In times of great uncertainty, knowing how to make your own bread and thereby feed your family, is palpably reassuring. The very act of kneading dough is calming, like Play-Doh for adults. So, of course, newbie bakers are all over social media, obsessing about “bubbling mothers” (AKA sourdough starters).
Look a little closer, though, and they’re not very happy. “We are all baking bread and some of us are not so good at it,” tweeted one journalist, dejectedly. That’s because sourdough is high-maintenance baking. People write memoirs about mastering the technique. By contrast, watching Noji Gaylard making South African steamed bread (see below) is like hugging a baby. Three minutes and 30 seconds of pure calm. Her recipe, alongside the others included in our 10 basic breads, is easy enough for even the most inexperienced baker.
But first a note about yeast. As Adrian Chiles has noted, it appears to have been stockpiled right off all the shelves. So, if you do have any, set aside a portion of whatever leavened dough you make to leaven the next (variously called old dough and pâte fermentée; you’ll find plenty of instructions for this online). And, if you don’t, you could try making your own yeast. Lisa Bedford, the self-styled Survival Mom, has written a really thorough how-to. I appreciate that making your own yeast somewhat negates the premise of this piece, but you’ve got to admit it’s awesome that you can.
Also, reserve any pasta or potato cooking water for your bread baking. As Nigella tweeted: “It will help the bread’s texture and rise.”
At its simplest, a flatbread is flour and water mixed into a dough, rolled into balls, rested, flattened and griddled. Dan Lepard tweeted the basic ratio: 500g of any wheat flour (white, wholemeal, self-raising, plain) to 300g cold water. Add some form of oil to the mix, and you get everything from chapatis and rotis (Meera Sodha fills hers with coconut, raisins and almonds) to tortillas and lavash. Jamie Oliver switches things up a bit, using yoghurt, self-raising flour and a little baking powder, and cooks with griddle pan over a high heat. Elsewhere, his coconut flatbreads are made with just coconut milk and self-raising flour and fried in butter.
AKA batter bread, this is the base recipe used in such things as apple bread, banana bread and the French savoury cake studded with everything from bacon and olives. You mix dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) with wet ingredients (milk/buttermilk/yoghurt, oil and eggs) and flavour it any way you like. Kristin “Baker Bettie” Hoffmann gives you every option thinkable: sweet, savoury, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and without baking powder (she separates the eggs, and whips the whites to get the rise needed). Texture-wise, this is more on the muffin/cake side of things, so if that’s not what you’re after, read on.
The original no-kneader, and as Chiles put it last week, a gift to the yeastless. The rise comes from bicarb, so that ingredient is a must, but flour-wise it’s flexible: wholemeal, oatmeal, rolled oats, plain, self-raising, rye or whatever mixture you can manage. Liquid-wise, milk, yoghurt, buttermilk, Nigella’s pasta water: they’ll all work, too. You’ll want a dollop of salt and sweetness (honey, soft brown sugar); Chiles flavours his with treacle and Marmite, and nothing has ever endeared a columnist to me more. And there’s nothing to say you can’t jazz it up further: Oliver puts dark chocolate and hazelnuts in his.
No-Knead Crusty Loaf
The New York Times calls this the world’s easiest yeasted loaf; a step-up from the already groundbreaking easy method devised by Jim Lahey (if you’re a budding bread person, I recommend his books). You mix plain flour with yeast, salt and lukewarm water into a loose dough, cover and let rise for two to five hours. Then you shape it and bake it. The crustiness comes from having a broiling panful of water – or a few ice cubes – in the bottom of the oven to steam the loaf while it cooks.
Putting yeast in a wheaten flatbread essentially means it can puff up while baking, to create those soft pockets so perfect for picnics. Yotam Ottolenghi puts sugar in his dough and seven spices in his chicken filling, and, well, what more could you want? Although it is technically possible to make them completely lean, Felicity Cloake doesn’t recommend it: the fat contributes to flavour and shelf-life.
Hard Dough Bread
A Jamaican speciality, this is a plain-flour yeasted dough, enriched with butter and sugar. It takes a short knead (you want the dough nice and elastic) and a 45-minute rest. You then roll it out flat with a rolling pin and – to give it that moist, dense crumb – roll it right back up again into a tight log, tucking the ends in (DaJen Eat’s Jen and her grandmother Cynthia will show you how). Then, after a short rest, it is baked golden brown in a loaf pan.
The one loaf you don’t need an oven for. This South African beauty involves mixing a very sticky batter of plain flour, salt, sugar, yeast (no oil) and lukewarm water in a bowl with a wooden spoon. (Gaylard’s demo is quite possibly the most mesmerising cooking video I’ve ever come across. It’s now my lockdown backdrop.) Cover with a lid to let it rest, then beat it once more and let it rest again. Pour into a buttered bowl and place in a large pot for which you have a lid, with enough boiling water to come halfway up the side of your bowl, adding water when necessary to keep the steam going. It is cooked when, as with a cake, a knife stuck into the centre comes out clean.
Maple Oat Breakfast Bread
This takes a couple more ingredients (maple syrup and rolled oats) and an overnight rest (eight hours or more), but it makes, as Food52 notes, darn good toast. Much like in soda bread, the oats impart a welcome bite. As with the no-knead crusty loaf, you’ll need an oven-safe heavy-based pot with a lid to achieve consistent, high heat and a good seal so the moisture doesn’t escape.
Nigel Slater once said that he thought focaccia was the bread to attempt first, before any trad white loaf. “A batch rarely fails.” Now most recipes will ask for strong white bread flour and/or 00 flour (used for making pasta). But Marcella Hazan makes hers with plain flour, and she’s not someone to mess with. You’ll need a good amount of olive oil (River Cottage uses 150ml), some flaky salt and something like a baking stone – a heavy cookie sheet will do.
Surprisingly easy to make at home, as Jennifer Garner demos in episode 15 of her aptly named Pretend Cooking show. Sure, there is the extra step of poaching before you bake, but you can use plain flour and honey for the dough (or strong bread flour and malt syrup, if you want to be fancy). Food52’s Kenzi Wilbur says the hardest part is waiting an excruciating 30 minutes once you have removed them from the oven. But I’ve never known anyone able to resist freshly baked anything, so why would you even attempt to do that here? Butter at the ready …
Dale Berning Sawa is a French-South-African freelance writer based in London, covering culture, food, health, tech and work.