Natalia Ivanova


Living in a big city I never thought of making bread. Why would you when the shelves are stacked with bread? “It’s probably really difficult and must take a long time to make.”I thought. Living the rush and caught up in the big city-work, stuff to do, hobbies, friends- I thought that making bread needed a completely different pace. Though I loved to do a lot of stuff with my own hands, I kept with the idea that bread was something more difficult. My culinary achievements were limited to baking little cakes on public holidays- strictly follow the recipes. And that was what I used to think until I met my future husband who asked me to move to Altai with him and build our own house. It was then that I came across an advert about an upcoming master class on bread-baking. So I thought, “It’s time!”

I found out from this master class that: 

- flour has a smell (that is, freshly-ground flour that is milled from the grain itself);

- to make bread, all you need is flour and water (!), the rest is for taste;

- to make bread, you don’t need as much time as you think;

- you need to take into account proportions, time and temperature to make sure everything turns out well.

The last point lost it’s relevance after a while and underwent a few changes. During my five years of making bread I have begun to take a more creative approach. In the beginning I would measure everything by the gram, I bought scales and a grinder. I worked on the dough as if it were a child. But being disciplined in the preparation phrases, I tried out everything and experimented with baking, adding various ingredients. The bread came out differently though almost always nice. When I moved to Altai, we had a camping tent where we lived in the beginning while we were building the house and a summer (street) kitchen with a gas stove where we cooked. It was thanks to these conditions that, with time, I worked out a simpler and more universal bread-making method that I want to share with you.

Making bread does not take as much time as it may seem. It’s just that bread has it’s own rhythm, it’s own stages. The actual manual labour time is extremely insignificant. It’s quicker than making borsh. Before becoming a loaf, the bread passes through three states: preferment, sourdough and dough...The preferment stage takes 5 minutes. The sourdough stage: 7 minutes The dough stage takes 10-15 minutes. The rest of the time the bread is “maturing”, “coming out” or baking, and then you can do other things or sleep, if you want to.

And so…

The first step in breadmaking is the preferment

Essentially, preferment is a composition of yeast and other microorganisms in a culture medium, which I substitute for quick yeast from a packet. I will not write here about the dangers or benefits of different types of yeast, about the chemistry, physics or microbiological processes. There are many articles online on these topics. Some people curse yeast and shout about the fact that it is the cause of all our illnesses. Others defend it. I am guided only by my own feelings and taste without any myths or hysteria about a healthy diet. Since I tried homemade ‘preferment’ bread, shop-bought bread rarely tastes good. And if I ever have to eat shop-bought bread then I prefer to dry it out a bit on the stove or in a toaster or a frying pan, depending on what’s available.


I believe that preferment can be varied but I like the option which consists of only flour and water. I think it’s unnecessary to run around in search of a mythical “grandfather’s preferment recipe” or for a “good quality malt preferment from a health food shop” without which nothing will work. Flour and water. Nothing else. As they say, why pay more if you get the same result by spending less.


If you prepare preferment once, it will keep you going for a long time.Take, in equal measure, flour and water at room temperature (18-25 degrees), not much about 50 -100 grams. Rye flour is best suited for preferment as it contains more trace elements (especially if it's freshly ground flour from whole grain). Knead to the consistency of shop-bought sour cream. Why shop-bought? Because in our village older people, when they hear about the consistency of sour cream ask: “what kind of sour cream - skimmed or full fat?” A spoon will stand up in some types of sour cream. We knead until the preferment is not watery but will thicken into one mass, but not so that it sets and, after stirring with a spoon, has not left a so-called “wake effect”. The best dish for this is clay or, failing that, glass. Clay (if it is unglazed) breathes better. Air is essential for the fermentation of the yeast, otherwise it will ‘suffocate’. For this reason, do not cover it with a tight lid, except for a very short period of time to transport, for example to your beloved grandmother or friend. At home, you can simply cover it with a cloth or a loose fitting ceramic lid. There’s the opinion that to mix preferment you have got to use a wooden spoon. But, to be honest, I have not noticed much of a difference. Yes, wood is nicer, but it does not affect the final outcome. I sometimes  even use a  metal whisk to saturate the preferment with oxygen.

