Learning to make a good loaf of bread is one of my goals for this year. I like to cook, but I am not fond of rigidly sticking to recipes. I like to use recipes as a general guideline and improvise a bit with what is available. I think that improvisation marks a good cook. A restaurant chef is limited by the recipe. People expect a dish to taste the same every time. There is not much room for variation.
Generally speaking, baking requires precise measurement and specific ingredients. Changing even a small item or step can lead to disaster. Baking bread is an exception to this rule. Perhaps because “bread” is not a single product. Just look at the variety that can be found in any supermarket.
I read a comment about bread - that the quality of bread goes down as the level of civilization goes up. Comparing Wonder Bread to a third world artisan bread shows a hidden truth in the assertion.
The comment reveals another truth. Poor peasants have been making bread for thousands of years. They have turned out wonderful loaves without measuring cups and temperature controlled rising boxes. They have cooked them in hand-shaped adobe earth ovens, or baked them in wood fired stoves.
If they can do it, we can too.
I started with the basic ingredient list: flour, water, yeast, and salt. I think that once I am comfortable with basic bread, I can start trying different variations.
This basic recipe is often called French bread. Most recipes call for an approximately 3 to 1 ratio of flour to water. A dry climate like ours needs a little less flour or a little more water. Cooking temperatures can vary from 350 to as high as your oven will go. Wood fired earth or brick ovens can achieve temperatures of 700 degrees.
Hear are two useful sites: Hot, crusty french bread loaves and The Fresh Loaf - Lessons
So far, I produced a half dozen loaves using 3 cups of flour and 1 cup of water. I am beginning to see the effects of kneading time and cooking temperature. But so far, it has all been good.
I made this dough yesterday afternoon. I put it in the refrigerator overnight. After two hours at room temperature, I baked it at 450 degrees for about 15 minutes. It is hard to beat hot fresh bread for breakfast.