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bread for today

It’s no secret: you can plunk down a lot of good money on a loaf of good bread. A loaf that actually tastes like bread, with honest texture and chew, with a browned crust that crackles when you tear or bite into it and little bits of it spill onto your lap. A loaf with a labyrinth of airy holes inside (to better hold the butter or olive oil), and an aroma that you want to bury your nose in. A loaf like that will set you back at least a several dollars.

Or – easy-as-pie (only easier) – you can make your own. In a recent post I listed bread from your oven as a remedy for the doldrums. It’s certainly that – but it’s not only the eating of it that lifts your spirits – it’s the feel of it, all squishy at first and then soft and powdery like a baby’s bottom. It’s the heavenly aroma that leaks from your oven and drifts through your house. And it’s the sheer miraculousness of motionless ingredients springing to life! Baking bread is simply one of life’s simple pleasures. Eating it is another.

In my previous post (on a grand scale) I laid out reasons why a digital kitchen scale belongs in your kitchen. For bread-making (as I’m about to describe) the process is made nearly fool-proof. You’ll get consistently wonderful results, loaf after steamy loaf. (The weight of “carefully” measured and leveled cups of flour can vary by as much as 2 ounces!)

The first of these two recipes will give you bread today. The second, using less yeast and undergoing a longer, taste-developing rise, can start today but will finish tomorrow. They’re both delicious, and I make each of them all the time. The second, if you can wait, is a-maz-ing! Both take very little hands-on time, the longer method even less hands-on time, so don’t be deterred by the waiting game. While the dough is doing its growing thing, you can be tending to whatever else calls you.

Almost always these days, I’ll bake bread using a Dutch oven. With its lid on, a moist mini-environment is created, one very similar to professional deck-ovens with steam-injection. The crust that results is phenomenal. I’ll give the instructions for with and without a Dutch oven. 

Basic Bread Dough

  • 20 ounces bread flour (4 cups)
  • 12 ounces water (1½ cups)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon active or instant yeast (I prefer active)

Instructions using a digital scale:

Turn scale on. If using a stand mixer to knead your bread, place its bowl on the scale and then zero the scale out. (The weight of the bowl will no longer be counted.) Begin scooping flour into the bowl until it measures 20 ounces. Measure in 2 teaspoon salt. Again, zero out the scale. Add lukewarm water until scale registers 12 ounces. Spoon 1 teaspoon yeast over the top and allow to dissolve in the water.

No scale yet? 

Measure the ingredients into your bowl by cup and spoon. (Never use a two-cup measuring cup to measure flour. The results are much more compact and will therefore weigh more than intended.)

Fit the bowl onto your mixer and using the paddle attachment, incorporate the ingredients fully. Remove paddle and replace with the dough hook. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. This will take about 10 minutes.

(When ready you should be able to remove a small piece of the dough and stretch between your fingers and it will stretch into a translucent sheet without breaking. If it quickly breaks, continue kneading. Another test is simply to use a couple knuckles to press the dough. If it springs back and completely fills the depression, it should be ready.)

Remove the bowl from the mixer, cover it with plastic and allow it to rise to about twice its size.

Now the test for readiness is to gently push a finger into the dough. The dough should offer some resistance. If it springs back rapidly, let it rest a bit longer. If you let it rise too long, the dough will turn a bit flabby and will be a bit more reluctant to give that extra rise once in the oven.)

Turn the dough out from its bowl onto a floured surface and knead it to expel excess gas and redistribute the yeast.

Forming the loaf:     Cover with a dish towel and let rest for 15 minutes. To form a boule (ball-shaped) loaf, simply roll the dough back and forth on the cutting board or counter following a circular motion until smooth and round. Again, cover the dough with a dish towel and allow to rise for another hour. If using a Dutch oven, you can place the boule in the pot and allow it to rise there. (But please refer to the Dutch oven method below before proceeding.) If using a traditional (no Dutch oven method) place the formed ball onto a baking sheet.

Traditional method (no Dutch oven)      After about 30 minutes of bread-rising –  Preheat the oven to 450°F.

(Yes, it’s early but the oven gets better, with a more even heat, if allowed to preheat for a longer period.) If you want to create some steam to produce a better crust you can place a cast iron skillet in the oven on a lower rack when you begin to preheat. Then add a cup of water to the skillet (using mitts to avoid burning!) when you put your bread in to bake.

Just before sliding your bread into the oven, slice an X or a pound symbol # into the top to help it expand for its final (rather dramatic) rise. Coat with olive oil and a sprinkling of coarse salt. Place into oven on baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes at 450°F then reduce oven temperature to 375°F and continue baking until done, 45 to 50 minutes. (Internal temperature when done, 200°F to 210°F.) Cool on a rack completely before cutting (if at all possible.)

Dutch oven method:  (5½- or 7½-quart Dutch ovens will work – best results with cast iron)

Don’t let this confuse you, but you have yet another option here. Either a pre-heated Dutch oven – the advantage will be a crunchier crust and a bit more rustic appearance, or a cold Dutch oven – the advantage being that you can allow your loaf to rise in the pan, preserving the pretty shape you’ve created. You might try them both and see which you like better. It’s slightly less “intimidating” if you start with the cold Dutch oven the first time. So I’ll begin there.

