Knead to know
There is no escaping bread. Most cultures have some kind of bread in their cuisine, and our language relies on bread as a sign of all that is fundamental, essential to life: bread and butter, the bread-winner, earn the dough, breaking bread together, daily bread, the bread of life.
This is the image of necessity, synonymous with earning, living, providing. You might be thinking, “You like to wax lyrical about bread so much, why don’t you write a poem?” And I did. More of the esoteric waffle later on.
My journey into bread making coincides pretty well with getting married to Ruth. She isn’t particularly hot on bread (garlic bread is the obvious exception) and I didn’t consciously link up marriage and baking, as if that’s what I’m supposed to do now that I’m a husband, like buy flowers after an argument and answer questions about the size of her bum in this.
It just happened that I got into the bread around the same time, inspired by my father-in-law actually, and it’s certainly a wholesome pursuit, becoming of a married man. It keeps me off the streets, anyway, and is more productive and fulfilling than gambling or murder and suchlike.
Although I want to give an insight into how I make bread, this is really about why I make it. I certainly get excited about the “how” of bread, as Ruth will attest to any time that an innocent by-stander asks what I’ve been up to recently. Well, let me tell you.
Baking bread is not a mystery, but it’s not a science either. Like most skills, once you build up some experience, make a few mistakes, and experiment a little, you realise that it’s not a set of complicated, opaque variables to wade through. It is underpinned by guiding principles, and for bread there are two:
Building the structure
Filling the structure.
Most bread is based on these principles. Different kinds of dough and different breads might mean that you have to vary the method, but the art of bread is built on those two things. Build and fill.
When you add water to flour, it activates the proteins in the flour and starts to form long, stringy bonds. As you knead dough, what you’re doing is stretching the gluten bonds, like warming up an elastic band. From a powdery, sticky mess you end up with a smooth, stretchy, taut ball of dough.
As for filling the dough structure, that’s where yeast comes in. There are various ways to get dough to rise, including bicarbonate of soda, but usually it’s some form of yeast, which is a fungus. Baking bread is more biology than chemistry.
It’s most common to use fast-action dried yeast, although you can get live yeast which comes in a crumbly brown block and is the same thing in a different form. I’ve never used it myself. The other way to leaven bread is with wild yeast: the famous sourdough.
If you mix equal parts water and flour and leave it in a jar for a week, naturally occuring yeast present in the flour will begin to eat the starch and form a stringy, bubbly gloop that smells of overripe grapes. This is the starter used instead of dried yeast to make the bread rise, and that’s sourdough. No magic, just gone off flour.
Because it’s actually a living culture, an organism, you have to feed it like you would a pet. I keep my sourdough starter in the fridge and feed it the day before I want to bake. The fungus eats the flour and froths up, which is the same process as what happens to make the bread rise. Yeast, in whatever form, eats the flour, produces carbon dioxide, and inflates the glutenous structure of the dough. Build and fill. So bread is actually made with fungus farts.
Although I could take endlessly about the specifics of bread baking, I won’t go in much on recipes here. This isn’t a cookery blog, after all. Just briefly, here are the ingredients and proving times for two breads I make regularly, if you’re interested.
Strong White and Wholemeal Dry Yeasted
First prove: roughly 1 hour | Second Prove: roughly 1 hour, or overnight in fridge
300g strong white flour
200g wholemeal flour
7-10g fast-action dried yeast
Dash of olive oil
First prove: 3-5 hours | Second Prove: 4-7 Hours, up to 24 hours in the fridge
400g strong white flour
You can add sugar for taste and to get a golden glow in the crust, but one of the best aspects of homemade bread is exactly the fact that it isn’t stuffed with extras. I never flour the worktop. This is perhaps the misconception about bread making. People are scared of wet, cloying dough, but dough is messy, and wetter doughs make nicer breads. If you flour your work surface, you’re adding ingredients to the recipe and changing the dough. It’s the most common way to wind up with a loaf that you wouldn’t want to drop on your foot, like a brick. Get a dough scraper, probably the single most useful tool you can buy.
