Chef Russell Brown

The Good Loaf: Russell Brown on the joys of breadmaking

by Great British Chefs 14 January 2015

Chef Russell Brown shares his best advice for breadmaking, with links to three of his ultimate bread recipes.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Do you want to start off by talking us through the three bread recipes you have shared with Great British Chefs…

RB: Well, there’s the Viennese loaf, which comes into the category of an enriched dough, so it’s dough that’s got a higher amount of eggs and butter in it than a standard dough. It is light and airy but because of that extra richness - from the butter and eggs - it colours very quickly when you toast it, so you get a nice caramelisation on the surface but still soft and fluffy.

And the rye bread?

The rye bread is a starter-based dough, so you’re making a starter 24 hours ahead of time. And what it does is extend the fermentation process beyond a direct yeasted bread, which gives you a better flavour. That’s the idea behind that. It’s a blend of flours in that recipe to produce a rye bread that is distinctively rye but not one of those really heavy solid rye breads. It’s what we use on the salt beef and rye sandwich. You get a really good crust on it but it’s a quite a light textured loaf.

And then there’s the gluten-free soda bread?

So this was a soda bread, so not a leavened bread in the traditional sense or a chemically risen bread, but one that we have adapted from our standard recipe to give us a gluten-free option. We just use a Dove Farm white gluten-free bread flour. We do make sure it’s got gluten-free oats in there as well. And there’s some eggs in there - which aren’t in our traditional soda bread recipe - which helps the binding of the dough. Because it is not a leavened bread it is a very quick bread - you could start making it while you are prepping the vegetables and have it ready to go with dinner.

So tell us about the process for making bread at Sienna?

We tend to alternate: we tend to make white one day, of some description, and brown the following day, of some description. We make bread in the morning so it’s ready to come out of the oven for lunch. Things like the rye bread, we’re putting a starter on for that this morning for tomorrow. So you make the starter that sits in the fridge for 24 hours and then you incorporate that into the dough the following day.

And do you find the young chefs you employ come in with a good knowledge of making bread or is it something that you have to pass down?

I think it’s definitely something that you have to pass down and it’s something that people just have to get a feel for. You know, I would imagine that this applies to so many kitchens: we don’t have the ideal circumstances to make bread in; we don’t have the proving cabinets or retarders or anything like that. So it’s very much learning the look and the feel of the bread so that you can judge how long it is going to take to prove. You know, "have I got time to cook my crème brûlées before the bread is ready to go in the oven? Do I need to put my bread out in the restaurant on top of the coffee machine so it proves a bit quicker because it’s freaking cold in the kitchen!"

When we have someone new start I tend to take the bread back to basics. We start with just the basic yeasted white bread and the wholemeal soda. We make these for a couple of weeks until the new chef starts to get the feel of the doughs and then you add to the repertoire.

What are the signs of a bad or inexperienced baker? How do you tell when something has been done by someone who doesn’t have that feel?

I think probably when people are making bread early on the tendency is to under prove bread. People don’t have the confidence to push it far enough, and therefore you are getting breads that are maybe slightly denser than they should be.

And I think people when they first start making bread, if you are looking at doughs that are quite wet, the tendency is always to add more flour, whether it’s when you’re kneading or when you’re shaping, but that’s changing the recipe and you will end up with the dough that is heavier than it should be.

I think probably when people are making bread early on the tendency is to under prove bread. People don’t have the confidence to push it far enough.

It’s interesting because it’s both a science and an art, isn’t it?

Yeah, I think with the right set-up you can probably eliminate a lot of the variables. You know, if you look at having temperature controls and water supply, proving cabinets and retarders, things like that. But that’s not how most kitchens work.

Why do you think that people are so scared of making their own bread at home?

I honestly don’t know. Whether it’s a perception that bread takes lots of time… whereas the actual work of making bread is relatively low – the time is just the proving and so on. It’s perhaps about building into a workflow at home, like you have to in the kitchen. You make your dough, get your dough proving then you go off to do the shopping or whatever and come back and shape your bread when the dough is proved.

And I guess it is practice as well - once you make one loaf you can look at ways to improve it for the next time?

Yeah, and there are some great bakery courses around and books as well.

What books did you consult when you were learning?

I read Dan Lepard, Richard Bertinet, I read a couple of American artisan books. The first bread I think I made was from Pierre Koffmann’s book La Tante Claire; a real classic.

What are the necessary tools that people should be buying for making bread?

A decent mixer takes a lot of the effort out of it, obviously! You can make bread by hand, and it’s quite satisfying if you enjoy that sort of craft process, but for me a Kitchenaid.

The one thing that I think is actually essential would be a set of digital scales. Just so you’re making sure, particularly with your yeast and your salt, (everything) is accurate. We’ll weigh all of our liquids instead of measuring them, because you eliminate the inaccuracies that way.

What about the role that bread plays in a good meal in general: it’s usually the first thing that is served when you go to a restaurant and it perhaps plays a part in setting the tone?

Well that’s it - I think you’ve just said it. For me, and here at Sienna canapés are the first thing the customer will get then they’ll get their bread, we try and make sure the quality of those items are as high as the main course or dessert. I think they’re vital. You put warm bread down in front of somebody and there’s nothing quite like that feeling.