Use the right kind of flour. Plain flour is adequate for breadmaking, but high-grade flour has a higher gluten content, which gives the dough elasticity and ultimately a light, airy texture. Loaves can be made with 100% wholemeal flour, but if you prefer a lighter loaf, or are trying to introduce wholemeal bread gradually to your family, use a mixture of wholemeal and high-grade flour.
Add bread improvers. Nowadays many brands of store-bought yeast come with bread improvers already added. Simply switching from plain yeast to yeast containing improvers will dramatically improve the quality of your bread. Alternatively or in combination, a tablespoon or two of lecithin granules will give your bread a softer, lighter texture, and crushed Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) tablets will strengthen your dough and assist with rising. Using starchy water, such as water in which potatoes or pasta have been boiled, will also improve your dough.
Don’t skimp on kneading. Kneading develops the gluten in the dough—under-kneaded dough will be heavy, flat and dull. Knead for ten minutes minimum as a guide, until the dough feels satiny and pliable. A good test of gluten development is to hold a small portion of dough up to the light and stretch it. Light should be visible through the dough before it tears (this test works best with non-wholemeal doughs).
Let the dough rise until doubled. Bread will only turn out light and fluffy if it is full of the trapped bubbles of gas created by rising. Let the dough fully double on its first rise, before punching it down—there is no need to squeeze out every tiny bubble of gas, the aim is simply to break the larger air pockets. Once shaped, the dough should double again. If you’re in a hurry, putting the nearly-risen dough into a cold oven and then turning the heat on should ensure some more rising time before the increased heat kills the yeast. Steam also assists with rising—putting the shaped dough in the oven with a pan of freshly-boiled water will speed the process.
Glaze and top the dough appropriately. The texture, flavour and appearance of the crust can be improved by using a glaze or wash. Egg white and water will make a crust shiny; egg yolk and water will give a dark, rich finish; milk will give a slightly shiny, soft crust. After baking, sweet loaves can be brushed with a hot mixture of milk, sugar and gelatine. Savoury loaves can be jazzed up by sprinkling the dough with sesame or poppy seeds, coarse cornmeal, rock salt, chopped fresh rosemary, paprika, olives–or any combination! Don’t add grated cheese until about 15 minutes before the end of baking, or it will burn.
Cook the bread thoroughly. One of the most elementary mistakes in breadmaking is to undercook the bread, which results in a doughy, gluey mess. Bake the bread, preferably with a pan of hot water in the rack below to help form the crust, until it sounds hollow when tapped. If the top sounds hollow, tip the loaf out of the tin and test the bottom—the bread is only ready when both the top and bottom sound hollow. Cool the bread on a rack to prevent sogginess, and enjoy!