Always put the flour in your bowl first, then add the salt and the yeast to opposite sides of the bowl. This is important as the salt can kill the yeast. Next add fat if you are using and then add three-quarters of the water. Then using your hands, ‘scrunch’ all the ingredients together, incorporating all the flour and adding more water until you have a soft dough. This can be very messy, sticky and wet. However, it will all come together when you start the kneading process.
The kneading process helps work the gluten in the flour to create a smooth, elastic dough. When kneading, you need to stretch the dough out and then fold it back on itself and flatten it, and then repeat the process, making sure you turn the dough round between stretches. It can take between 5 and 10 minutes until the consistency of the dough changes and it becomes smoother and more elastic. Eventually, it will begin to hold together in ball and develop a soft skin.
Put the kneaded dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film or a clean tea towel to protect it from draughts that might cause a skin to form. Leave it anywhere in the kitchen. The dough needs to rise until it is at least doubles in size. When it is fully grown it will start to develop crease marks on top and it may start to collapse on itself. Do not leave it any longer than this. You can let the dough rise for a second time at this point if you wish.
Knocking back the dough
After rising, the dough needs to be ‘knocked back’. This process makes it easier to handle and shape and helps create a uniform texture to the dough. Take the dough out of the bowl and put it on a lightly floured surface and fold it repeatedly in on itself using the heels of your hands, until it is smooth and all the air is knocked out of it.
Shaping the dough
You can experiment with different shapes, choosing anything from a simple round loaf to a decorative plait.
During this final stage, the shaped bread is left to rise before it can be baked. Covering the dough during this stage with a plastic bag helps prevent the dough from forming a skin. You can tell when the dough is ready by gently pressing it and seeing if it springs back. If the dough starts to crease and slump slightly, it has over-proved. If this is the case, knock it back and shape the dough again, and let it prove once more.
Baking and cooling
When your bread is ready, it should be a good brown colour with a crisp crust. To check if it’s ready, take it out of the oven and tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it’s ready; if it doesn’t, put it back and check again in 5 minutes. After baking your bread, it should be allowed to cool completely on a wire rack before eating. Whilst it cools it will let out all its steam and finish cooking.