The preferment takes different times to cultivate, depending on the temperature of the surroundings, but more often that not- three days. Knead the ingredients so that they don't take up any more than one-fifth of the bowl. Leave it in a warm place. You do not need to keep it especially warm - room temperature is sufficient. As you recall - stir the preferment to saturate it with oxygen. The next day "feed" it, that is add more of the same amount of flour and water and stir well. On the third day, the preferment is usually significantly increased in volume, beginning to bubble and has a nice sour smell. This means that it is ready to use. If the smell is obviously bitter then the preferment has not yet matured. Feed it with flour and water again and, if it is in a draft, move it to a warmer place. Sometimes you can add a spoonful of honey or sugar to the preferment to introduce additional nutrients to the bacteria and to speed up the process (I have, however, rarely used them). Leave it to mature some more.

If the starter is ready, it has a pleasant, mild, acidic smell and a bubbly texture. What next? Proceed to the next stage - knead the dough or, if you are not baking the bread within the next twenty four hours, put the preferment in a cool place. It is important to know that, while cooling, the preferment continues to live and grow but the process is slowed down. Therefore you will need to feed it less often, once every three days until it noticeably rises. You need to feed it with about the same amount of flour and water, preferably not less, so that it has enough nutrients. Over time, you will work out how many times a week it's convenient to bake bread, and from that you can calculate the amount of preferment you need. If you bake one loaf a day then there is no need to keep the preferment cold. If it’s once a week or so, then calculate the right amount so that, when cultivated, the preferment has not spread out of the bowl all over the fridge. If the homemade bread is only being made for a one-off treat rather than for everyday use, then you don’t need to preseve, feed and cultivate the preferment. You can just start a new one each time. The main thing is to remember to do it, not on the day you want it, but a week or at least four days before baking the loaf.


The second step in bread-making is the sourdough.

Sourdough also consists only of flour and water. This, in essence, is the same as the preferment- only in a larger quantity. You pour all the preferment into the mixing bowl and add enough flour and water so that the volume is equal to the amount of bread you want. The consistency of the sourdough should resemble the preferment. After you've done this, put back a small amount of the preferment into a jar for next time. Cover the sourdough that is in the bowl with a tea-towel, then put it in a warm place to rise. At room temperature, sourdough takes 6-8 hours to rise. It is safe to leave it out overnight and do the baking part the next morning. If it's summer and the outdoor temperature exceeds 25 degrees, for example, I sometimes put the sourdough in a greenhouse or in the sun- then it only needs 3-4 hours. It is important not to leave it out too long. If the sourdough rises too much, then it spills over and the bread will turn out dense, not lush. Therefore, if you have enough time, fatten up the sourdough brew again and wait for it to rise again. But it's better, of course, to do everything in good time.


The third stage in breadmaking is the dough

At this stage, you can add salt, sugar, honey, spices, bran, seeds, nuts, dried fruit to the ready sourdough - here's where the taste and colour come from, as they say. Some think that bread with dried fruit is not bread but pie. Some like it with a bit more salt, others with a bit more sourness. Some like it sweeter. This is the point where the imagination of the baker or bakeress runs wild.

I sometimes add coriander to rye bread and fermented malt brewed with boiling water and it turns out something like a Borodinsky. If I want sweet rolls, I knead the sourdough into the whey with some white flour, then I add sugar, vanilla and dried fruits to the dough - then it's not really bread but more of a sweet spongy cake. More often than not I make a mixed rye-wheat bread, without any frills, with second grade flour (if it's not freshly ground).

Once you have added everything that you want to fill your bread with, pour in the rest of the flour. I was taught that their should be enough flour that when kneaded by hand, it comes unstuck from your palms. It was even insisted that you have to knead the bread for a long time- for 10-15 minutes after the mass has become smooth. This is a fairly time-consuming task. This bread also takes a long time to rise (from 3 to 5 hours, depending on the temperature) and during baking it turns dense and heavy. It's not bad. This bread has an excellent taste and keeps for a long time. But if you like a softer, more luxuriant bread then such lengthy kneading is not needed.

