There has been much in the news and on social media about shortages of flour, yeast and baking powder and how more people are baking bread these days, have you noticed?
After I retired, I took up bread baking on a more regular basis – partly because I had the time, but more because I was going out less often to shop. I do have a bread maker and I use it, particularly when I’m feeling lazy and in a hurry. It takes only a few minutes to get the ingredients together and the machine does the rest. I usually make what Cuisinart calls a “rustic Italian” loaf, although it comes out more like a healthy-ish sandwich loaf.
The one thing I have learned is most important about bread baking – at least for me – is accurate measurement. And nothing is more important than weighing flour. If you scoop flour into a measuring cup, the amount by weight can (and does) vary greatly, while weight is always consistent. A cup of all-purpose flour (or bread flour) should weigh about 4 1/4 ounces or 120 grams. If the recipe you use doesn’t give weight for ingredients, you can use a weight chart to figure it out. This is the one that I use, but there are others on the internet.
The other thing I have learned is that practice makes perfect. You learn what works for you and what doesn’t, how dough should feel when it is properly kneaded, what you can do when your bread sinks in the middle, or doesn’t rise (or any other bread fail you can think of.) Bread failures happen with bread machines too, in case you were wondering. I found out that the “sink in the middle” problem with my bread machine bread was caused by too much liquid. I decreased it from 1-1/2 cups to 1-1/4 cups and the problem went away. The same problem can occur from over proofing.
I have a new favorite bread recipe/technique that I have used twice now. Both times I got really great results. Frankly, I think anybody can get great results with this recipe/technique, so I highly recommend trying it. It doesn’t take any machines to make it – just a bowl, a spoon, measuring tools and an oven. The ingredients are minimal too – flour, water, salt and yeast. The dough has a high hydration level (almost 80%), so it is sticky. The video demonstrates how to work with the dough. She uses a stretch and fold technique to develop gluten rather than the more common kneading.
The ingredients are:
Flour: 350g (I used bread flour, but AP flour would work) – a scant 3 cups or 12.35 oz.
Water: 280g (body temperature) – about 9.8 oz.
Salt: 1 tsp
Yeast: 1 tsp
The video explains the technique very well, but there is also a web page with complete instructions: https://merryboosters.com/artisan-ciabatta-bread/
Other things that are handy for making this bread (or any bread) are a dough scraper, a baking stone or steel (substitute a preheated baking sheet), parchment paper and a water spray bottle.
My bread shaping technique could use a lot of work, but my bread turned out just like the loaves in the video. It tastes really good too.
I also have successfully made Italian panettone bread by mixing it and doing the first rise in my bread machine, but forming the loaf myself in a panettone paper mold, doing the final rise and baking it in a standard oven. It looks and tastes like it came from a bakery!
In conclusion, if I can do it, then anybody can. Measure carefully, and follow instructions. You just have to start. If something goes wrong, then try again.