1 Loaf of Bread! (does about 8 lunches)
650g bread flour
1 tbsp dried quick yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
cold water (450ml for white flour, 500 for wholemeal)
4 tbsp cooking oil (olive, vegetable or sunflower is fine!)
1) Mix the flour and dried yeast together in a bowl.
2) Meanwhile, measure out the desired amount of water in a measuring jug. Many recipes say to use warm water; this makes the dough rise faster, but I reckon it tastes better if you use cold water and let it rise for longer. You need slightly more water for wholemeal bread than for white; this is because the bran in the wholemeal flour absorbs more water. The amounts of water in this recipe will make a fairly wet dough (and a nice toasty crust!), but if you find the dough too wet to handle just use slightly less water (or add more flour!).
3) Once you've measured out the right amount of water, dissolve the sugar and salt in the water in the jug.
4) Form a well in the middle of the flour in the bowl and pour in the water. Mix the flour and water with a spoon; it should be possible to combine them into a stiff dough without using your fingers, but only just. If the mixture's too dry for all the flour to combine into it, add a little more water; if it combines easily and you can still stir it, it needs more flour. You're aiming for a stiff but moist, sticky, evenly mixed dough.
5) Once the dough is combined, work in the oil.
6) If you're making white bread, skip this stage and go straight to the next one, which is kneading! But if you're making wholemeal, cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave to sit for 15 minutes; this allows the bran to soak up the extra water you put in, so that the dough is easier to handle when kneading and has a better texture.
7) Knead the dough for about 10 minutes. Every baker I know has a different method for kneading, and they all make great bread. I can but tell you my own way; don't be alarmed if it bears little resemblance to how someone else you know does it! The important thing to know is what kneading is actually supposed to achieve (the ingredients are already mixed together; what else could possibly knead doing?) Firstly, you knead to stretch the soaked, flabby mush of gluten in your dough into a fine mesh of tightly-strung elastic strands, which will hold a structure, allowing the dough to rise without collapsing into a pancake. Secondly, you knead to work bubbles of air into the dough, helping to begin to lighten it. My method was born out of laziness, as it doesn't require any kitchen surfaces to be cleaned; you simply knead it in your hands over the bowl. First, do anything else you need your hands for (finish your cup of tea, scratch that itch etc), as once you start kneading you won't be able to touch anything without smothering it in dough! Next, scoop the dough out of the bowl and into both hands and lift one end of it up and over the other, stretching it vertically. Then fold the top end down over the bottom end, wrapping it under until its all stuck together again. Crucially, it needs to stick back together in a position that maintains the stretch (but folded / coiled up), rather than allowing it to slump back into its original position. Next, grab the 2 sides of the dough (the bits that were the old top and bottom in one hand, and the old middle in the other), and stretch vertically again, then fold it as before. Repeat this stretching and folding over and over to perform a compound stretching of those gluten strands! Also, remember you're trying to expand the dough, not squash it, so handle it loosely while stretching. You'll very quickly find that your hands are plastered in sticky dough; don't worry, that's just what happens; it’s quite therapeutic once you get used to it! You should find that the dough gradually becomes more smooth and elastic as you keep kneading it, and you can try to trap bubbles of air inside each fold. Once you've been going for 10 minutes, it should be ready.
8) Get the dough off your hands and into the bowl. I find this is the hardest bit! Once the bulk of the dough has flopped into the bowl, you can grab a spoon in one doughy hand to scrape the mess off the other, then swap. After several minutes of scraping, it should be possible to remove the remaining sticky bits by rubbing a little dry flour between your hands.
9) Cover the dough / bowl with a tea towel and leave to rise. The dough wants to roughly double in volume. About an hour at room temperature should do it. Alternatively, you can stick it in the fridge and leave it to rise slowly overnight (the yeast develops more of a malty, scrummy flavour if it matures slowly).
10) Once your dough has risen, turn it out onto a well-floured baking tray and shape the loaf. The purpose of this stage is not just to make the loaf look nice, but to manipulate that mesh of gluten strands into an alignment that will support the loaf as it rises. This is also called forming the "heel" of the loaf. Again, there's a great variety of different methods for this out there, and I'll just tell you mine. First, fold opposite edges of the turned-out dough into the middle, forming an approximate square. Then roll this up tightly like a swiss-roll, pressing the final edge down smoothly to keep it tightly wound. Next, rotate the dough by 90 degrees and roll it up again. Repeat until you've rolled it up 4 times, pressing it together tightly and rotating each time. After the last time, turn it over so that the folded end is on the bottom. All this rolling-up forms the gluten mesh into tightly-bound concentric layers, which are sprung to expand outwards and maintain a round shape as the loaf rises (otherwise, you would get more of a pancake shape!) Put the loaf in the middle of your floured baking tray, or move it to a loaf tin if you prefer square slices of bread.
11) Flour the top of the loaf, or brush with oil, milk, seeds (in a flour-and-water paste to stick them on), or whatever takes your fancy!
12) Using a pair of scissors, cut deep slits in the top of the loaf. As well as making it look nice and rustic, these help the loaf to rise freely as the slits open up.
13) Leave the loaf to prove. This means wait until it has begun to rise again (all that rolling-up will have compressed it down again, but it will rebound quickly!)
14) Once the loaf has proved, stick it straight in a pre-heated oven at 220 degrees C. An optional trick to make the crust more crusty is to put a casserole dish full of water in the oven, on the shelf above the bread, so that the loaf gets bathed in steam while it bakes. You'll need to put the dish of water in when you start heating up the oven, so it'll be boiling by the time the loaf goes in. Depending on how long your oven takes to heat up, you'll probably want to have started pre-heating it while you were still shaping the loaf.
15) Bake for about 30-40 minutes, then remove and leave on a wire cooling rack. The loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the underneath, otherwise it needs longer in the oven. Don't be tempted to slice into it straight away; the bread keeps cooking on residual heat inside after it's come out of the oven; if you try and slice it while it’s still hot you'll likely find it’s still doughy in the middle! Give it an hour or so to cool down, then it should be perfect!