Sometime ago I was teaching a friend of mine how to bake bread. And she, in turn, being a very busy lady, made her adjustments to the recipe and shared them with me. Due to a lack of time, she stopped spending so long kneading the bread. She began kneading lightly, bringing the dough to a consistency where it would be difficult to turn a spoon around in. This dough is suitable to leave out in a warm place for one and a half hours. And the bread turns lush and spongy, but still has its own weight, as opposed to shop-bought bread. Yes. After starting to bake homemade bread, I came to the firm belief that shops sell us air combined with some unknown purity instead of bread. In recent times it has been difficult to find good quality bread on the shelves.

So don't be greedy, share and exchange your experience. The more the merrier, as they say.

When the bread has been kneaded, put it out for proofing: place it into a tin that has been greased with butter (filling it to no more than half of the volume), leave it in a warm place, cover it with a tea-towel and wait for it to rise.

There is such a thing as hearth bread - bread that is baked on the hearth without being in a baking tin. The hearth furnace is called the bottom surface of the oven (in Russian- that is). The foundation of our bread chamber is our oven. The oven can even replace the bread-tin. This bread will still have to be fully kneaded. It is put out for proofing in special proofing tins or just in a heavily floured bowl. But when you shift risen-bread into the hearth it still "falls away" a little, is left with a harder crust and is less lush than it would be in a bread-tin. Despite this, hearth bread has a richer taste than bread baked in a bread-tin. So you choose. Feel free to try and look for your own recipes. Know the rules, check them, use them, but also don't be afraid to break them.

I gained my experience of baking bread in "combat" conditions, without any proofing. It was late autumn and we were living with our daughter in accommodation designed for summer vacations with a fuel-burning stove and a mud floor. I cooked in a street kitchen on a gas oven. Thinking about proofing bread was useless because it would often snow outside- conditions were clearly not suitable. I got into the habit of making a loaf per day. Every day I turned the preferment into sourdough, and it would stay rising until the stove was on at night. In the morning, I would knead the bread and take it immediately to be baked. At the time, I also didn't have bread-tins so I just put the bread on a baking sheet and turned on the oven. I just want to say something about gas ovens: for the bread at the bottom not to burn but be heated and baked through evenly, I advise that you put two bricks in the bottom of the oven to take away the excess heat. While the oven is heating up, the bread takes a little time to rise. This bread would be eaten for lunch- and never survived until dinner time. I can't help but talk about how good it tasted. Now we remember that time with nostalgia.


The fourth stage in breadmaking is the baking

Nowadays I bake bread in a brick oven bread chamber. For this, too, I needed to adjust. Observe, try out, make mistakes and correct them. Understand the breathing and the rhythms of each oven, because it is an independent living organism which you must learn to work together with. Understand what quantity of wood will produce what heat and for how long the oven will retain heat. I check the temperature in the bread chamber by hand after I light the furnace. If the hand can only just tolerate the heat, then you can already put the bread in. If your hand is not at all hot, then the oven hasn't heated up enough or has had cooled down.

For baking, I like to use thick baking-tins, but you can even bake using silicone or metal cake-tins: especially if you have a fan oven. I am often asked: is it possible to make bread from preferment in a breadmaker? I don't have any experience of it. But I don't see any problems with it. One friend of mine even bakes bread in a multicooker…

And so, let’s go on...

When the proofing bread has doubled in volume- put it in a pre-heated oven. The oven needs to be heated up a little beforehand. If the oven's too hot, you get bread with a hard, crispy crust. If you turn on the oven at the same time as you put the baking-tin in, then the bread may still rise but then fall back down shortly after. But it can still be used if the dough comes out very dense and almost doesn't rise at room temperature- then it will rise a little while the oven is heating up. Bread takes around 35 to 60 minutes to bake at a temperature of 180 to 210 degrees. Check the readiness of the bread, pressing down on it with your hand or finger. If the bread returns to its original shape after pressing down on it- then it's ready. If the dent remains, then it's still raw. And if the crust already seems cooked when you do this, then turn down the heat a little. Sometimes you can't tell from the outer crust whether the bread has baked through or not. Then I take it out of the tin and press down on the bottom or sides of the bread- doing this you can tell if the loaf has baked through or not. Wrap up the baked bread in a tea-towel and allow it to cool down completely. Sometimes, of course, there is a temptation to try it piping hot, so to speak. But don't get carried away by too much hot bread, it's not great for your digestive system. If the bread crust turns out to be too tough for your taste, "wash" the bread before wrapping it in a towel (slightly moisten the surface with water using the palm of your hand or a pastry brush). After it's completely cooled down I keep my bread in a birch storing-basket. You can store the bread however you like. Unlike when you use yeast, sourdough bread doesn't get mouldy- it just gradually dries up. We used to eat 10-12 day old bread and it still retained all of its flavour.

