I used to spend hours on sites looking up ways to make the perfect loaf and how to make it fluffier and lighter and more like the bread I bought at the supermarket. My first few loaves could have been used as alternatives for bricks and I spent most baking sessions in tears while my father used the baked loaves as a doorstop.
But things changed when I took a bread course in Italy in 2011. I learnt two life changing things in that kitchen in Ponte e Mariano.
The first was patience and the second was preparation.
Bread making is not quick, it is very dirty and you will have to work for that loaf. If you're in a rush or eager to get it over with, it just won't be the same. People can call it love or patience or virtue but it boils down to one thing: don't rush it. And the easiest way to not rush is to be prepared.
So here are my basic tips to making sure your bread rises every time.
1// The recipe is important
Read that sucker like your life depends on it. Make sure you know what exactly is going into your loaf, how much of it and have it at your fingertips. This will stop you from getting flustered and grabbing wildly around for something mid-knead.
2// Close that door, your horse is bolting
Have a sink of warm soapy water ready for when you need to scrub your hands or your tools down quickly. This will stop dough getting stuck to the taps, the plug, the doors and the walls.
Seriously, it's a messy business so make sure you have an easy way to clean up. Also, if your utensils soak in the water while you knead, you'll find half of the washing up is done before you've even started!
3// Let it rise and it will shine
It seems stupidly obvious but please just let your dough rise in peace. Checking up on it too often is like being woken up several times during a nap. It's unpleasant and your dough will hate you. Don't be too afraid of over-proving something, just let it run it's course and practice that patience we were talking about. Alternatively, do something that is all consuming in the mean time so you do not have the opportunity to pester your dough.
4// Bun in the oven
I have seen so many people open and close their ovens continuously as if it'll make the bread cook quicker. You're actually damaging the chance of a perfect loaf. Leave it be. Use that new found patience to walk away and let the oven do the work for you. There is a period during the bake (fairly early on) when you do not want your bread to be exposed to changing temperatures. Every time you open that door, you're essentially cooling the oven and your bread down. Don't be that person.
5// High expectations will be the death of you
If you expect your bread to be perfect every time then you're only letting yourself down in the long run. Perfect bread is actually a trick and no one really gets it 100% right all the time or even at all. If your bread didn't form a perfect round then call it rustic and be done with it. If your bread is a little doughy, let people rip chunks off instead of cutting it and provide plenty of cheese.
If you've made a loaf of bread from scratch then you need a pat on the back instead of putting yourself down and you need to just acknowledge that amazing little bundle of carbs you created.
I hope this helps a little. They're more practical tips than tips for the actual making process.
Making bread is a wonderful thing so the main thing to remember is to enjoy it and make the most of your time with that lump of dough.