Baking bread

This page is for anyone who has ever tried to bake bread and failed, only to try again and again until finally, thankfully, a loaf turned out as it should. I am putting this together for a skill-share course I will soon teach taught at Alfalfa House (an awesome co-op in Enmore, New South Wales, Australia, which everyone a quick walk or train-ride away should join right now). You’ll find links to my favourite recipes and baking sites, flour characteristics, and pretty much anything else I can think of that might be useful to the fledgling baker. Feel free post your own baking tips, useful links, and questions in the comments below.

This just in: there are photos, courtesy of Adam! Check them out here.

Tips | Recipes | Gluten Flours | Gluten-free flours | Caring for your sourdough starter | Useful links


  • Buy a scale and weight out ingredients (all but the smaller quantities, like yeast). Your recipes will thank you for it.
  • Don’t rush bread. It doesn’t stick to schedules.
  • Once you shape bread, it’s ready to go in the oven when you touch the surface of the bread and the mark your fingertip leaves fills partially and slowly. If it pops right back up, the yeast needs a bit more time to do its work. If it doesn’t pop up at all, you’ve overproofed (handle it VERY gently when you slide it in the oven to avoid deflating, because your yeast won’t have the fuel to recover).
  • If you’re having trouble kneading or shaping, let your dough relax for 10-20 minutes and try again. Gluten can be a bit uptight sometimes.
  • Experiment!  Best case scenario, you develop your own amazing recipe. Worst case? You buy bread that week.

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Discussed / made in class

  • Gluten-free bread. This is my attempt at gluten-free baking. The recipe works thus far–it’s kind of like the German bread you buy in health food stores–you know, the stuff that’s sold in thin slices.  I think this is best toasted.  It is vegan-friendly and avoids the usual xanthan gums, so the consistency is a bit of a compromise. It is tasty nonetheless and is a good first loaf for those who want to bake something everyone can eat. I can imagine it being delicious as part of an open-faced sandwich, or as cheese on toast. My mother actually baked this one in the States, using teff in place of sorghum, and says it’s rather like pumpernickel.
  • Pain á l’ancienne. This is incredibly easy to make, can be used for focaccia (onion and fennel seed!) and pizza dough as well as ugly(ish) baguettes, and will actually take a higher concentration of whole grain flour than I’ve noted in this early version of the recipe. You can use up to 10 oz. of spelt, rye, whole wheat, or buckwheat (as long as you keep the total quantity of flour to 27 oz. for 6 mini-baguettes) without too much of an effect on the crumb. You can also skip the ice water if you’re shoving the dough in the fridge right away. Reinhart swears by it, but I have not noticed an appreciable difference, as long as it’s not 40ºC and awful out… In which case, consider making grilled pizza instead, yes? (Scroll… keep scrolling… the recipe is the same, but the cooking method? Revolutionary. Barbecue is so much more pleasant in summer…)
  • Raisin coriander sesame semolina. This is a variation of my favourite sourdough bread recipe EVER. It’s high hydration, and you can swap out the semolina for other flours if you choose. Try this one after you’ve made commercial yeast bread a few times, so you know when the gluten network is developed and the bread is ready to go. Sourdough by definition requires one to develop a fluid sense of time, as the strength of your starter and the bread’s environment all lend a sense of uncertainty to the timing involved in making this recipe work. It’s delicious, worth the effort, and the most reliable sourdough recipe I have ever come across. For more variations, let me know. I’ll be posting more as time goes on, including the Tartine baguettes, which combine commercial yeast and sourdough.

Other interesting loaves / breads

  • Semolina sandwich loaf. I like my semolina, clearly. This is my absolute favourite sandwich loaf, and can be made in one day. You don’t need super-fine semolina for this.
  • Flaxseed flour tortillas. You don’t need the flax / linseed for this, and you can try different flours, if you like. This one’s especially quick, and I’ve recently been cooking these on a hot pan on the stove top with some success, using olive oil instead of butter. You can also cook these on a barbecue.
  • Oatmeal struan. This is another excellent (if somewhat dense) sandwich loaf. It’s 100% whole wheat + oats, which makes it healthy and delicious.

