In these times of financial austerity, how do you feed body and soul without spending lots of money? Baking guru Jane Mason has a delicious and simple answer: make bread.
A wholemeal loaf not only contains nutrients, but, she argues, producing it nurtures feelings of self esteem and self reliance. Plus, as Jane puts it so nicely, “making bread is so darned easy.”
That may all sound a bit too good to be true, but after a day baking with Jane in her west London kitchen, I begin to understand what she’s talking about. Take control of your bread – the staff of life – and you take control of your life.
As we weigh, mix and knead dough together to make three different types of bread – a wholemeal, a rye sourdough and some cinnamon rolls – I’m amazed how it simple it is.
Take your basic four ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast – then add some welly (some call it passion), and some rising time, and you have bread that’s both wholesome and scrumptious.
Even sourdough – bread raised with wild rather than commercial yeast, and often shrouded in mystique – is incredibly easy once you’ve got the hang of it. The only complication is that you need to make a ‘starter’ before you get baking.
This live sourdough ‘starter’ is made by mixing certain proportions of flour and water together each day for four days to attract natural yeasts in the air.
Once this is made, it’s made forever, so that’s not a lot of effort in the great scheme of life. And don’t believe those who say you have to feed it every day – you don’t; leave it in an airtight container in a corner of the fridge and it’ll be fine.
Jane’s starter, she tells me, dates back to 1857, passed on from generation to generation.
On the kneading front, sourdough using rye flour is actually far easier than any other bread. Rye is different from wheat – you don’t have to knead it, just gently fondle it for a minute or two.
One of the questions I’m most often asked when I tell friends that I bake my own bread is, “Do you have a bread-making machine?” I show them my hands. You need almost no gadgetry at all to make bread, other than an oven, some kitchen scales and a baking tin.
“A bowl is useful,” says Jane, “but if you made it on your kitchen table, or on your car bonnet for that matter, it’d be perfectly fine.” Of course there are items that make things easier but few are truly essential.
But can making your own bread actually save you money? “Too right it can,” says Jane. “A loaf will cost around 40p to make, and that’s using the best wholemeal stoneground flour. That’s less than the cheapest factory loaf you can buy.” But price comparisons are actually pretty futile, as you’re not comparing like with like.
“The problem with industrially made bread is that it’s made very fast. Additives and enzymes are added to help it rise, preserve its shelf life and stop it going mouldy,” says Jane. “It’s insubstantial – sit on a factory loaf and it’ll squish down to nothing. Sit on one of my loaves and it’ll keep its shape.”
Some people, she says, believe this rapid baking process, and the use of additives – not the wheat itself – are the reasons why so many people nowadays believe themselves to be wheat-intolerant. The baking industry disputes this.
Give it time
“If you make bread yourself, you control what goes into it,” says Jane, as I weigh out the ingredients for my rye sourdough. I put the dough into a greased baking tin, cover it and leave it to rise while I move on to making cinnamon rolls.
The one thing decent bread needs is time. “To be a good baker you need to see time as your friend. It doesn’t mean your time – you will only need to spend a few minutes making a rye sourdough, for instance – but clock time is important,” says Jane. “You learn to fit other tasks around it. Those tasks can include sleeping – many doughs benefit from being left overnight.”
When we return to the rye loaf a few hours later, it’s risen to almost double its original size and started forming small bubbles, which means it’s ready for the oven. “Every time, I see this as a miracle,” says Jane.
“Bread is a metaphor for life: you can’t eat the ingredients on their own, but combined, they create something that really sustains you. Likewise, as individuals we can’t make an impact, but with teamwork we can change the world.”
As I bite into a slice of still-warm wholemeal bread, I conclude that however you see it, homemade bread is the business.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN BREAD
YOU WILL NEED:
Use a non-stick tin and grease it well (with butter, not oil)
Plastic bag or shower cap
Avoid instant easy bake yeast, which contains additives
There are a lot of flours for sale, but if you want maximum nutrition, and a guarantee that it’s free of additives, buy stoneground flour. This is important because the stones in a stone mill stay cold whereas the metal rollers in an industrial mill usually get hot, which removes some important nutrients. For a yeasted loaf, buy strong flour, as this has more gluten-forming protein.
FIND OUT MORE
Jane Mason runs bread-making courses with a view to enabling people to bake for their families or to run a home baking business.
The Real Bread Campaign champions additive-free bread, and offers information on bread-making courses and events, flour mills, and how to set up a bread club or a community supported bakery. During Real Bread Maker Week (7-13 May) it will be encouraging more people to bake their own bread at home.
The Traditional Cornmillers Guild groups wind- or water mills around the country that produce their own stoneground flour. Its website has an online resource to help you find one near you.
National Mills Weekend, 12-13 May. Traditional wind and water mills open their doors and demonstrate how flour is milled.
The Federation of Bakers has more information about industrially produced bread.