About a year ago, I started to learn how to make bread. I can’t say exactly why I started—I think it was simply curiosity. I like exploring food, and I didn’t have a great way to explore bread in my neighborhood so I figured I would make it myself. The other reason is that Alex really loves bread and we were both feeling frustrated with the lack of access and availability of truly great bread.
I’ve learned a lot along the way, not just about the practical process of making bread, but about creativity and patience and food and life in general. I’ve told many people it’s a great hobby for me—it gets me out of my head and makes me more aware of my surroundings, more attuned to time and temperature throughout the day. I’ve also learned a lot about bread itself of course—it’s a bit shocking how little I really knew about such an important food.
In the interest of record keeping and as a resource for others who might be curious to explore bread themselves, this post is a trail of breadcrumbs (if you will) for what I did to learn the practical skills involved in making bread (and specifically sourdough). As with any learning, the specific steps and resources here are not what’s most important—what matters most is following your own curiosity and trying again when an experiment or practice doesn’t turn out. But hopefully this serves as a starting point if you’re not sure where to start!
So, here we go!
Books & YouTube
My journey really started with reading In Search of the Perfect Loaf. This book is a combination of stories about exploring bread and hands on recipes for making your own. It gives a great sense of the current state of bread around the world and the history of bread. I’d recommend reading this to get inspired and pick up on some key background knowledge about bread baking.
My next step was picking up three hands on practical bread books (basically recipe books, but it’s hard to call books about bread recipe books because they’re more about techniques and skills than recipes). I picked up Flour Water Salt Yeast, Tartine Bread, and The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
Flour Water Salt Yeast (or FWSY to the initiated) is absolutely 100% where I would recommend starting and I would recommend working through the book in order from section to section. Ken Forkish does an excellent job explaining the key principles in making great bread and builds those skills sequentially through the order of the breads in the book. This means you’ll avoid diving into a full on sourdough right away which involves many more skills and you’ll get the feeling of success earlier in the process. I made each bread two or three times before moving on to the next. I also didn’t make all of the breads, there are sections with somewhat similar recipes so once I felt confident with a section in general I moved on to the next one. As a bonus, the pizza section in the back of the book will show you how to make absolutely amazing pizza at home. He has another book all about pizza, but this is a good way to get started.
Tartine Bread is the classic book that lead to the proliferation of the current modern bread making methods. It follows pretty closely the FWSY method, but with a few detailed adjustments and sub-skills mixed in to refine and tighten up the approach. Once you’ve learned the basic method in FWSY, this book helps you start to experiment with each step and realize there isn’t one right way to do it, and you can find adjustments that work for your style, kitchen, flour, and preferences. I’d recommend watching a few videos of people on YouTube doing the Tartine technique because some of the instructions are hard to follow from just reading it. For any step in the process, you can typically find a video of someone demonstrating the technique on YouTube which is very instructive.
There is a huge bread community on Instagram, and they are all friendly and generous, sharing their recipes and tips in comments, posting tons of videos of their process, and generally being excited about everyone’s bread. Following a bunch of Instagram bread feeds will help you pick up on even more adjustments or alternatives you can make to the process and it really shows you that again there isn’t one right method. There are way too many great bread accounts on Instagram to name them all, but a few of my favorites are Blondie and Rye, Full Proof Baking, Sourdough School, and of course you can follow mine as well :)
It took at least six months of regular practice for me to work up to a true sourdough that I was really proud of. There were great loaves, complete duds, lots of mistakes, and many days of a messy flour-covered kitchen. I went through a few weeks of baking twice a week, a few weeks of taking a break from it, and back to regular baking again. Bread making is a skill, and each step in the process takes specific practice just like learning a musical instrument or a foreign language. Again, the key is to follow your curiosity, take a break when something doesn’t work out, take some notes, and try again with another experiment based on what happened.
And, there was a tricky moment where I finally felt confident with a classic country loaf recipe, but I was terrified to try something new like add different ingredients or a new flour blend. I had finally achieved some good bread and it was scary to think I’d have a dud loaf again and much more comfortable to just do what I had finally figured out how to do. My advice when you get to this point is to take the jump and try it—even if it doesn’t work it’s super rewarding to see what happens and it’s the only way to go even further with your bread making skills.
If you have questions or suggestions about bread find me on Twitter, Instagram, or my email over on the about page!
Published 19 August 2018
Kevin McGillivray is a web developer, writer, and teacher from Wisconsin. He writes about creativity, mindfulness, code, and tea.