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The usual suspects…

  • Plain flour. This usually has a lower protein content than bread flour, which means it has less gluten, and therefore, is better for quick breads and biscuits than for yeast bread. You can use this to lighten up baguettes, as well, though I prefer to use spelt (see below) for this.
  • Bread flour. Good bread flour is hard to find, so when you do, buy in bulk!  This usually has a high gluten content and produces a nicer crumb.  If you can find a slightly darker stone ground version, give it a try–that’s the stuff professional bakers seek out and use in their products.
  • Whole wheat. This is healthier than bread or plain flour, as the bran and germ haven’t been stripped away from the endosperm (the whitish inner part of the wheat berry). This means 100% whole wheat bread is higher in fibre and certain nutrients.  Whole wheat bread is more dense than white bread because bran is sharp and tends to slice through the gluten strands bakers work so hard to build up.
  • Durum flour. Durum flour is wheat flour, but it’s as “hard” (or high in protein) as you can get. It’s also pretty nutritious.  Strangely, it is low in gluten despite its high protein content, so this flour is best used in recipes that call for a combination of durum and bread flours.  If you make a 100% durum loaf, it’ll be pretty dense–both the sharp bran and the lower gluten content will work against you.
  • Rye flour. Rye flour is delicious, and does not actually taste like the caraway-studded stuff you get in the grocery store. It has kind of a sweet, nutty flavour on its own, and is healthier than wheat flour.  It is low in gluten, so it’ll produce a dense, dark bread if used exclusively. I tend to use it in combination with bread flour.
  • Semolina flour. This is yellowish in colour and is basically the endosperm of durum (which makes it the equivalent of white flour for durum). It is low in gluten but is a nice flour to use if you want to create an almost buttery, sweet loaf. I like to use semolina in breakfast or sandwich breads.
  • Spelt flour. Spelt is a really nice, somewhat sweet flour with a low glycemic index. It is actually a relative of wheat, and is a really nice choice for bread baking. You still can’t use this flour exclusively, unless you’re prepared to treat your bread with kid gloves (or settle for less of a rise). It has a higher protein content and higher gluten content than traditional bread flour, but the gluten strands formed when you’re making your bread are more delicate.
  • Oat flour. Oats are very low in gluten and are nice and mild flavour-wise. I’m not sure I’d use too much oat flour in bread–it might be a better addition to cookies / biscuits / scones.

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I’m not an expert on these yet, but I’m learning. Here are a few pointers I’ve learned so far on the protein flours (which should make up the main part of any gluten-free recipe, and primarily contribute to the flavour of gluten-free bread).

  • Sorghum flour.  This is probably my favourite gluten-free flour, simply because it has a mild flavour and can be used as a staple in gluten-free cooking. You can use it as an alternative for teff or millet flour (the former is impossible to get in Australia, the latter is hard to find fresh–more on that later).  There is no gluten, so you have to find a way to mimic the structure provided by gluten when baking.
  • Buckwheat flour. This has a strong taste that some people don’t like, but I think it makes an interesting bread.  Do not use this exclusively or you will have a strong, almost greyish loaf.
  • Millet flour. This has a higher fat content than most gluten-free flours, so grind it fresh if you can. If it’s bitter, it’s rancid, and will ruin your baking efforts.  It is a mild-tasting bread, and can be used by itself or in combination with sorghum or brown rice flour to make a tasty loaf.
  • Almond flour. I like adding almond flour to gluten-free bread because it contributes a moist flavour and consistency to the bread. Plus, almonds are good for you (not that most gluten-free flours aren’t good for you).  I wouldn’t use this exclusively, unless you’re making a tart base. You can swap this in or out for other nut or bean flours, most likely–just give it a try.
  • Brown rice flour. This can be tasty and good for you, but it does make pretty crumbly, somewhat dry bread. This is best used in combination with other flours.
  • Teff flour. I haven’t managed to find this in Australia, but if it does become available, it’s a nice substitute for sorghum. You get a darker, almost pumpernickel-like loaf with teff.  (As an aside, this is the same flour that’s used to make Ethiopian flat bread, so it might make a nice gluten-free sourdough. Chime in if you’ve had a chance to try this!)
  • Maize (corn) flour. No, this is not the same as cornflour, which is essentially just starch.  Maize flour is pale yellow and has a nice flavour to it–think corn tortillas, which are made of masa harina, or corn that is treated with lime and water before milling.

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Caring for your sourdough starter
If you’re not baking anytime soon, you can store your starter in the refrigerator and feed it once a week. To feed, discard some of your starter (about half–you can also use this in pancake or waffle batter for great breakfasts), add equal amounts of flour and water, stir, and put back in the fridge.

If you need to leave it for longer, you can put your starter in the freezer. When you’re ready to use it again, just let it thaw, keep it at room temperature, and feed it daily for a few days in a row before putting it back in the fridge and continuing the weekly feeding schedule.

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Useful links

  • The Fresh Loaf. These folks know more than anyone about bread, and are full of useful advice when disaster strikes.

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