bottom of your bread will tell you if it’s done. If it sounds like a hollow little bread drum, it’s ready. I know you’re going to want to dive right in with a bread knife, but try waiting 30 minutes before cutting so your bread doesn’t get sticky.
Well, that’s it, my friends. Your flour hoarding has paid off, and with a little practice, bread making will become second nature. You’ll never want to put another Wonder Bread in your shopping cart.
When all this is over, and quarantine is a thing of the past, I encourage you to keep it up. It’s an art that connects you to kitchens around the world and far into human history.