Having wanted to be able to bake my own bread for a couple of years, I finally got my arse in gear in January and started doing it. To start with I picked up recipes and techniques from the web, and the early results, whilst edible, weren’t exactly great.
Then I came across ‘River Cottage Bread’; a small but sensible handbook on the subject, which has basically become my bread bible. The book contains lots of recipes for breads from standard loaves, to ciabatta, naan and beyond, which are great, but for me the most interesting part of the book is the more practical stuff.
From my limited experience, it seems to me that once you’ve got the basics of making dough down, you can freestyle to a certain extent. But the stuff that is more rigid, and vital to creating consistently good bread, are the techniques and tips, and thats why this book has become so invaluable.
For example, the book explains that you need to try and re-create the conditions of a bakers bread oven as closely as possible in your own home. It recommends that as well as having your oven as high as possible for the initial baking process, that you should also have a tray of boiling water in the oven to generate steam, as this creates optimum conditions for the bread to rise. This is the sort of stuff that you don’t discover by trial error, and kind of need to know. As you might expect, there’s also lots of practical advice on rising, proving, how to prepare your dough properly for the oven and so on.
The other great thing about the book is that it has kept me motivated to keep baking. It’s honest with you, and manages your expectations. You’re not going to produce a Poilane loaf on your first attempt. Like most things in life, baking bread takes practice, but if you stick at it your results improve quickly. I’ve created a bit of a visual document of my progress over on my Flickr account.