The trouble with ratios is that they don't explain absolutely everything. Even if you've never made bread before, you probably know that if you just bunged some flour, water and yeast together and didn't do anything else, you wouldn't end up with bread.
So I've also been looking into basic technique. The book, Ratio, gives an acceptable overview but I think even that assumed a bit of prior knowledge, and I was starting from a complete blank. I spent a while looking up simple techniques and things, and decided I had a decent enough idea to give it a try.
I had trouble with kneading. And I still don't know why really. As far as I know, I wasn't going anything out of the ordinary in terms of actual technique, and all the information I'd found said that the consistency would change within ten minutes or so. But I kneaded for nearly twenty-five minutes, and the texture hadn't changed at all. Eventually I gave up and carried on, and it wasn't completely ruined (as I thought it might be).
Rising was another complicated one. Pretty much every recipe and piece of advice suggests a different number of rises, different timings, different techniques. Most of the information seems to claim that a slower rise, or more separate rises, improve the flavour, but apart from that, the only consistent thing I read was "until doubled in size". Seems like whatever you're doing with your bread, you should do it until it's doubled in size. So I made it simple for myself and let it rise until 'doubled in size', then beat it down, kneaded and let it rise the same again.
At first it didn't seem to be doing anything at all, so I put the oven on the lowest setting it has, and then put the dough in the top oven, so it would be just slightly warm. And that seemed to get it going nicely.
For the actual cooking, I followed what it said in the book, because it suggested cooking at a high temperature for the first ten minutes, then a lower temperature for the rest. Although I did lower my temperatures because I use a fan oven.
And do you know what? It was actually bread! With all the niggles and small mistakes and guesswork, the thing I took out of my oven was definitely really bread.
So here it is. It's not a recipe (I'd never do that to you), but it's my overview of what I've learnt about bread.
- The ratio is 5:3. I sieve the flour because it feels like I should, but I doubt anything bad would happen if you didn't. Put the water in, then the yeast. Like I said I use instant yeast, round about 1% of the weight of flour. Give or take. Less will make it rise slower, more will make it rise faster. Apparently, the slower the rise, the better the flavour, so if you can, it's better to use less. I also put in some salt and sugar. Salt for the flavour, and sugar for the yeast. I used about the same amounts of yeast, sugar and salt, to make life easy.
- Mix it around until it looks like dough. You can add more flour or water if you need to, don't be too precious about the ratio. A mistake I made was getting nervous about the dough being too sticky, but I think it's worse to add too much extra flour than extra water.
- Kneading is still a bit of a mystery to me. Supposedly, you knead until the dough is smooth and stretchy, and you could stretch a piece of it until it goes transparent without it breaking. That never happened to mine, but like I said, it was still bread. If in doubt, I'd recommend kneading it for about ten minutes and then just carrying on.
- Then comes rising. If you have a warm room or a warm spot like an airing cupboard, then use that. I put mine in the top oven, with the bottom oven on the lowest heat possible. With the amount of yeast I used, it'll be somewhere between 1 and 2 hours, most likely, but the 'until doubled in size' is a good guide. Then 'punch it down' (literally, just punch it), knead it again but not for long, and let it rise again, just the same as before. Except this time, put it in the shape/tin/tray you're going to be cooking it on. Into the loaf pan, onto the tray, whatever it's going to be - we won't be kneading it again before it cooks.
- Now you cook it. For about the first ten minutes, cook it at a high temperature, about 230C (or 220 for a fan oven). After that, lower the temperature to about 190C (or 180 for a fan oven), and cook it until it's done. That could be anything between 30 and 50 minutes, depending on the size and so on. Another common phrase is 'until it sounds hollow' when you tap it on the bottom.
- When you take it out, wait until it's completely cooled down before you cut it (no matter how tempting it might be!), otherwise it'll go doughy and not nice.
That's pretty much it. Good luck with all your future baking endeavours!