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The best books on Baking Bread

recommended by Chris Young

Knead to Know: the Real Bread Starter by Chris Young & Real Bread Campaign

Knead to Know: the Real Bread Starter
by Chris Young & Real Bread Campaign

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All you need to make bread is flour, water and salt. It's knowledge, skill and time that turns those basic ingredients into the delicious staple we call bread. Chris Young, coordinator of the UK's Real Bread Campaign and editor of True Loaf magazine, recommends the best books for baking bread—and explains why 'real bread' is the only bread we should be eating. 

Interview by Sophie Roell

Knead to Know: the Real Bread Starter by Chris Young & Real Bread Campaign

Knead to Know: the Real Bread Starter
by Chris Young & Real Bread Campaign

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You’ve chosen books for us on bread: do you already have to be experienced at baking bread to use them or are they also good for beginners?

The books I’ve chosen are a bit of a spread but the recipes, in most cases, are just flour, water, yeast and salt, so anyone can make bread. I’ve shared bread-making skills with five-year-olds who’ve got the hang of it. It’s the amazing alchemy of boring ingredients. An entire world of real bread is open to you with just those three or four basic ingredients. The more knowledge and more skill you gain, the greater the variety you can magic up. These recipe books variously do that.

What is the difference between ‘real bread’ and other kinds of bread?

At the Real Bread Campaign we define real bread simply as bread made without additives. It sounds really easy, and it is really easy, but unfortunately it rules out something like—depending on whose statistics you believe—95 to 98% of what is sold as ‘bread’ in the UK. In other countries as well, a lot of additives are used. We just say, ‘if it’s got an additive in it, it’s not bread.’

Whenever I’ve tried to bake bread myself it’s ended up quite brick-like. Is that a common problem?

Having said it’s child’s play to bake bread, it’s also a bit like learning to ride a bike. At first, it can be a bit of a challenge, but once you get the hang of it you think, ‘How was I ever unable to do this?’

But yes, especially if you’re slavishly following—because why wouldn’t you?—certain recipes that say, ‘You must do this, and you mustn’t do that, and then leave it to prove for 30 minutes’ you wouldn’t necessarily think, ‘Hang on a second, this dough hasn’t risen, I need to leave it a bit longer.’ It can be tricky to follow a recipe if you’re not allowing for the fact that bread is a natural thing and yeast is a living organism. You wouldn’t necessarily know how to adjust the ingredients or realise that the yeast isn’t thriving as it should be. Perhaps the recipe hasn’t accounted for the difference in temperature. That will make a huge difference in how fast yeast works.

Let’s go through these books you’ve chosen so we can all learn how to bake bread. The first is called The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard and the subtitle on the copy I’ve got says it’s “the book that started a baking revolution.” Tell me a bit about the book and the revolution it’s referring to.

I put the books in chronological order in terms of when they came into my life. When I first got Dan Lepard’s book, I was very passionate about food. I always have been, but over the years I became interested in more than just, ‘Oh let’s go and find some great flavour sensations and try something I’ve never tried before.’ It became less about taste and satisfaction for myself and more about the stories behind how food is made. Dan’s book was a real eye-opener for me because I didn’t know an awful lot about bread when I picked it up. It was the photos that drew me in at first: Dan is a photographer. I thought, ‘This looks great!’

“It’s a bit like learning to ride a bike. At first, it can be a bit of a challenge, but once you get the hang of it you think, ‘How was I ever unable to do this?’”

But then I started flicking through it in the bookshop and thought, ‘Wow, this is really different.’ It was the first book I’d come across that said you could get a world of bread from three or four ingredients—rather than saying, ‘Here’s a basic dough that you make in half an hour. If you want a different bread you throw in some cheese or some herbs or some chilli or you tie it in a knot.’ It was the first book I came across that didn’t pretend that the same dough shaped in three different ways is three different types of bread.

What it’s about is using different techniques to transform the same ingredients into fundamentally different breads. Then you can also look at different flours to change the bread that you’re making even more fundamentally. The general impression I was left with was, ‘Wow! Making bread isn’t just about extra ingredients. It’s about skill and knowledge and time.’

