Not just some bad bread

Something we do regularly is stock take our waste: what is it that comes into our house that we end up throwing back out into the rubbish or recycling bins? A big one for us, and for many households I’m sure, is bread bags. It doesn’t really matter if you RedCycle them, well it doesn’t for us, because the first R in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, is always REDUCE.

So last year we made the decision to purchase a bread maker. Jonah was really keen to make bread; to smell the smell of freshly made bread emanating through the house, and with a bread maker that has a delayed timer in it, he could WAKE UP to freshly made bread. Not just way to save on plastic waste, this bread maker was also a nostalgia trip, taking him back to key childhood memories through his nostrils.

But of course I ended up doing the baking. And I loved it. I loved the smell of freshly baked bread, I discovered I loved troubleshooting and trying out new recipes, and I especially loved serving friends and family bread that had been made in our own home.

It was good… For a while. And then the cracks started to appear. There is only so much one can do with a bread maker; only so much one can experience with a bread maker. I started to feel frustrated that I had little control over the process. The shape of the loaf didn’t quite fit our containers, the crumb wasn’t quite right, and the convenience of chucking everything into the bread maker at a moment’s notice resulted in less useable bench space in my kitchen, less consideration and planning, and…boredom with the process.

With the help of friends, I expanded my journey to investigating sourdough but I’m not going to write about that here. Suffice to say that sourdough is an engaging process but not entirely encouraging for a new baker. I do have a healthy starter constantly on the go, and I’ll invite you into my sourdough world sometime in the future.

After being a little disheartened by my sourdough, very confused by the world of “no knead” artisanal breads, and feeling totally out of my depth with all of the options out there, I knew something wasn’t quite going right. I had started to dabble in bread making by hand, but something wasn’t quite “clicking”. Every recipe had different instructions on how to knead properly, how to measure a dough’s progress, and what temperatures to ferment and proof at. It was a minefield.

Enter a month of toddler being sick, contact napping for several hours a day, and being at home. Armed with earphones and utterly bored with social media, I discovered King Arthur Flour’s educational videos on YouTube, among many others (but King Arthur has been my favourite). Baking bread from start to finish, highlighting techniques and common mistakes, as well as educating about the way bread just “works”.

I was amazed. Something so simple had been my Achilles heel this whole time; my kneading technique. I grew up around someone who was constantly kneading dough, baking and cooking. I watched her masterfully knead all kinds of doughs through my childhood but it now occurs to me that when a master is at work, it’s actually very hard to see what they’re doing. I had no technical idea how to knead, and so my dough would stick to the bench, my fingers, my dough scraper. By the end of my fermentation, I was relying on a loaf pan to bake in so my bread didn’t turn into a pancake by the time it hit the oven. It had no shape and now I knew why.

This one skill has changed my daily life; committed to baking bread regularly for our family, I was stuck in a goopy messy hole. Armed with some correct technique, I’m learning to get to know my dough, to ignore the timer and listen instead to the yeast and the flour. I’m experimenting in wonderful new ways, and my bread now fits into our bread container. Hallelujah.

The bread maker is still there, and I’m sure I’ll default back to it when new baby arrives, and I don’t have the arms for kneading properly, but golly it’s nice to have the choice.

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