Bake Your Own Bread

I’m no master baker. I’m putting that first because I don’t want you getting the wrong idea.

In fact, I’m not a baker at all.

It’s true that at home we typically cook almost every meal from basic ingredients. That’s a lifestyle habit that predates any attempt to be healthy or save money. It’s just the way my wife and I were brought up.

But bread is one of those things that, for the longest time, I never even imagined I would get anywhere other than a supermarket or a bakery.

And yet now I bake bread for the family two or three times a week. Without a machine to do it for me.

I have no idea how much I save by doing this, because again: It’s not a financially-motivated decision. I’m sure it does save money though. That’s like a perk on top of the fact that we get to eat fresh bread.

I’m going to cover a few things.

The conclusion… well, my conclusion, which may or may not be relevant to you, is this:

I get a lot out of baking my own bread. While it is financially better than buying bread, that’s not an important reason for me. In terms of saving money, there are other more impactful ways I could spend my time and energy. I get something else out of it. A satisfaction, a warm crust to break and the smell of bread in my home. It’s ephemeral, but valuable to me.

The Benefits and Disadvantages of Baking Your Own Bread

Why would you want to do it? Below are a number of reasons that contribute to my wanting to continue baking my own bread. Also, a number of things you’ll want to bear in mind if you choose to try.

Knowing What’s In It

Your own loaf of bread has, unless you’ve decided to spice it up, four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. No preservatives, chemical raising agents, texture enhancers, sweeteners or colorings.

If you buy a loaf of sandwich bread in a supermarket, there will be more in your bread that you think. That’s because the industrial process they use, and packaging, shelf-life and transport considerations, mean they need additional ingredients to get the result that maximizes the economic outcome for the company that makes it.

Here is an example list of ingredients from a common, slightly premium loaf of sandwich bread in the UK:

Wheat Flour (with added Calcium, Iron, Niacin, Thiamin), Water, Seed Mix (13%) (contains: Toasted Brown Linseed, Toasted Sunflower Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, Sunflower Seeds, Millet Seeds, Golden Linseed, Poppy Seeds), Yeast, Wheat Protein, Salt, Soya Flour, Caramelised Sugar, Malted Barley Flour, Barley Flour, Preservative: E282, Emulsifier: E472e, Barley Fibre, Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid

Here’s another, slightly less premium (but still brand-name) loaf:

Wheat Flour (with added Calcium, Iron, Niacin, Thiamin), Water, Yeast, Soya Flour, Salt, Preservative: E282, Emulsifiers: E472e, E471, E481, Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid

Flour, water, salt and yeast. That’s all there is in my bread.

Bread The Way You Like It

Once you’ve made four or five loaves, the bread gets nicer. You learn about your own oven, the flour you’re using, the way the recipe reacts to slight changes in water or yeast or salt.

You can start adding things to the bread. 15 grams of poppy seeds will flavor the entire loaf and give it that nice speckled look. Pumpkin seeds, walnuts, a drop of milk, a knob of butter. A thousand possible variations, some of them disappointing, some of them miraculous. Your ingredients will be fresh. The poppy seeds will still have that texture as you bite on them, unlike the soft homogenous flavor of industrial loaves.

Sooner or later you get a loaf that your children want you to reproduce. There’s nothing quite like a three-year-old turning around and spontaneously saying, “This bread is nice!”

Bread That Costs Less

We’ll get into this later, but this bread costs a lot less than even the cheapest industrial loaf in a discount supermarket.

We don’t eat enough bread to make this a huge budget win, but it’s worth noting.

If you compare like with like, bread of equivalent quality is not available in most supermarkets, and you’d be going to a bakery to get it. This bread is much, much cheaper than bread made in a professional bakery.

So you’re actually saving quite a lot compared to the cost of an equivalent loaf. Another way of looking at it is that you’re eating much better quality bread and saving a little money at the same time.

You Bake Your Own Bread. It’s Cool.

I’ll admit that it wears off after a while, but at least at the beginning, it feels pretty cool to be baking your own bread.

When you have people over for dinner and there’s a warm loaf of freshly-baker abd freshly-sliced bread on the table, that also is a pretty cool thing to be able to offer your guests.

“You bake your own bread?” Is one of those raised-eyebrow questions I get quite a lot. People assume it’s both difficult and time-consuming and nothing could be further from the truth. Then they assume I have some expensive machine to do it for me, and I point out I use a bowl, a wooden spoon and an oven.

It Takes Planning

Bread has it’s own timetable. To make it, you have to respect raise times, baking times and cooling times. There’s quite a lot of flexibility in there, but the further you get from ideal times, the less perfect your loaf will be.

So you need to plan in advance when you’ll need the bread and do the preparatory work at the appropriate time. Typically this means you need 14 to 18 hours of lead time before you can actually eat a loaf you made.

This is actually no biggie. At first I thought this was a huge issue, then I found a nice way of slipping it into my routine and now I no longer thing about it.

