It’s a funny old thing, the supermarket loaf. I don’t just mean the standard longlife bagged ones but all of them. Every loaf that goes into or comes out of a supermarket is a profoundly odd thing.
Bagged loaves (we know them well) are just plain disgusting, but even the ‘artisanal’ ones follow the trend. They’ve always got those odd, slightly leathery crusts. Rarely are they crispy or – my favourite – crunchy. They never get those cavernous air pockets that you can hide a spoonful of butter in at breakfast, in such a way that no one will stare or make condescending comments.
To get to the point, they’re really very boring. With, however, very good reason. They’ve got no funny holes because the doughs are made dry for easy handling, because too much yeast is used for quick proving and because they contain magic ‘improvers’.
Bread ‘improvers’ sound so terrifyingly euphemistic that people seem to rather like to run a mile from them. They have a point. In the early days of industrialised bread something called potassium bromate was a common ingredient. This, it turned out, was not only foul-tasting but also a carcinogen. Today though, it’s banned just about everywhere from the EU to China – except the USA, where bakers merrily go on using it.
The major improvers over here are ascorbic acid – vitamin C to you and me – which makes the gluten stronger and therefore more elastic. This means that the ball of dough will rise faster and further, with a softer, more uniform crumb and a thinner crust.
The other additive I’m prepared to take an interest in is soya flour. A very small quantity has a quite profound effect on the final bread. It gives a very impressive crumb structure, with the most, most uniform bubbles imaginable. This, again, is probably something to do with its effect on the gluten structure of the dough. Bread containing soya flour is easier to mix and machine-knead and will rise higher than it would with just wheat flour. Consequently, it holds a higher water content so stales at a slightly slower rate and in a more agreeable way – getting gradually harder rather than just becoming a dry lump.
Its final effect is to lighten the colour of the loaf. Most roller milled white flour could hardly get any whiter, but if you use a proportion of wholemeal flour (as I do) the effects in this field pay off. We eat with our eyes, and if a 60% wholemeal loaf can be made the same colour as a 10% wholemeal one, it will taste like it. It’s a strange old phenomenon, but I’m liable to forget what went into a loaf of bread the day after I make it and more than once have I mistaken a soya’d wholemeal loaf for a primarily white one.
That then, is my manifesto for introducing a bit of cheap industrial tech into your breadmaking. My main argument is that it makes the process a whole lot easier and quite a bit faster. I’ve taken to adding about 5% soya flour to anything that has flour in it. The effects are astounding. You won’t get quite a such a good crust, but that’s price enough to pay for the speed with which a loaf of bread develops.
Wholemeal Bread with Soya Flour
- 300g (2 1/2 cups) strong white flour
- 200g (1 1/2 cups) wholemeal bread flour
- 10g (a generous tablespoon) soya flour
- 375g (1 1/2 cups) warm water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1tsp fast-action yeast
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- Begin by pouring all of the liquid ingredients into a bowl. They should be at blood heat. Add the yeast, sugar and salt, then mix to incorporate.
- Measure out the white flour, then add the soya flour to it and mix lightly to distribute evenly. Gradually, whilst stirring forcefully (you could use a food mixer with a dough hook for this part), add the white flour to the water, mixing well between additions.
- At this stage, it should be a gloopy batter. Begin adding the wholemeal flour. Continue, a bit at a time. When the dough forms a ball, try to break into the middle with the spoon since the centre tends to remain wetter than the outside. Finish by hand, crushing and squeezing the dough to incorporate the last of the flour.
- Knead until smooth, then place in a large bowl and cover. The soya flour helps to promote fermentation (which is where the smell of fresh bread comes from), so the flavour will not suffer too much if you leave the dough in a warm place to rise quickly.
- When more than doubled in size, turn the dough out onto a floured surface. The soya flour will help to give it an even texture, so there’s no need to knock it back. Be gentle with it and try not to break too many of the air bubbles. Flatten to the size of a book and roll tightly up along the narrow edge. Flatten again and repeat. Roll the roll in plenty of flour to coat it and to lightly to smooth and lengthen. Place onto a piece of baking parchment on a baking sheet.
- Leave to rise for half an hour. Use a very sharp or a serrated knife to make three shallow diagonal slits in the top of the loaf, then put into an oven at its highest temperature. After 10 minutes, turn the temperature down to 210°C (410°F) and cook for 30 minutes longer.
- Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack. Wait at least 5 hours before eating. The middle of the bread initially gets hotter, not colder, when the outside cools. Hot bread may smell delicious, but its not much good for eating.
NB Please don’t murder it with ‘spreadable’ butter from a plastic pot. Real butter tastes infinitely better and can be made spreadable – free of charge – by the simple process of removing it from the fridge.