Why do I want to bake my own bread?

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Bread naturally coloured with turmeric (yellow), blue pea flowers (purple) and cocoa powder (brown)

“Really?” Some of you may go. “Does anyone still bake their own bread?” Or the question that is as likely to crop up, “What? Bake bread at home?”

Doesn’t everyone just buy their bread from the supermarket? Yes, you can get a loaf of bread from the supermarket for less than S$3.00.

So, why bother?

There’s bread, and then there’s bread

Decades ago, I remember my German teachers at the Goethe Institut Singapore complaining that the bread available here in Singapore is like cotton wool. And tastes of nothing.

When I started baking my own bread with instant yeast, they tasted a bit better. But it was only when I started baking with wild yeast and long fermentation that I finally understood what they were talking about.

The flavour that develops during the long fermentation and overnight retard, together with the choice of your favourite add-ons in the dough, does not bear comparison to store-bought white bread.

And no, I am not being rude when I talk about “retard”, it simply refers to what we do to slow down the fermentation of the dough and allow the flavour to develop, by letting it rest in the fridge for a length of time.

Covid-19 and the rise of sourdough

The reality is, there are legions of home-bakers all over the world, and their numbers swelled exponentially when Covid-19 confined entire populations to their homes. People who suddenly have to find ways to keep themselves occupied indoors discovered sourdough. And besides toilet paper, flour was another item that disappeared from supermarket shelves as soon as it appeared.

It’s not rocket science

I have long enjoyed baking. Especially so in the weeks before Chinese New Year, when I would bake massive amounts of pineapple tarts and other festive cookies to give away to family and friends.

One of the first things I did after leaving full-time work in 2018 was to enroll in a sourdough baking class conducted by someone at her HDB home.

You know how there are teachers who guide you along, encourage you, make things look do-able, even easy? Tells you “You can do it!” Well, this lady wasn’t one of them. I was dismayed after the one-day lesson. So many prescribed steps to follow. Knead this for 5 minutes, then wait for 15 minutes. Then do this, then that….. Wait for the starter to double and form a dome. If you wait too long, you need to discard, and feed the starter all over again before using it. Or your bread will not rise….

That is so not me….

Fortunately, she did not succeed in putting me off artisan bread.

YouTube is your friend

I started Googling, and found tonnes of information and recipes online. And loads of YouTube videos which make it look so easy. The ingredients for baking bread are not expensive. All you need are flour, water and salt.

“No yeast?” I hear you ask. Yes, wild yeast. Basically you just mix equal parts of flour and water, let it sit and ferment. That’s your first step to creating your own starter. The next day, you take out some of the starter, and add the same amount of flour and water to your starter, in the ratio 1:1:1. You “discard” the rest of the starter. Well, actually you don’t throw it away, you collect it until you have enough discard to bake something else that doesn’t need to rise as much as bread. Such as crackers, cookies or brownies.

If you don’t discard, your starter quantity will multiply. Say you started on Day 1 with 10g flour and 10g water. On Day 2, you would have 20g of starter. At this stage, it is still OK to not discard. Say you take all 20g of starter, and you add 20g flour and 20g water, you would end up with 60g of freshly fed starter. If you don’t start discarding, by Day 3, you would have 180g of starter.

Get the picture?

Bread as you like it

Now, two years down the road, I bake bread at least once a week.

I have since learned that you can still bake good bread even when the starter is past its peak. I even use discard to bake bread. I no longer follow the clock, timing each stretch-and-fold. I have learned that it’s possible to make bread without kneading the dough at all. So anything between “no-knead” and “3 stretch-and-folds every 30 minutes followed by 2 coil folds every hour” works. It really can be that simple.

It never gets boring, as I love playing around and experimenting with new ingredients and combinations. You can enrich the bread to make it softer in texture, by adding things like purees (pumpkin, sweet potato, potato, beetroot), sweeteners (sugar, honey, molasses), fats (butter, olive oil), jazz up the flavour with dried fruit and nuts (raisins, cranberry, walnuts, almonds), seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, chia, flaxseed), spices (cinnamon, turmeric, curry, garlic, onion). The possibilities are endless.

Even the liquid used for the dough mix leaves room for creativity. Instead of water, you can use milk, fruit/veg juices, beer. I know of some people who use the whey from making their own cheese (yeah, get your head around it, some people make their own cheese). Colour it with natural ingredients. Turmeric for yellow, blue pea flowers for blue or purple, pandan leaves for green, carrots for orange…

Once I had a massive amount of dhal curry rescued from a food kitchen, and decided to use that to mix my dough. It was not the fluffiest bread I’ve made, but immensely edible. The curry flavour was rather mild after baking, but the pieces of chilli I bit into added quite a kick.

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Is it pretty, or is it pretty?

Feast for the senses

The finishing touch is to score the bread. It can be a single slash on the dough, to allow it to expand during baking. If the bread is not scored, it may erupt in unsightly bumps at awkward parts. I also ventured into fancy scoring (thanks, YouTube!). They say the eyes eat before the mouth. I am so chuffed when I see my bread looking pretty when it emerges from the oven.

The feeling I get from eating my own bread — the look, the smell, the colours, the taste, the texture…

That is why I bake my own bread.

For more stories, check out my blog.

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