Loafing around…

This past week I have gone back to making my own bread by hand (it’s amazing how much time I have on my hands when forcibly offline).

I bought a bread machine about 6 years ago, because I believed that  making it by hand was  too painful. However, I’ve found recently that while it’s still painful, and arguably more so than it was (arthritis in my hands and elbows), the worst pain only lasts a day or two, and, personally, I found the psychological boost from the sheer pleasure of producing really good, well-flavoured, bread with a light crumb and crisp crust, offset the physical effects considerably.

My logic, as I’ve said elsewhere (see the post Life – it’s not a dress-rehearsal…), is that no matter what I do – even if I do nothing – I hurt. A lot. So what the hell, I may as well do something from which I get some pleasure.

I won’t lie to you, three days on and my hands and elbows still hurt, but not as much as I expected, and not to the extent that it will stop me making bread every few days. I’m hoping, too, that if I make a couple of loaves a week, the kneading will strengthen my hands, and my arm muscles, which are getting worryingly weak (and it’s the fore-arm muscles which mainly power the hands, of course), and stronger hands may reduce the effects of arthritis, just as stronger muscles will help support damaged joints (the reason why NICE is obsessed with exercise for arthritis – but not to the extent of providing adequate pain relief that will make exercise more tolerable, as opposed to intolerable, which is what it mostly is for many people).

I’ve been making bread on and off since the bakers’ strike in the early seventies, more recently using a machine, as I said, but though my machine-produced bread tasted good, I was never happy with either the crust or crumb – for some reason the machine didn’t develop the gluten as well as hand-kneading does (and as I was using a mix of flours, some low in gluten, that made a big difference). Likewise, if a crisp crust is what you want in your bread, then making it by hand and baking it in an oven is the way only to go. By repute, the Panasonic machine produces the best bread, but at £100 or more, depending on where you look, unless you make loads of bread, it’s an extravagance, and beyond my budget

However, if what you want is good, tasty bread, and the crust and crumb aren’t too important (I always have a couple of slices of bread hot from the machine, with butter, when it IS reasonably crusty), then bread from almost any machine is likely to be better than almost anything you can buy in a supermarket.

Unless you have a small, independent artisan baker close at hand (good luck with that!), then the bread you buy will be made by the Chorleywood Process – as it is in bread machines – the difference is that, with a machine, YOU control what goes into it. No additives, no mysterious “improvers”, just simple, high-quality ingredients, simply baked. (Note: supermarket in-store “artisan” bread is still made by the Chorleywood process).

No-one, unless they have several kids and very little income, should even contemplate eating ultra-cheap bread. Snobbish? Damned right – if people stopped buying crap the producers would stop making it. Like beer, it’s no more effort to make good bread than bad, and only a little more expensive (in fact, making bread is very like brewing – in both processes fermentation of the grain plays a major part).

Did it make a difference having a machine? Yep, a huge difference – just put in the liquid, add the dry ingredients and leave it alone til it’s finished – about 4 hours. Have no truck with “express” programs – you’ll just wind up with home-made crap bread! Good bread takes time.

With home-made – by hand or machine – I find I can’t eat a lot of my own bread – that’s due to the fact that, unlike commercial bread, it’s not mainly air. Many commercial breads are designed to be mainly bubbles, to boost the size and thus the apparent value for money – for the same weight, a smaller loaf will be denser than a larger loaf, and more satisfying to eat. For example, compare the respective sizes of Kingsmill and Allinson’s sliced loaves. I like both, but Allinson’s is closer to home-made in texture.