Dan Lepard's Wholemeal Bread
Dan's easy minimally-kneaded wholemeal loaf method seems very effective - and I've produced some excellent loaves by following it. So much for all those years of therapeutic dough pounding!

As Dan himself explains:
How to knead

For years we used to say that it was important to knead in order to develop the gluten, but we now know this isn't entirely true. High-speed dough mixing, the sort used in most commercial bakeries, or the ultra-high-speed Chorleywood process used to produce the well-known sliced brands, shows that the final elasticity and resilience in the dough can be increased by the amount of energy put into it. When dough is mixed relatively slowly by hand on a worktop, even by the most accomplished bakers, the changes that occur will be mostly due to the length of time since the water was first added, and the characteristics of and interactions between the ingredients. So you can knead the dough fast, slow, or even not at all, and end up with similar results.

At Mick Hartley's Bethesda baking weekend we made the same recipe three times, one kneaded for 10 minutes, one kneaded intermittently and one not kneaded at all. We couldn't see a difference between the last two and, curiously, the unkneaded one rose even quicker than the other two!

But a few of you have written to me over the years quite angrily, claiming I'd torn the pleasure of kneading out of breadmaking. No such thing. If you want to knead your dough for 10 minutes on a floury worktop, it won't harm the dough. But it won't help it either, and if you throw in flour to stop it sticking, you'll only get a heavy loaf with all the ingredients out of kilter. Dough is always sticky when first mixed, but leave it for 10 minutes right after you mix in the water or other liquid and it will lose most of its stickiness.

I favour dough kneaded briefly and intermittently on a slightly oiled surface. This way, I don't disturb the overall moisture content of the dough by adding more flour and the oil stops the dough sticking to my hands. First I mix the ingredients together in the bowl, then leave it covered for 10 minutes. This allows the flour time to absorb moisture and activate the proteins and other chemicals found in it. Then I pour a scant tablespoon of oil on to the work surface and rub it out to cover an area about 30cm in diameter. Rub a little oil on your hands and over the top of the dough, then scoop it out of the bowl and on to the work surface. Now lightly fold the dough in by half towards you, press it down with the heel of your hand, lift and rotate the dough an eighth of a turn and repeat the folding and turning.

I do this very quickly, about eight to 10 times, and take no more than 8-10 seconds in total. Then I pick the dough up and flip it back into the bowl, cover it and leave it for 10 minutes. Repeat kneading twice more at 10-minute intervals, then follow the recipe.

How to stretch and fold

As the dough rises, little gas bubbles form and, if left undisturbed, will produce an evenly aerated crumb. But if you want bigger bubbles in the final crumb, or if your dough is soft and flowing and you want to firm it up, you can do this trick. Between 30 minutes and an hour into the first rise (the time after kneading but before shaping), lightly flour or oil the work surface. Stretch and pat the dough out into a rectangle at least double the diameter of the original lump or ball of dough, then fold it in by thirds, first in one direction, then the other, so you end with a thoroughly folded blanket of dough. This will stretch and elongate each emerging bubble in the dough and result in larger bubbles in the final loaf. You'll notice the biggest change in dough made with all white flour, and only a slight change in dough made with wholemeal flour, but I use this trick on almost every dough I make.

How to create steam in the oven

To get a beautifully golden crust with a slight sheen, showing a dramatic tear through the slashes you've made in the dough, calls for an oven filled with steam. Because modern ovens in our home kitchens are built to crisp food, they're made to efficiently remove steam from the oven. Great if you've got a tray of oven chips to bake, but not good for breads and cakes. This two-step trick will maximise the amount of steam. First, keep a small deep tray sitting on the lower shelf while you heat the oven. Two minutes before baking, pour boiling water from the kettle into it. Then keep a spray bottle filled with water handy, the nozzle set for a wide spurt rather than a mist. Put the bread in the oven, push the door shut so only a crack remains, then fire a few spurts of water from the spray bottle against the inner sides of the oven, avoiding the light and the element. Quickly shut the door and leave it for five minutes before repeating the spray bottle trick one more time. It's not perfect, but it pushes the loaf in that direction.