Do not expect your first loaf to come out ideal. When unsuccessful, don't be afraid to try out new things and experiment. Even far-from-ideal homemade bread tastes better than shop-bought loaves. During 5 years of making bread, only once did I not like what came out.Bread never turns out the same. So - go for it! Try and you’ll succeed.


Recipes (or summaries with some comments)

I won’t write classical recipes for you where everything is measured down to the gram. Very rarely do I use such recipes. They jeopardize your ability to think, create and gain your own experience. For me it is more important to know how it all works, this is why I’m just going to share with you only example ingredient ratios.



With rare exception, I make this out of rye flour. Flour and water are at the proportion of about one-to-one. You can in theory make this out of any flour- try it out. Mix it and put it in a warm place to mature.



More often than not I make this out of rye flour- except for those situations when I’m making sweet white bread. You also need flour and water, in the same ratio as for the preferment. The volume increases depending on how many loaves you want.


Kulich (Kulich (кулич) a sweet cake eaten during Orthodox Easter Sunday)

In the sourdough I use a milk whey instead of water and bleached flour instead of rye. I also knead the dough over white flour. I add a little salt, a little more sugar (by taste), vanilla, raisins or dried fruits.


Grey Bread (Grey bread consists of 50% rye flour and 50% white flour)

I add second grade wheat flour or white flour or wheat flour freshly ground (that is) to the rye sourdough during the kneading stage . Salt and sugar to taste. Sometimes I make it with flaxseed or sunflower seeds. Occasionally I add raisins. But the longer I have been baking bread, the simpler the recipe I have come to make. I’ve had enough of sweet bread. Simple bread is always appreciated the most.


Rye Bread

There is an opinion that you need to add a third part wheat flour to rye bread because it contains more gluten which helps the bread to rise. But in my experience, this applies more to oven bread. Pure rye bread rises very well as long as dough is not kneaded too thickly. The only thing is that it is more susceptible to shaking. Be careful when putting it in the oven so the raised dough doesn’t fall to the side. Rye bread has a very beautiful, rich taste. More often than not I just add salt and sugar to it. I always try the dough. If I like the taste when it is raw, then it will come out good after baking. It is just worth considering that you will taste the salt more in the raw form than in the baked form. I can give you an approximation: for 4 loaves, I add around 1 tablespoon of salt and 2-3 tablespoons of sugar. Sometimes I add ground coriander. Some people add bran.


Borodinsky Bread

Before kneading the dough in a separate bowl, I brew fermented malt with boiling water- then leave it to cool down (essential). I add it to the dough together with salt, sugar and coriander. I pour in the missing rye flour. When it’s in the bread-tin, you can sprinkle a whole coriander on to heighten the flavor.


Oladii (Russian pancake)

Make your oladii how you like them. But instead of baking powder, add the preferment and leave it in a warm place at night. For breakfast you will have lush,delicious oladii without the flavour of baking powder.



These are festive figurines of larks which are made on the first day of spring. I make the wheat dough sweet, as if for a kulich, but more densely kneaded. I roll them into bundles and tie them in a knot. From one end of the knot, I carve out a head with a beak on, from the other end I flatten out a tail. The knot itself becomes the body.


Kids love these little pastries. You can give these zhavaronki to your neighbours or put them on the branches of trees to lure in the birds.


All in all, there are as many bread recipes as there are people who make them- or even more so. The main principle that I have worked out in the last 5 years is that ordinary people have been baking bread in very different conditions throughout the ages. So making bread shouldn’t be overly complicated. Look for your own recipes and feel free to try and break the rules. I wish you all creative inspiration- and bon appetit!