Making your own bread when you have ME/CFS…

In Loafing around – about bread-making (who’d have thought?) – I mentioned that the pain from the arthritis in my hands and elbows was causing problems. It was, too; the pain after the first loaf was pretty serious, though I played it down so as not to deter anyone else  from trying. A little over a week – and three loaves – later, the pain has abated considerably. Just a bit in my thumbs and wrists now, and I can live with that.

That got me thinking about bread-making and ME/CFS – and I think, for many, that it’s a pretty good idea and, unlike most exercise, you have something to eat at the end of it. Seems like a fair trade-off to me. It does depend on the degree to which the individual is affected, of course, but still…

Why? Because it’s just two bursts of work – one short, one very short – bookended by lots of waiting. Mixing is easy with a wooden spoon – though I use a wooden spatula, it’s easier to hold – followed by 15 minutes of kneading by hand*. Both can be done while sitting down if necessary. Changing hands – or using both – makes it easier, too.

*The first kneading can, of course, be done in a bread machine on the dough cycle, though I find it takes away the skill and, thus, the satisfaction. Takes away the pain, too so, basically, your call (different people have different pain thresholds – mine’s pretty high).

Always dust the work surface and the flour, and repeat as necessary, and use the same flour as in the dough (for the following recipe, I used the wholemeal flour, not the rye). I knead my dough directly on the worktop, scrupulously scrubbed and then dried with kitchen towel, before starting.

Then you wait an hour or so for the dough to prove (rise), in a warm place (rub all over with olive oil, put in a plastic food bag with lots of room, and tie loosely), and double in size. How long it takes to prove depends on several factors, not least temperature, so it’s hard to be precise. By “warm place” I mean a temperature at which you are comfortable (as long as you’re not an Inuit!); if you are comfortable, the yeast will be too. I leave mine in the kitchen.  Too hot a room, and the yeast may die.

The next step is to knock back the dough – flatten it – which knocks out the gas (CO2 from the yeast’s fermentation makes bread rise), then knead it again for about five minutes. During this you’ll feel the dough begin to firm up and become very resilient (elastic). Shape it, put it on a baking sheet or in a loaf tin*, cover with oiled cling-film (I actually rub the dough all over with a little olive oil, too – it gives a light, crisp crust all over), and set in a warm place to rise again. Once risen to the required degree, bake.

*For a loaf tin, roll the dough into a fat sausage the right length, don’t try to stretch it – it’ll just rebound and/or tear.

Of course, with ME you’ll probably feel crappy afterwards but, if you’re anything like me, you would have anyway, so what the hell? And you’ll have the satisfaction of a  nice loaf to show for it. And eat. Trust me, if you’ve never eaten home-made bead before, you’re in for a very pleasant surprise.


There is no mystery to making bread.

Kneading develops the gluten in the flour (“strong” bread flour has more gluten than ordinary (general-purpose) flour), as well as ensuring a homogeneous mix, without lumps.

Yeast produces an enzyme that converts some of the starch in the flour to sugar, which it then ferments (that’s why I start off even instant yeast in warm water with a little sugar – gets it off to a flying start, and it means you don’t need to add sugar to the flour).

The fermentation produces carbon dioxide gas (CO2), which forms bubbles in the gluten, which traps the gas and makes the bread rise, and alcohol, which is burned off during baking (if you ever make a sourdough starter, that’s why it’ll smell like a brewery).

Bread needs some fat in it. You can use butter or lard (shortening), but I prefer olive oil as it gives a texture I prefer (buy some focaccia – that’s the texture I want), plus it eliminates the need to rub-in the fat. I like the taste too.

1lb (454g) of flour, plus yeast, salt and enough water to mix – an amount that is almost infinitely variable, but is around 400ml, will yield a 2lb-ish loaf, and if you use olive oil, remember that’s liquid too. Bread made with fat will take a little more water than when made with oil, so never think, oh, 400ml, and toss it in – always add water a little at a time (and, for the last bit, a very little), and always lukewarm.

If your dough is too wet – hey, it happens to all of us, it’s no big deal – just add more flour as you do the first kneading, until it feels right (firm and not overtly sticky). Likewise if you miss an ingredient – look, you have ME/CFS, so you might (I’ve lost count, when using a bread machine, of how many times I forgot the yeast) – then that can often be added while kneading, as I did with the oil for one loaf, and with chopped rosemary. If you forget the salt, you’re screwed; you just can’t knead it in.

Salt not only enhances the flavour, it also controls how the yeast “inflates” the dough, preventing it from running out of control. A simplification, but it’s adequate.