This book was also the first time I’d seen anyone challenge the received wisdom that to make bread you must add sugar to yeast and water, and you must put dough somewhere warm to rise, and so on. That certainly was my personal experience growing up, the few times I did make bread and in the recipes that I had seen over the years.

Is that not true?

You can make bread that way, but none of it is strictly true. You certainly don’t need to add sugar to any loaf unless you’re using it for a specific characteristic of the bread—say, you’re making brioche or another sort of sweetened, enriched dough. Then you’re using sugar for the taste. But if you’re just using sugar because you think that the yeast needs to feed, it absolutely does not. Everything yeast needs is in the flour itself. Yeast is perfectly set up to send enzymes into the flour to break starch down into simple sugars that it then feeds on. In fact, if you put too much sugar into a dough, the yeast can actually struggle because that’s not how it works. (There are special, osmotolerant yeasts for sugary doughs).

When it comes to temperature, the 20th-century tradition of home baking particularly was that you have to put the dough in a warm place. Back as a kid, it was always to put it in the airing cupboard. That’s not necessary either. You can actually prove dough in a fridge, and a lot of professional bakeries now have what’s called a retarder: they put dough in the fridge to ferment slowly overnight.

Also, this idea that you have to rush the whole process into half an hour or an hour—again, that’s probably not the best way of making bread.

What kind of yeast should I be using to bake bread? It shouldn’t be the dry, packaged type, I presume.

It depends on the brand. Fresh baker’s yeast is just one type of yeast. It’s been cultured, it’s been purified, so you get a very consistent result and it works pretty quickly, depending on how much of it you use.

Traditional, dried active yeast doesn’t have additives but it’s almost impossible to buy on the shelf these days. I can’t remember the last time I found it. When the Real Bread Campaign started, there were two brands that you could buy without additives; one has disappeared altogether because they stopped making it, and the other one has switched over to putting additives in. Now most of the quick, fast-acting yeasts have got additives in them, which basically pushes outside our definition of ‘real bread’.

Let’s go on to the next book, which is Bread Matters: Why and How to Make Your Own by Andrew Whitley. Tell me about this book and why it’s so good if you’re interested in baking bread.

This was the book that changed my life. I was very interested in food, as I said, and had a passing interest in bread. Dan’s book had awoken that in me, but it was pretty low level. I really disliked my job at the time and took a week off to have a think about my life. I went on a course at Schumacher College, and the guy running it was Andrew Whitley, the author of this book.

By the end of the week, I was like, ‘Oh my God! I didn’t know that they were doing that to my loaf.’ I asked Andrew if there was anything I could do. By that point, I had a bit of background in PR and marketing so I asked, ‘Is there any way I can, in my simple way, help spread this message?’ Andrew suggested that I should chat to a charity called Sustain, because the following week they were launching a thing called the Real Bread Campaign, which was about putting into practice a lot of what he was saying in the book.

“One of his mantras is ‘the wetter the better’—you’ll probably get a better result the more water you have in your dough.”

A few months later Sustain was asking for a volunteer so I went along in my lunch break. They said, ‘Yes, alright, come and volunteer.’ So I went back to my office, quit my job and started volunteering a month or so later. I’ve been here ever since.

The thing about Andrew’s book is that it’s more than just a bunch of recipes. People have taken it on as a manifesto, really, of what can be done better. It says, ‘This is what’s wrong and this is what we can do to make a difference.’ Initially it was just about changing Britain’s loaf life, but it has become a worldwide thing. I’ve heard people refer to Bread Matters as the Bible.

Can you give an example from the book of something that’s wrong and could be done better?

One of the things that the book alerted people to is the fact that there are certain additives that can be used in loaves that don’t have to be declared on labels. So there we are, thinking that we’re buying a loaf with fewer additives—or even no additives at all—and it turns out that because of (what we see as) loopholes in the law, they have got lots of additives chucked into them. Call an additive a ‘processing aid’ and the manufacturer is under no obligation to declare it.

More generally, a lot of loaves—for example, supermarket in-store bakery loaves—are sold without ingredients listed at all. That’s perfectly legal. But there you are, going into a supermarket bakery and seeing a baguette that’s supposedly freshly baked and you think, ‘I’m here, it’s convenient, it’s possibly cheaper than the local bakery, what’s the difference?’ What you’re not being allowed to see is the fact that that loaf might have a load of additives in it and it might have been made at some point in the distant past. Some loaves are made overseas, in France for example, and then frozen or chilled and re-baked in the store. So you’re getting a rebaked loaf full of additives: that’s the price you’re paying for the supposedly low price at the till. So it’s also about encouraging people to ask questions when they go into a bakery.

