There's a lot of snobbery and rubbish written about the ingredients used in bread, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that only four of them are absolutely required. Obviously good quality ingredients are better than poor quality, but if you can actually taste the difference between bread made with normal tap water and bread made with the finest bottled mineral water, then, well ... you're lying.
- Choose "strong" or "bread" flour
- You must use flour with enough gluten. In the UK, this is usually labelled "strong" or "bread" flour. For the most part, this means imported flour, since for some reason this kind of flour doesn't grow well here. If this bothers you then it is possible to buy UK-produced bread flour, for a price. Don't use plain flour - it is fine for cakes but won't work by itself for bread because it won't support the rise properly.
- My favourite flour is Waitrose's organic malted grain
- Malted grain is made with a mixture of grains that have been allowed to germinate and then roasted, and various flours. The best known brand of malted grain bread is Hovis Granary™, and you can buy this in packets, but I find the Waitrose flour better. The same range's strong white flour is my standard white flour.
- "Stoneground" flour makes the bread coarser and denser
- Stoneground flour is milled the traditional way between two slowly rotating mill stones rather than with high-speed rollers. Some people claim this makes the bread taste better, although I'm not convinced. What it definitely means is that the stoneground flour is significantly coarser and less finely milled, which in turn makes for a denser bread because it doesn't rise quite as much.
- Use "quick" or "easy bake" yeast powder
- This is the easiest to use and lasts well; I use Doves. I can't taste the difference between commercial yeasts, including "organic" yeasts. Fresh yeast is the purists' choice, but this has two main drawbacks. Firstly, I don't know where to get it. Secondly, it goes off very quickly - in a week or two.
- A "levain" or sourdough "starter" is a lot of work
- An alternative source of yeast is to cultivate your own. This is how sourdough breads are made. The yeast is grown in a "starter" mixture of flour and water which requires regular and frequent maintenance, usually referred to as "feeding". It's like owning a pet. I kept a starter for about a year but really it needs using a few times a week to not be wasteful. It does add a nice tang to the bread though, even just using a little as well as commercial yeast.
- Water is water
- As long as it's clean, it's OK. You don't need to heat it up, particularly if you plan on letting the bread rise more than once. There's probably some benefit in letting tap water stand for about an hour before using it - you can taste the difference in the water itself if you do, so it must make some difference to the bread.
- Salt is salt
- As long as it doesn't have any unnecessary additives it's OK. Use sea salt if you want (I usually do, to be honest) but I doubt it makes any difference. You can get a lot of different variations and some are quite highly flavoured, and this will be noticeable, but it's not necessarily an effect you want.
- Oil or fat can help the texture and improves the life
- I usually add some olive oil to my everyday loaf. It softens the texture and means it will last slightly longer before going stale. Other recipes (e.g. a milk loaf, one of our weekend favourites) use butter for a similar reason.
- A spoonful of sugar helps ...
- Depending on what flour you use, a teaspoon (5g) of sugar can take the edge of a very savoury taste. I used to add this to my regular loaves but I don't any more. Some breads are intentionally sweet of course; for example, challah often has honey in it.