Secrets of success

Flour The better the flour, the better your chances of achieving a good loaf. This is not a job for self-raising. Buy the best bread flour you can. Strong flour contains more gluten, which gives dough the elasticity you need to get it to rise well. Other flours used in this section are wholemeal, 00 pasta flour, rye, spelt and chickpea.

Water Measure it carefully and adjust the warmth depending on the temperature of the flour and your kitchen to achieve a dough temperature of 22C-24C.

Yeast All the recipes here use easy-blend or dry active yeast - a reliable and easy sort to buy for use at home. For fresh yeast, use a piece the same volume as the measure for dry, pressed firmly into the spoon. Before the days of commercially prepared yeast, bakers left a mixture of flour and water to ferment and used this as a natural leaven for their bread. Many home bakers are devoted to this sourdough method.

Salt A little salt gives the bread a great flavour, but, if you reduce it, the recipe will still work but rise faster. And extra salt will slow it down.

Soggy bottom? If the base of your bread is coming out pale and soft, try placing an oven stone or terracotta tile at the bottom of the oven to increase the heat. Put in before switching on the oven and shovel the dough directly on to it.

Cook and keep Stored bread needs to breathe - unless, that is, you are freezing it, in which case it needs to be well sealed to retain its moisture.

Putting my boffin hat on for a moment, it's good to remember that baking involves ingredients getting all chemical with each other. Flour made from wheat contains a very complex mixture of chemicals. Some help to make light, aerated bread; some really don't. All wheat flour contains a naturally occurring chemical called glutathione in the starch, which is used by the seed as it sprouts and grows into a plant. But when we try to bake with wheat flour, the same chemical also stops some of that elastic stretchiness we want in the dough. If you use all white flour, the effect of this chemical isn't so noticeable. But change to wholemeal flour, which contains much less starch, and the effect can cause a heavy loaf.

Vitamin C has a way of stopping this chemical causing mischief. It's one of the few additives allowed in organic baking by the Soil Association, and even the protective French baking laws approve of a little being added. You only need a smidgeon, so a half or even a quarter of a vitamin tablet will do, but it will help to make your bread light.

Dan Lepard's Wholemeal Bread
bread veg

I used Chapati flour which also seems to make an effective bread flour, and this exact method has also worked perfectly for me with strong white flour.
If you like you can throw some sunflower seeds into the mix on the last knead, and scatter some on top of the dough when you lay it in the tin.

Makes one large loaf

Ingredients
Method
Scald a mixing bowl with boiling water, wipe it dry, then add the warm water, yeast and sugar. Or just mix them in a jug like a normal person. Stir well, then add the vitamin C, flour and salt, and stir well again. Pour in the melted butter and squidge the lot together to work the fat through the dough. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave for 10 minutes.

Give the dough three light kneads over 30 minutes (every 10 minutes), then cover and leave for 15 minutes.

Lightly flour the work surface, roll the dough into a rectangle, roll up tightly and place seam-side down in a buttered and floured 2lb loaf tin. Cover the tin with a tea towel and leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in height (about 1½ hours).

Heat the oven to at least 220C (200C fan-assisted), though if you can get it to 240C (220C fan-assisted), even better. Steam the oven if you like.

Dust flour over the dough with a tea strainer, cut the loaf down the middle with a serrated knife if you can be bothered, and bake for 20 minutes 15 for a half-sized loaf. Reduce the heat to 200C (180C fan-assisted) and bake for a further 20-25 minutes until dark golden brown, remove from the oven and tin, and cool on a wire rack.
Foolproof. And I know. I've tried.

Variation

Spelt and ale loaf

Bring 300ml dark ale or porter to the boil in a saucepan (don't let it boil over) and simmer for a minute or so to drive off the alcohol, which could slow down or even stop the yeast. Pour the ale into a jug, leave until warm, then top up to 300ml with warm water. Make the dough as above, replacing the water with the ale, and the wholemeal with spelt flour. The malt in the ale makes the dough work very quickly, so bake it as soon as it's barely doubled in height, even after an hour, as the spelt dough will collapse if left too long.
Very good bread - surprisingly light and moist, with a touch of sourness.
I used Theakston's Old Peculiar which has the advantage of coming in a 500ml bottle, meaning you get to drink the spare 200ml. My dough rose to fill the double-sized loaf tin in about 45 minutes.