Sometimes You Screw It Up

I’m human, therefore fallible.

If I forget to put it in the oven, then I have to stay up late until it’s done. If I forget it’s in the oven, then the crust is burnt and it’s no longer edible.

The same applies to anything you cook. As far as bread is concerned, while I had a few mishaps early on, I now know to set an alarm for each stage of the process so I don’t get distracted.

On the rare occasions when I have messed up my baking process, I’ve had to pop out to the local grocers to buy bread. It’s annoying because my local grocer (an expensive, trendy, organic supermarket) sells bread that, while extremely virtuous (according to the packaging), isn’t really to my taste (too dry, too dense), and costs way too much.

It Doesn’t Keep

No preservatives, remember?

To be fair, the bread easily lasts three or four days if we keep it in the bread box. But full disclosure: It’s a lot less pleasant on the third day. The taste is broadly the same, but the texture toughens by the third day and the crust loses its crispness after only a day.

I make small loaves (700 grams) and if there is older bread still in the box when my new loaf comes out of the oven, I eat the older bread toasted because it toasts very well. The newer bread is better untoasted.

The Economics of Baking Your Bread

What are the financial arguments for and against baking your own loaves at home? It’s true you can save money, but is it enough money to care? At the end of the day, it depends on what quality bread you want to be eating. If you’re happy with the lowest quality machine-made processed bread from the supermarket, that’s still going to be a little cheaper.

The Cost of a Loaf of Bread from a Retailer

What does a loaf of bread cost from a supermarket or a baker?

Here are a few examples from our local supermarket:

Sandwich Breads

  • Hovis Seed Sensations (800g) : £1.50
  • Warburtons Toastie Thick Slices (800g) : £1.05
  • essential Waitrose Wholemeal Sliced (800g) : £0.60

Breads Finished In-Store

  • Wholemeal Heyford (800g) : £1.50
  • Farmhouse Load (400g) : £1.00
  • Stonebaked White Boule (400g) : £1.90

High Quality Local French Bakery

  • Country Bread (400g) : £6.00
  • Rustic Bread : £9.00
  • 6 Cereal Bread (400g) : £6.50

To be clear: my bread is nicer than anything you can buy from the supermarket, but it does not reach the standard you can get if you’re willing to pay £9.00 a loaf from the local French bakery. I say £9.00 because my loaves are 700 grams and theirs are 400 grams, so on a like-for-like comparison, theirs are higher quality, but also very expensive.

What’s the Cost of a Home-Baked Loaf of Bread?

I buy my flour in 5-kilo packets. I’d buy larger sizes but we don’t have a huge amount of space at home, and 5 kilos is the largest reasonable size for our kitchen.

I buy yeast from the supermarket in little tubs. A small tub of yeast goes a long way.

The cost of salt and water is so low I count it as zero, otherwise I’d be measuring fractions of a penny.

ItemQuantityPriceper loafcost per loaf
Flour5kg£6.03400 grams£0.48
EnergykWh£0.1241h @ 0.85kWh£0.106

There are rounding errors in this calculation. You also use a little flour to dust surfaces. Sometimes you spill some. Sometimes the oven is already warm from cooking so you can reduce the time by 15 minutes, and sometimes the oven is needed immediately after which is convenient because it’s pre-heated. None of this makes any real difference to the price.

Which is Cheaper?

The cheapest industrial bread from a supermarket is cheaper than the bread I bake at home (not counting silly things like travel cost to the supermarket), but as I mentioned above, the two are really not comparable.

If you’re on a teeny tiny budget and every penny counts, and you’re willing to eat bread that tastes like cardboard, then you should buy this bread (although it’s hardly worthy of the name), because one loaf will go a long way.

Comparing like with like is difficult, because my bread is better than the best equivalent store-bought bread but not as good as the cheapest professional baker’s bread.

If we compare to the best store-bought bread, adjusting for weight, home-baked bread is a bit less than half the price of the store loaf, which is a saving of about £0.80. If we compare to the lowest rung of the professional baker’s bread, adjusting for weight, home-baked bread is one-tenth the price of the baker’s loaf, so a saving of £5.40 per loaf.

Fresh Bread: The Recipe

This recipe is also known as no-knead bread. That’s because I can’t be losing hours of my life to baking, so I use the easiest and most efficient recipe I can find. The total work takes about 12 minutes. Unfortunately, there’s considerable wait time involved, so you need to build that into your schuedule, as I mentioned above.

Step 1: Preparation (5 minutes)

You will need:

  • 400 grams flour
  • 300 ml water (room temperature)
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • slightly less than 1 tsp yeast

You can scale this up or down so long as you keep the proportions the same.

Also: a cast iron cooking pot that can go in the oven, oven mitts, a large bowl, a wooden spoon, baking parchment and cling film.

Get a bowl. Put it on a scale. Measure about 400 grams of flour into it. Add the salt and yeast. Mix them up a bit (with a wooden spoon, your your hands if they’re clean and dry).