Bread is cooked hotter than most things you put in the oven, at around 230 degrees C. I use razor blades to score the bread which, as much as for aesthetics, allows and controls how the bread will rise in the oven. I steam up the oven with boiling water in a tray so that the crust stays moist and hardens more slowly, allowing the bread to expand fully. I’ve picked up some tricks from other bakers, such as proving dough in the microwave with a mug of boiled water to create a steamy, ambient environment for rising.
Dense loaves, saggy loaves, dough that is left too long and smells like beer in a drain and collapses, bread that I forgot to salt and tasted of absolutely nothing with just a tang of absence - these are the inevitable results of some hard hours at work with flour and water. But at less than 30p a loaf, it’s a cheaper pastime than eating Freddos.
Any “how-to” guide begins with an implicit assumption that there is a reason to learn the “how”. We live in something of a “how-to” culture, and even though it’s possible to learn pretty much anything from the Internet, we don’t normally ask why we’d want to.
I don’t just bake bread so that we have bread to eat, though that obviously is one reason to make bread. I do like eating it and prefer my own to shop-bought.
I like to bake bread exactly because it’s a slow process, especially when working with natural yeasts in a sourdough. You can’t rush bread. That’s the baker’s secret ingredient: time (and love, if you’re into that, but mostly time).
I find kneading dough quite therapeutic, and it’s certainly cheaper than a therapist. It quietens the background babble of consciousness so that all I’m thinking about is proportions, consistency, timing. It creates a little space to rest my head in, where the only thing that matters is the dough and how long I have to knead it or how I’ll shape it.
I like the practical set of skills that comes with it. Anyone can bake bread, not everyone can bake it well. For someone like me who spends most of his time with his head in the clouds, the pragmatic, earthy hobby of bread is very rewarding.
Also, humans have been making bread for thousands of years. A lot changes in a thousand years, but the fundamentals of bread do not. To get properly into the deep stuff, I like to bake because it puts me in the tradition of generations of bakers and throughout the world. Like my ancestors, whoever they may be, I work the dough and feel it on my skin, under my nails.
Bread is fundamental to our language, as I wrote at the top, because the formation of human society and bread making go hand in hand. The agrarian revolution was the settling of our roaming forebears in a single place, dwelling in and cultivating the land, milling the wheat, baking the bread, selling the bread, distributing the bread, earning money to pay for the bread. Society is built on bread, and bread is made possible by society.
To take it even further, bread making is a ritual. It’s a sacrament, a prayer almost. It reminds me of what is essential, what is inescapable. It reminds me of the distinction between that which I need (pun intended) and that which I simply want.
It is a ritual that provides a small window on reality. What is life made of? Is it wrapped in plastic, covered in concrete, behind a screen, served with a side of fries and a 24 hour news slushy? Is it all glossy surfaces and smooth exteriors, like office developments in an aspiring city? Does it slide down easily like Netflix and a juice cleanse and walking past the homeless?
I hope not. I want it to be rough, and textured. I want to feel it in my hands. I want the resistance, the waiting, the dust of labour on my fingers. I want it messy and meaningful. I want it to feel like there’s something there, kicking back at me. I want to feel the friction in the world, not glance off the glass and steel and leave no mark.
I want to know what it feels like to be a human, to find out for myself, rather than have it stuffed with preservatives, wrapped in polythene, and sold on a shelf with all the other identical items. I don’t want to be told what it’s like to be alive, or just see pictures of other people doing aliveness, or be made to feel that I need a product or a lifestyle or a haircut to be alive; I want to get on myself with the business of living.
I want to get under the surface and plumb the depths. That’s why I write poetry, to spend a moment looking at the view, peering into the well. Isn’t that why humans do anything creative, or even anything meaningful? To do more than simply be but to be and feel that we are being.
Maybe that seems like a lot to get from a loaf of bread. I don’t think so. I think there is much more to get from these things than we imagine, or than we allow. The meaning in life comes from the questions we ask, the stories we read into. Meaning is given by us, it is projected by us onto our daily experiences.
They say that life is 10% is what happens to you and the rest is how you respond. I’d say that a good percentage is how you look at it as well, what you see, what you allow yourself to see. It’s there for the taking, if only we learn to look.