The other day I was in the supermarket, looking for my favourite strong flour (baker's flour), when I overheard a couple in their fifties discuss whether the "bread mix" on offer could also be used in a normal oven or only in a bread maker. I couldn't help myself and chirped in, and we ended up having a very friendly conversation about the lost art of baking bread.
I used to make a daily loaf in our bread maker (see my universal bread maker recipe here). This is an easy way to get started, although you may find, like I did, that a bread maker is not enough to feed a growing family. Plus, while the bread certainly tastes better than many kinds of shop bought breads, the texture really isn't all that great and more substantial kinds of bread don't always turn out so well, either.
I have since changed my method to making a batch of six loaves of bread in the oven. I have a normal sized fan-forced oven, not one of the super-sized ovens I have seen in some newer homes. Six loaves can just fit into my oven and can be baked at the same time which makes it an efficient use of energy. I have two heavy expandable oven trays that can be adjusted to fit the full width of the oven. I use one tray at the bottom and one in the middle.
I freeze the surplus loaves whole. They defrost easily on the bench top or in the fridge, or they can be defrosted (whole) in the microwave in about 2-3 minutes at high.
I start in the morning with making the dough. The most important ingredients for really good bread are baker's flour or strong flour (not the normal "plain" flour you may use for making cakes or muffins), yeast (I use dried yeast), water and salt. Baker's flour is a bit more expensive than plain flour but it makes a huge difference to the taste and texture of your bread - and it is still substantially cheaper than buying decent bread. You can add oil which gives the bread a nicer colour and keeps it from drying out too quickly.
This recipe is enough for two 800g loaves of bread.
* 1kg baker's flour
* 600 ml luke warm water
* 2 teaspoons of salt
* 1 tablespoon of dried yeast
* some olive or vegetable oil (around 2 table spoons)
* heavy baking tray (the heavier, the better, but if you don't have a proper tray, use your cookie tray instead),
* baking paper
* water spray can with clean water
Carefully mix all ingredients with a wooden spoon then put into an electric mixer with a dough hook for around five minutes or knead by hand (this can take up to 15 minutes) until the dough is all smooth and well combined. (Make sure your mixer can handle the amount of dough. I inherited a mixer which is probably around 40 years old. It is very heavy and can just manage the dough. By contrast, my smaller, more modern kitchen machine gets overwhelmed.)
Let the dough rise under a wet towel/ lid for about 4 hours until it has at least doubled.
Carefully push the dough back a bit using a wooden spoon. (Don't push too much, as we don't want to lose all the air the yeast has created already).
Let the dough rise a second time.
Carefully take the dough out of the bowl and divide into two parts. You don't want to knead the dough too much at this stage, just enough to form two even loaves.
Put the loaves on a sheet of baking paper large enough to fit onto your oven tray. Let them rise again under a wet towel.
Pre-heat the oven to hot (210 degrees Celsius). It is important that you put the trays you are going to use into the oven because they need to be as hot as possible when you put the loaves on. Once the oven is hot and the loaves have risen, quickly get the baking tray out of the oven, put the baking paper with the loaves onto the tray, push back into the oven and quickly give the sides of the oven a squirt of clean water with your water spray can.
Bake the loaves at 190-210 degrees Celsius (that depends on your oven - mine is ok using lower temperatures) for about 30 minutes. To test whether the loaves are baked through, knock on the bottom of the loaves. If it sounds hollow, they are ready.
Now you can experiment. I usually make at least two loaves with whole meal flour (800g baker's flour/200g whole meal flour works best for me, but you can use more whole meal flour if you wish), and two mixed sour dough loaves (800g baker's flour/200g rye flour, caraway seeds to taste plus some sourdough starter for taste and texture), and I often add other ingredients as well, such as sesame seeds, linseeds, pepitas and sunflower seeds.