Since the time I started baking I have read copious amounts of information on baking, primarily perusing titles from master bakers here and there, and some successful owners of bakeries in Denmark, Sweden and the United States. Some give good advice, others not so good, but the main thing I've taken away from having read all this is... it's food, experiment and find something you like (though do be accurate about what you do so you can recreate it).

In some peoples' opinion (and mine too for that matter), you should try to master the plain bread before you start adding all sorts of extra things to it. In a basic bread there are four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast (or sourdough). That is it. No seeds, no additives, no lard, no herbs. Just four plain ingredients. I use organic flour and Maldon sea salt, mainly because I do not fancy eating flour with all kinds of remnants of artificial fertilisers, and Maldon sea salt because I like their salt taste the best (but do try a bunch of different salts and find the one you like best).

The amount of flour you put into this thing mainly controls how much bread you will have once the process is done (this is an over-simplification, each ingredient influences the final outcome in a lot of surprising and complex ways, so take the following with a grain of salt), the amount of salt will control the taste (and to some degree how well the gluten strands develop), and the yeast will control how quickly the fermentation process will happen (more yeast, faster bread and less taste, less yeast, slower bread and more taste), and finally there is the water. This is usually the ingredient you turn up and down to control the handling characteristics of the bread. The lower water rate, the more manageable the dough is, the higher it is, the more you will feel like you're battling some sticky monster from hell as you try to shape everything up into loaves of bread.

So for a while I have been giving the breads very low amounts of yeast (around 1–5 grams), rather long time to ferment (from 5 to 18 hours depending on how busy our daily schedule is), and very high amounts of water (around 90% the weight of the flour) a try. This has given me a very open and creamy crumb with a soft crust the first few hours after baking, which hardens into a denser crust after 6–12 hours and a superb taste. In order for such a wet dough to stick together, it is necessary for the gluten to be able to keep it all together, which is what the long fermentation will help you achieve. For a brief few illustrations I have taken some photos of a 5 hour fermentation followed by 10 hours retardation (placing the dough in the fridge).

gluten strands

The lighting is a tad shoddy. It is surprisingly difficult to pour dough, handle a camera and get the lighting just right around 7 am after having stumbled out of bed. There is some nice gluten strands here, but without the retardation they are typically longer and tougher. You can tell how strong they are by how long they can get before they snap if you pull at the dough.

Next, there are more fun ways to influence the result of your bread: how you bake it. With steam? without steam? at what temperature? for how long? I usually pour a bit of water over the loaves just before I put them in the oven, which will create enough steam to keep the crust from setting too quickly. Since the dough is highly hydrated, the loaves need to bake for a good while (usually around 40 minutes in my oven), and I start out at the high end of the temperature range at 250°C for 15 minutes, then I vent the oven (open the hatch for a few seconds to let out the steam), then I finish baking over the next 25 minutes, slowly reducing the heat once in a while to keep the crust from scorching.

creamy crumb

After baking, you will have a nice, creamy, open crumb and a wafer thin crust that flakes like it does with plain bread from a good bakery. Flour, water, salt, and yeast. That is it.