Perfect Bread Machine Loaves

I make bread at home at least once a week, and though I will make it by hand as often as I can – just for the pleasure of it – there is no disgrace at all in using a bread machine. I’ve been ill for a few weeks, so I have been filling my time doing a lot of experimenting with small differences in how my bread is made, both by hand and by machine.

I have come to a few surprising conclusions, chief among which is that for a standard white loaf there is no need to pay top-dollar for the ‘best’ bread flour. Whether you judge a loaf on its taste, on its ‘crumb’, on its chewiness, its looks or its crust, there is absolutely no difference between the own-brand flour from my local Lidl and the most expensive boutique flours. Under identical conditions, back-to-back tests illustrate that all of the characteristics of a loaf are determined by the kind of yeast you use, and what the baker does, not the flour.

I know that is close to heresy in some peoples’ eyes, but there it is.

I have been reading some fascinating books about bread; seriously, I had no idea that such a narrow subject could be so diverse and fascinating. I’m not yet at the point where I can offer a masterclass in bread-making, but I am willing to offer a couple of tips that will improve the bread that comes out of your bread machine.

The first tip concerns how you add the ingredients to the bread machine. All the instructions that I have ever read direct you to put all the ingredients into the pan, select the appropriate settings, turn it on and walk away for a few hours. That, after all, is what a bread machine is all about.

But what if I told you that by being just a little more organised and doing five minutes preparation, a couple of hours before you turn the machine on, you will get a machine loaf that is probably 98% as good as a loaf made by hand? Interested?

All you need to do is take a little of the water, a little of the flour, all of the yeast and all of the sugar specified in a recipe, put it into a small bowl and mix it all together with a fork so you end up with a smooth, very sloppy porridge consistency. Now cover it with a damp cloth and walk away for a few hours.

When you come back to it and lift the cloth, you will find that the top is covered in foaming bubbles and smells a little like beer. It will also have grown; by how much depends purely on how long you left it – don’t leave it too long, a few hours only, otherwise you run the risk of exhausting the yeast.

Now grab a fork, or a whisk, and whip the mixture for a minute or two. You will find that it is all stringy, like melting cheese. That is the gluten, developing before you even begin kneading. The smell and the volume increase is the yeast, digesting the sugar and flour and releasing carbon dioxide as it does so.

Now add all of the remaining flour, water, oil and salt to the bread machine pan, pour in the yeasted mixture, give it a stir with the fork to combine it all, then walk away.

When you come back after the 4 or 5 hours the bread machine cycle takes, you will find that your loaf looks, smells and tastes remarkably better than it used to. The loaf will be slightly bigger, with a more pronounced crown, and when you cut into it you will find that the crumb (the distribution of air bubbles) will be uneven and more open. On tasting it you will find that it has a little more ‘body’, is a little chewier and has a flavour all its own. All this just from pre-activating the yeast and the gluten.

The second tip concerns salt. I used to think that salt was included in bread dough purely to add flavour to the finished loaf; not so, actually salt plays a crucial role in gluten development.  If you make bread, or you watch any baking programmes, you will be aware that bread dough is kneaded in order to activate the gluten proteins in the flour. Without going into the chemistry of what happens, and in simplified layman’s terms, by working the dough the protein molecules combine into longer strands, and it is these strands which give the bread the strength to trap air and rise. The presence of salt in a dough gives the gluten greater structural strength, so it is better able to hold onto the carbon dioxide released as the yeast feeds on the flour, sugar and water, trapping it as the bread proves, and then holding it when the loaf goes into a hot oven, at which point the trapped air expands and the loaf springs into its final shape.

Paradoxically, though salt is necessary when the gluten has developed, it actually inhibits the initial development of gluten. Experiments show that adding the salt later means that your finished loaf has greater structure for the same amount of kneading, or, if you’re making it by hand, you can get away with kneading the bread less.

So, if you’re using a bread machine to make a basic white or wholemeal loaf (sample recipes are below), the first step is to pre-activate the yeast and gluten by mixing all the yeast with all the sugar and some of the water and flour, then leaving it for a couple of hours before whipping it and adding it, with all of the remaining ingredients, to the bread pan. This of course includes the salt, the absence of which in the initial yeast mixture allows the gluten to get a good head start in developing.

Both of these principles apply equally to hand-made loaves, and the trouble with all this is that I have been making some exquisite bread recently, and it isn’t good for my waistline…

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RECIPES 

White Bread Machine Loaf

Medium

Large Extra-Large
Strong white flour

400g

475g 550g

Dried active yeast

¾ tsp 1 tsp

1¼ tsp

Sugar

1 tsp

1½ tsp

2 tsp

Butter/olive oil

15g

25g

25g

Salt

¾ tsp

1 tsp

1¼ tsp

Water

270 ml 320 ml

360 ml

70% Wholemeal Bread Machine Loaf

Medium

Large

Extra-Large

Strong whole meal flour

300g

350g

400g

Strong white flour

100g

125g

150g

Dried active yeast

¾ tsp

1 tsp

1¼ tsp

Sugar

1 tsp

1½ tsp

2 tsp

Butter/olive oil

15g

25g

25g

Salt

¾ tsp

1 tsp

1¼ tsp

Water

280 ml

340 ml

380 ml


 

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