I love bread. There is nothing better than the smell of freshly baked bread coming out of a kitchen on a cold winter's day. There is something comforting about a fresh loaf of bread being in the kitchen.
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It's something I think I inherited from my French grandfather. From the stories I have heard, he could sit down and eat a loaf himself. I don't eat that much, mostly because I'm not working in the woods of British Columbia, but a good loaf of bread doesn't last long in my home.
For a long time though, I was terrible at making it. Even in culinary school I never really picked up the knack for making bread. For a long time, I fed the compost bin many loaves of dense, squat bricks or gummy messes.
It's only in the past year though that I got serious about making bread. In some ways, my hand was forced. I don't like store bread for one. I find it has a chemical aftertaste, and makes terrible toast. Any bread that can't hold heat long enough to melt butter isn't good bread to me.
I also used to be a regular at the local bakery until it closed earlier this year. That kept me in good supply, and was conveniently between my home and my offices. Of the stores that have closed in Liverpool these past few years, that's the one I personally miss the most. Being a bread lover with no source of bread is a sad thing.
On the surface, bread shouldn't be that difficult. At it's most basic, it's just flour, water, yeast and salt. It's all about how you put it together that matters.
Bread is a time-consuming endeavour, though there have been attempts to shorten it. Bread machines promise perfect loaves by just dumping all the ingredients in a bucket, there are a variety of no-knead bread recipes, and even a book on "five minutes a day" bread. I've tried all three, but none match up to a good loaf of the tried and true bread making methods. It turns out our ancestors knew best on this one. You have to get your hands in it
Bread is a fickle thing. Kneading takes upwards of 10 minutes, but too much and you get a tough loaf. The only way to tell if it's ready is by feel, which you only learn by doing it many times. The proofing process, letting it rise, needs time, but too much and the loaf deflates. Even the weather can play a factor. Temperature, humidity, and air pressure all affect the dough's development.
Where the time consuming part comes in is not the mixing though, but the proofing. Some recipes call for two or three, each around an hour or so. I've tried stepping out for "a few moments" when bread was rising, only to find those few moments always take longer than I'd like.
Perhaps the most maddening part about bread is to make it perfect, you can't slice into it right after it comes out of the oven. It smells so good, and is so beautifully steamy that it is tempting to dive in with a knife and butter. However that leads to moisture loss and dry bread. It must cool for an hour or two first.
It seems that bread demands patience from its makers. You must be willing to put in the work to knead the bread. You must be patient as it proofs. You must be patient as it cooks. And you must be patient as it cools.
I think what I had to learn to make better bread was not any one technique, but rather the patience to let the steps happen naturally. There is a wisdom in what it teaches you.