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Then, on the home baking front, Andrew does some myth-busting. Kicking out sugar I’ve already mentioned, but another one that I used to do is if you’ve got a dough you think is a bit wet and sticky, you start adding more flour to make it easier to handle. He says that while that might make it easier for you in the short term, it isn’t actually better for the bread. One of his mantras is ‘the wetter the better’—you’ll probably get a better result the more water you have in your dough.

Perhaps the most important ingredient for Andrew is time. Time is what allows yeast, and particularly a sourdough starter, to work its magic. Over time, not only do compounds develop that allow bread to taste and smell fantastic, but there are also potential health benefits. So that’s a key message that ‘Whitley-ites’ have taken on, the importance of time.

Generally, do you advocate baking the bread at home rather than buying it?

As long as it’s real bread, it doesn’t matter. We either encourage people to buy additive-free loaves or to bake bread at home. If you bake it at home, that’s fantastic; it’s a great way of taking control over the food you eat and feeding your families. If you buy a loaf, especially from a small independent bakery, you’ll be helping to support a local business that supports more jobs per loaf, helps to keep your high street alive, and keeps money circulating in the local economy. It might even be a hub, in some cases, for the local community. That’s better than having a mobile phone or vape shop or a shop sitting empty.

Do independent bakeries tend to make real bread then?

It varies, and that’s one of the challenges that we’re constantly trying to tackle at the Real Bread Campaign. We’re actually calling for an ‘Honest Crust Act’ of improved loaf labelling and marketing legislation. For example, on the high street, there may be one bakery that bakes genuinely fresh, real bread from scratch. They won’t use additives and when they say the bread is fresh, it’ll be freshly baked that day. If it’s a sourdough, it’ll have just been made with a live sourdough starter culture.

Unfortunately, there are other bakeries that, quite legally, might say ‘fresh bread baked daily.’ They might say sourdough. They might talk about wholegrain or artisan or craft bread, but actually what they’re selling is nothing of the sort. They’ll be using additives and techniques that no genuine artisan baker would use. In some cases, instead of crafting bread, they will actually be selling products that have been made in a factory elsewhere and either baking or re-baking them on site. So they are saying all sorts of things that we as shoppers can’t necessarily trust. That’s why we’ve been campaigning for a change in the law for the past decade.

Let’s go on to English Bread and Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David, whose books are frequently recommended on our site. Tell me about her book on baking bread and why it’s interesting.

Even though the first book that brought me into this was Dan Lepard’s, Elizabeth David was raising some of these issues back in 1977. Going back to at least the 1800s, there had been people campaigning for better bread by reducing or kicking out additives. Even The Daily Mail ran a campaign in the early 1900s about getting more wholemeal flour into bread to make it healthier than nutritionally impoverished white bread.

Elizabeth David took a look at loaves and said, ‘All those times you thought you were eating traditional loaves, they were probably quite modern. There is a better way of doing it. There are better breads to be made.’ She was perhaps the most prominent champion for real bread in Britain during the depths of the sliced white years.

You mentioned in your email that it’s also a fascinating historical guide. Tell me more.

Elizabeth David looks at the history of breadmaking in Britain, particularly in England. She writes about how things were made and the differences between, for example, stone milling by traditional methods and roller milling. Back then, people didn’t necessarily realise that there were different ways of milling, and I would argue that most of us still don’t know. Forty years on, sadly, we’re still putting out a lot of the same messages in the current Real Bread Campaign. We have to remind people that ‘not all loaves are created equal’ and that often there is a better way of doing things. But she was one of the first within my lifetime who was saying ‘Here are some of the ways that you can do it better.’ The book is a mine of variations on classic English bread recipes.

In terms of the history, who invented bread? Where did the tradition start?

That is very much open to debate. Breadmaking goes back so far that no one quite knows. It was thought that the first leavened bread came about in Egypt and the Levantine region about 10,000 years ago. But a couple of years back, someone found fragments of a bread-like substance—which had bubbles in it to make them think it might have been leavened in some way—that predates that.

