Why should I learn to bake bread at home?

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Answered by: Shirley, An Expert in the Bread Baking for Beginners Category
Breads of all kinds are so readily available at the shops today, that you may think it a waste of time and effort learn to bake bread yourself. How wrong you are. The factory-produced sliced loaf, conveniently wrapped, may provide a convenient solution to most days' needs, but how much more satisfying to reach back into history and produce something wonderful - fresh, flavorsome, mouth-wateringly hot from the oven.

There is nothing intrinsically difficult about learning to bake bread. People have been baking bread of various sorts for 8000 years, with much less sophisticated equipment than you have on hand. So don't be intimidated by the aura of mystery surrounding it. It is truly one of the simplest and most satisfying things you can do, and it's fun, too!

You don't have to go out and cut the wheat, thresh and winnow it, crush the grains laboriously between rocks. You don't have to take you grain down to the local water- or windmill to have it ground. You don't have to take your uncooked loaves to the bakehouse for baking. Chances are good you have an oven right there in your kitchen. If you also have some good quality bread flour (made out of harder wheat than cake flour) and a packet of yeast, you have almost all that you need.

So - ready to get your hands doughy? Let's learn to bake bread.

First put about 2 or 3 cups of warm water into a jug and have it standing by. Next get out a large mixing bowl, and tip into it about 5 or 6 cups of flour. Add a good pinch each of salt and sugar, and the contents of a sachet of yeast granules, mix this all together with you hand and make a slight well in the middle. Into this break an egg and add a slosh of good olive oil - about the same amount as the egg. Mix all together again. You can use a wooden spoon if you like, but where's the fun in that? Now add about half of your warm water, and mix some more, adding a little more water as needed, to get a nice stiff dough that leaves the sides of the bowl clean as you work it around with your hand. If you overdo the water a bit, don't worry, just add a bit more flour.

When your dough is the right consistency, form it into a ball and sprinkle a handful of flour liberally over and under it in the bowl, and also on your hands. Then knead your dough. This is done by pressing you clenched fists down into the ball, then drawing the sides in, and repeating. Gradually the dough will stop feeling sticky and begin to feel elastic. This part is also very good for stress relief.

When the ball of dough feels nice and elastic, cover it and the bowl with a clean tea-towel wrung out in hot water, and leave it to stand. Have a glass of wine and relax. Watch a soapy, read a chapter of your book. After an hour or so lift the cloth and have a look. The dough should have doubled in size. Poke it with a fingertip. If the dimple you make springs back gently, it is ready. If not, leave it a bit longer. The time it takes will depend on how warm your kitchen is.

When the dough is ready, take it out of the bowl and put it on a floured board, then press it down gently and coax it into a loaf shape. Put your unbaked loaf into an oiled loaf tin, cover again, and leave to rest once more, for about half an hour. Then slip it into a pre-heated oven, at about 220ºC, and let it bake for about 40 minutes. If you like, you can brush the top with milk beforehand.

To test if your loaf is ready, knock on the top crust with your knuckles - it should sound hollow. You can insert a skewer as an extra check, to see if the middle is done.

Tip the hot loaf out onto a board to allow it to cool, or, better still, slice off a chunk and eat it hot, with butter melting into it. Yummy!

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