Add 300ml water and stir with a wooden spoon until the whole lot turns into a messy lump of dough. It will look a bit ragged. Don’t worry about it. Make sure you’ve incorporated all the flour off the bottom of the bowl though.

Cover with cling film and let sit at room temperature for 12 to 16 hours.

Step 2: Pre-Baking (5 minutes)

Try not to be too violent with the dough during this stage, you want to get some of the air out of it, but not too much.

Cover a surface with a sheet of baking paper and sprinkle the paper with flour (make sure there’s enough of it otherwise the dough will stick). Use a spatula to get the dough out of the bowl and onto the baking paper.

Get some flour on your hands (the dough is sticky) and “fold” the dough. This is simple and takes 15 seconds. Take one side of it and fold it over the middle. Take the opposite side and fold that over too (like you’re closing a really thick envelope). Do the same to the top and bottom, so you’ve folded 4 times.

Pick up the dough by picking up the baking parchment and drop it back into the bowl. Cover with film and leave for 1.5 to 2 hours.

Step 3: Baking (2 minutes work, 45 minutes wait)

Pre-heat the oven as hot as it’ll go (typically 250C) and put a cast-iron cooking pot in there to heat with it. You want to do this enough in advance that it’s ready when the dough is.

Carefully, because it will be extremely hot, take out the pot from the oven and remove the lid.

Gently take the dough by picking up the baking parchment, and without knocking it, drop it gently into the pot.

Take the sharpest knife you have and score the top of the bread 2 or 3 times. This is important. If you don’t do this the bread won’t be able to rise properly.

Put the lid back on the pot and put the pot in the oven for 30 minutes.

When the 30 minutes are up, remove the lid from the pot and bake for a further 10 to 15 minutes depending on how dark you want your crust and how hot your oven is.

Remove from the pot and allow the bread to cool for at least 20 minutes, preferably on a wire rack. I personally allow at least an hour.

Why You Should Bake Your Own Bread

I’m not going to evangelise this process. To each their own little habits. We all have those things that we enjoy doing that not everyone else does. This is one of mine.

That said, I thought I’d share some of what I get out of it, and I’d encourage you to try baking your own bread, assuming you have the equipment needed, to see if it’s similar for you.

One Little Step Among Many

From a money-saving point of view, I’m the first to confess that this isn’t going to make anyone financially independent.

But no single thing is.

On the road to financial freedom are many projects, efforts, milestones and challenges, and this is one of the smaller things you can do to reduce your monthly costs.

But it’s still something. And it can be something enjoyable, that simultaneously upgrades your quality of life while costing you almost no time at all.

Each step you take, each effort you make, each little success is a brick in the edifice that becomes your financial security. The small bricks count too. Early on, they count more, because they are the successes that get the ball rolling. From an motivational point of view, you can point to these efforts and say, I do this, I am doing something, and if I can do this, I can do more.

Don’t underestimate the value of building emotional momentum with small wins.

Moments of Micro-Meditation

When I was in a very stressful job quite a few years ago, I used to make pasta in the middle of the night will a small pasta-rolling machine.

I’d get home from work around midnight. I’d know I needed to go to bed, but I’d be way too wired and anxious about the projects, the timelines, the deadlines, the travel requirements.

I discovered that doing some basic manual work for 30 minutes or more would disconnect my thoughts from this engine of anxiety.

Also, my colleagues all got free pasta because I was making more than I could possibly eat myself.

Making bread takes less time than making pasta, but even so, I find small moments of pleasure and mindfulness in the early morning when I prepare a bread for that evening and I’m the only person awake in the house.

It’s a small thing, but it has value to me.

In Touch With Where Things Come From

In our post-industrial society, we’re detached from where the items we consume come from.

This has huge consequences in terms of our awareness of our impact on the world, not just in economic or environmental terms, but also in terms of social impact.

That high-street fast fashion shirt cost very little, but it comes from a Bangladeshi sweatshop that you’re never going to have to come face-to-face with. Eating a steak will never require you to raise, kill and butcher a cow, but that’s where it comes from. Your ability to pick up a phone and connect to anyone in the world by pressing a few buttons is effortless and reliable, and you’ll never need to understand the vast network of cables, relays, switches, protocols and programming that underly and enable that functionality.

Well I felt the same way about bread. It came from a baker. Fully formed from the moment it entered my circle of awareness. I knew – intellectually – that it came from flour and salt and yeast and an oven. But that’s not the same as knowing. You know: From experience.

There is value, in my opinion, in picking a couple of areas and deliberately embracing a larger part of the process in that area. Becoming more than just the end consumer of a product or service.

I’m not going to grow and mill my own flour, for sure, but bread is no longer a magic product for me. In a small way, that means I maintain an awareness that all these other products and services in my life are also not magic, nor effortless, nor free. They’re made by people. With skills.

So build a chair, or do the oil change on your car yourself, or keep chickens and gather the eggs. Or bake bread. Pick something, demystify it and own it. It’s good for you.