Then there are points in history that we know more about. For example, commercial yeast—the yeast that most bread is made with now—was a mid-19th century invention.

“We’ve been campaigning for a change in the law for the past decade”

The word ‘tradition’ or ‘traditional’ is quite a tricky one when it comes to bread. If you say, ‘this is traditional’ there’s a tendency to think that’s the way it’s always been, or that it’s a very long established thing, and therefore better and more trustworthy. If you think about the baguette in France, it’s as if it’s been made since prehistory. Actually, it wasn’t even really possible to make a loaf of that type until you had highly-refined wheat flour and a roller milling process that was invented in Austro-Hungary in the mid-19th century. You also need compressed yeast to make the dough rise quickly and steam-fired ovens. The French baguette dates from the late 19th, very early 20th century. It doesn’t go back as far as we may think.

Then there’s the question of what is traditional? Some people say it’s a couple of generations, maybe two to three. By that definition, the Chorleywood, white-sliced loaf is traditional.

Okay, let’s talk about the next book on your list, which is Modernist Bread. This book is massive isn’t it, five volumes or so?

It’s absolutely mind-blowing. The book is not exclusively the work of one guy, Nathan Myhrvold, but he was the driving force behind it. He’s an absolute polymath. He used to be Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, he’s a photographer, he’s got PhDs and all sorts of qualifications in different fields. So he’s a scientist and he’s an artist and he’s philosopher, he’s a really interesting guy.

Perhaps you need to be all those things to make bread . . .

It seems he’s absolutely obsessional about anything he does, and he goes into absolutely minute, nerdy detail on baking bread. So what he did is really rip apart every assumption that was out there by going, ‘Right. Let’s go back to scratch and let’s try this out. Let’s test this to destruction.’ So along with Francesco Migoya and a whole team at the Modernist Lab, they would do experiments. For example, there’s this idea that wholemeal loaves don’t rise as well because the bran somehow cuts through or interferes with the formation of gluten. So what they did was say, ‘OK, if it’s about something cutting, let’s use white flour and throw a load of glass powder in there—because surely that’s going to interfere with the structure. If anything is going to cut gluten strands in half it’s going to be powdered glass.’ And they found that the bread rose pretty well.

Another example is overproved dough. The conventional wisdom is that if dough is overproved you can’t rescue it, it’s done for. They went through about 13 or 14 different goes of letting dough rise all the way up and collapse in a heap and then reworking and reshaping it and letting it go again.

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So they did all sorts of experiments like that and found out that lots of things that we previously thought to be ‘hard facts’ weren’t true.

The book is 2,642 pages long and has more than a thousand recipes. It uses something like over a kilo of ink. The breadth, depth and sheer obsession is mind-blowing.

And do you ever use this book to bake bread?

I wish I owned it. It costs about 400 quid. I’ve never quite justified myself spending that on a book, and certainly working for a small charity there’s no way we can get it. I have flicked through it at the tables of people who are fortunate enough to own it. I also spent an evening chatting with the authors.

In terms of the additives that you’re so against: aren’t they necessary, to some extent, to make the bread and keep it fresh?

By definition, no additive is necessary in making bread. That’s easily proven by the fact that you can take flour, water and salt and make bread. You can see that additives might serve a technical function, but as we see it, that function tends to serve the needs of the industrial loaf fabricators and not necessarily anyone or anything else.

They throw in a preservative to prolong the life of a loaf so it can stay on a supermarket shelf longer. They say it’s against food waste, but actually pretty much the most wasted food in this country is the white sliced loaf. So it’s obviously not doing a very good job, this calcium propionate they’re spraying on all their loaves.

Perhaps they slip in an additive to make the dough relax so it can better go through the stresses of the industrial loaf fabrication process. or maybe one to help the flour absorb more water. They may serve a technical function, but they’re not necessarily the best for us.

“The word ‘tradition’ or ‘traditional’ is quite a tricky one when it comes to bread.”

There are also quite a few questions hanging over certain additives, about what they might be doing to us. There was one study recently questioning a possible link between calcium propionate and diabetes, and there have been others linking it with hyperactivity in children.

