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Nancy B’s Guide to the Perfect… Bread

Whether you’re baking a crusty loaf or deliciously soft buns, it’s easy to achieve the perfect dough with Bake Off 2014 winner Nancy B’s five top bread-making tips.

There’s nothing more comforting, inviting and homely than the smell of freshly baked bread, so it’s no wonder more people are trying their hand at it.

The standard ingredients are strong bread flour, yeast, salt and water. But there are many variations on the basic bread recipe: some include oil, a little soft butter or lard; others call for milk instead of water; while certain recipes require honey or sugar.

But it’s not just about the ingredients. The secret to the perfect bread also lies in the technique you use. Here are just five of my top tips for a tip-top loaf:

Ingredient: Bottled Water

I live in the north of England and our water is described as ‘very hard’. It also has added fluoride. As a result, there are many dissolved minerals in the drinking water, which can slow down fermentation by tightening the gluten. This can affect dough conditioning and yeast action. My favourite bread ingredient nowadays is bottled water, which I find gives me a better rise.

Style: Fit for a Bakery

There’s so much you can do with a batch of freshly baked bread buns: fill them with pulled pork, burgers, sausages, cold meats, cheese, salad… the list goes on. And to make your buns look neat and uniform, all it takes is a little attention to detail. First, weigh your batch of proved dough and – before cutting and shaping – decide how many buns you’re going to make. Then weigh each piece of dough before shaping. Out of a 500g bread-flour mix I would normally expect to yield 12 buns, so the weight of each needs to be around 70g.

Inspiration: Pizza Party

I often involve the grandchildren in bread making. I just make a batch of standard bread dough, divide it up, and leave them to experiment. Some handle the dough better than others, so one tip is to shape or roll it out on a floured tea towel. Then they can roll or shape the dough in one direction, spin around the tea towel, and repeat until a circle is formed. The dough can then be removed, without it sticking to the worktop, and easily transferred to a baking sheet. Once that’s done, the children spread on the tomato base and decorate with chopped peppers, pepperoni (or cold, cooked sausage), cheese and any other suitable oddments sitting in my fridge.

Common Problem: Under- or Over-Proving

If your dough has been ‘under-proved’ it will split in the oven and seem to burst out in one direction. But it’s not the end of the world. Though it may look a bit odd, at least your bread will still taste fabulous. Just make a note of how long you allowed it to prove and add another 10 minutes next time.

If your bread has been ‘over-proved’ you’ll discover, even before it goes into the oven, that your dough is no longer springy – and instead resembles an aged balloon. The yeast will have worked its magic but then become exhausted and collapsed. The previously trapped air is then able to escape. If you bake this loaf it will not rise and will be hard, dense and quite unpleasant. If you inadvertently over-prove your dough: knead it again and reshape. It may not return to its former glory but the result will be more successful.

New twist on a retro classic: Chia-Seed Buns

So, you have decided to make 12 fabulous, evenly sized bread buns. They have been lovingly weighed, shaped and placed on your baking sheet, and proved beautifully. Now try this as a presentation idea: using a plastic spray bottle, mist your buns with water then sprinkle over a coating of black Chia seeds, before popping them into a preheated oven to bake. As well as being an attractive finish to your bread, Chia seeds are also high in Omega 3, fibre and protein – and packed with vitamins and minerals. They are my latest superfood favourite and I’m including them in recipes wherever appropriate.

@nancybbakes won Great British Bake Off 2014. Since then she’s travelled from Cornwall to The Shetland Isles, baking and entertaining fans.

Learn more about her food and her travels on her blog.