While individually every additive has been tested and declared safe—albeit Americans are more pragmatic and say they are ‘generally recognized’ as safe—history is littered with additives that one day were considered to be safe and vouchsafed for by the industrial food complex and the next day, ‘Oh, hang on a second, that one causes cancer.’ Or there have been enough questions hanging over an ingredient for them to say, ‘Actually, we’re going to withdraw that.’

What can I do to make a loaf last, though? Say I’ve created this beautiful loaf at the weekend, but I don’t have time the rest of the week to bake bread. It’s going to go hard within a day or two, isn’t it?

Not necessarily. Again, not all loaves are created equal. There are ways of making bread at home that will last longer and also of a bakery baking bread that will last longer. Genuine sourdough will stay softer for longer and also the sourdough starter you’re using has natural preservative abilities. Using a bit more water, again, will help the loaf stay softer. A little bit of oil can also help. A very simple option is to slice your bread and put it in the freezer, taking pieces out when you need them.

You can go into a supermarket and buy a loaf with additives that will go stale or mouldy quicker than anything you bake at home. It’s not necessarily the case that a bought loaf with additives will be good for longer than a loaf of real bread.

I love the fact that in your email to me, you mentioned owning 90-100 bread books. You really are an expert on books about baking bread.

I certainly have bought or been given quite a few bread books over the years. Some of them are variations on a theme. Even though it was quite hard to narrow it down to five books, I probably knocked out about half of them just because, ‘Yes, this is another book which is just about throwing in handfuls of cheese or herbs.’ I picked the ones that got a bit more fundamental about bread making and the knowledge behind it. These are more than just lifestyle books. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for basic bread baking books, because I’d love to see more people baking, but I picked ones that went into a bit more detail.

Lastly, you’ve chosen a book called The Staffordshire Oatcake: A History by Pamela Sambrook. Does a Staffordshire oatcake qualify as bread?

If made with yeast or sourdough starter, and without additives, absolutely, yes. The ‘Tunstall tortilla,’ as it’s sometimes known, is a traditional flatbread of Britain. I’d love to see more of them being made, instead of vacuum-packed tortillas laced with all sorts of preservatives and other additives that you find on supermarket shelves. It’s delicious and very healthy.

Tell me what the Staffordshire oatcake/Tunstall tortilla is, for people—including me—who’ve never really heard of it.

Staffordshire oatcakes are made using oatmeal, typically mixed with some flour, often wholemeal flour, and then either water or milk. It was originally leavened/raised with yeast in some form or other, be that a live starter culture/sourdough starter or balm from brewing or baker’s yeast. You make a thick batter of it, let it ferment and bubble up and then you spread it on a griddle or a baxton (a bakestone) and you make a pancake that’s roughly eight to nine inches across.

Then you can eat it with anything or fill it with anything. I’m an evangelist for oatcakes. They’re from my home county, which is probably why I love them so much, because I’ve got fond childhood memories. Before you could buy them in supermarkets, anytime my dad happened to be in north Staffordshire, he’d bring some home for me.

And how do you like eating them?

These days it’s just with butter, but as a kid I would wrap them up with bacon and eggs or put a sausage inside or I’d have them with jam and cream. You can use them in the same way you’d use a crumpet or the same way you use a tortilla or lavash for something savoury.

Interview by Sophie Roell

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Chris Young

Chris Young has coordinated the Real Bread Campaign since March 2009.  He is the author of the books Slow Dough: Real Bread and Knead to Know, plus numerous bready reports, and editor of True Loaf magazine. From 2014-18 he also coordinated the London Food Link network. Chris has pulled on his judge’s wig for BOOM Awards, The Cateys, The Great Taste Awards, The Scottish Bread Championships and The World Bread Awards. In 2017, The School of Artisan Food honoured Chris with its first Fellowship.

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Chris Young

Chris Young has coordinated the Real Bread Campaign since March 2009.  He is the author of the books Slow Dough: Real Bread and Knead to Know, plus numerous bready reports, and editor of True Loaf magazine. From 2014-18 he also coordinated the London Food Link network. Chris has pulled on his judge’s wig for BOOM Awards, The Cateys, The Great Taste Awards, The Scottish Bread Championships and The World Bread Awards. In 2017, The School of Artisan Food honoured Chris with its first Fellowship.