Cold Dutch Oven: After forming your boule (description above) place in the Dutch oven, the bottom of which has been oiled first. Allow to rise until doubled, then add a coating of olive oil and some coarse salt, and slash the top as directed above. Place the lid on the pot and bake for ½-hour. Remove the lid and continue baking until done. (The internal temperature will register 200°F to 210°F) another 15 to 30 minutes. Remove and cool on rack. The crust will make the most delicious-sounding crackle as it cools. (The loaf pictured here was prepared in a cold Dutch oven.)

Pre-heated Dutch Oven: 30 minutes before baking, place the Dutch oven with its lid into a cold oven on middle rack. (Do NOT oil first!) Turn oven to 450°F. After forming your boule (from the description above) place a towel on the counter and cover liberally with flour. Place the dough on top, dust the top with more flour, and then cover with another towel. Allow to rise until doubled.  Once doubled, remove the Dutch oven from the oven and remove the lid. Taking the risen loaf, WITH the floured towel beneath it, and one hand underneath, overturn the loaf into the Dutch oven. The bottom will now be the top and it will likely look a bit messy. This won’t matter at all! Simply shake the Dutch oven a bit to redistribute the loaf, place the lid back on and pop it in the oven. Bake for ½-hour. Remove the lid and continue baking until done. (The internal temperature will register 200°F to 210°F) another 15 to 20 minutes longer. Remove and cool on rack. The crust will make the most delicious-sounding crackle as it cools. (For the bread I’ll be posting tomorrow, this is the method I always use.)

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. This looks amazing… A must try.

    January 8, 2012
    • Yes it’s a must! 🙂

      January 8, 2012
  2. Great. We were going to do the longer baking bread, which is amazing, but we’re excited to have a quicker option today. My math skills are challenged at the moment, so could you tell us the total time for this guy?

    January 8, 2012
    • Can you tell we’re craving good bread – now?!

      January 8, 2012
    • 5 minutes to measure ingredients, 10 minutes to knead. One hour and a half to rise. Deflate, Form boule, another 20 minutes. Rise one hour. Bake approx. 45 minutes. Just under 4 hours is what I get. Somebody check me!

      January 8, 2012
  3. YUMMY!!! Now I want a FRESH loaf of bread!

    January 8, 2012
  4. It truly does look amazing. I’m always loathed to buy good bread when I can bake it. But, I currently can’t find the time. I’ll have to MAKE myself do it. The photography is amazing, as usual!

    January 8, 2012
    • Sometimes if I have a bunch of laundry, or am doing some cleaning and know I’ll be around the house a while, it’s especially easy to get the bread made. Thanks, always, for the compliments, Frugal! Very kind!

      January 8, 2012
  5. I’ve never heard of doing this with the dutch oven cold. I do the pre-heated dutch oven method often. thanks for the tip!

    January 8, 2012
    • Love having options, don’t we? This is a good one, with good results.

      January 8, 2012
  6. Donald Callas #

    Having only attempted baking bread a few times in my life, I need all the help I can get. After reading your last couple of blogs on the subject however, I am approaching it confidently, with the exception of this one question:
    At what speed should the mixer be set when kneading with the mixer/bread hook set up? “0” being the slowest, “10” the fastest.
    I appreciate very much your taking the time to answer my question! But HURRY, I am running to Freddie’s to get a scale and bread flour!!

    January 8, 2012
    • Good question! I’d say probably speed 3 or 4 will get the job done in about 10 minutes, using bread hook. If it doesn’t throw your machine all over the counter, you could see what 5 does. Just like driving a car and listening for the sounds the engine makes telling you when to change gears, that’s kind of how I operate my mixer. 🙂 So glad to help Don! let me know how it goes!

      January 8, 2012
  7. I’ve never tried using a dutch oven with bread before! How intriguing.

    January 8, 2012
  8. We only buy bread off the day-old rack and that’s just for bread crumbs or croutons. Since I always make my ours, we do save money. We found that out the hard way when our tomatoes came in over the summer and one weeknight we had gazpacho and the next bruschetta. Katherine spent $5 on a loaf of ciabatta and $3.50 on a French loaf because I didn’t have time to do a starter after work. Hmm, that was a long story. I love this recipe and that last photo is great.

    January 8, 2012
    • Liked hearing your story Greg, love that you make your own bread (including starter) and thank you for the nice words!

      January 8, 2012
  9. Must be something in the air. I had planned on baking a loaf of bread today but decided to hold off till tomorrow instead. Having mistakenly killed off my sourdough starter in a warming oven (Yikes!) last month, this will be my first attempt with the new starter. If my loaf will come out of the Dutch oven looking half as good as yours, I’ll consider it a huge succes. Fingers crossed!

    January 8, 2012
    • Fingers crossed John! Hope to see a portrait of your loaf!

      January 8, 2012
  10. Don #

    Sourdough starter(s), hm? Sounds like a good blog right there…nmm!

    January 8, 2012
  11. Spree… I just love your blog. This bread recipe looks so easy to make and it’s only because you inspire confidence in your readers:) The Dutch Oven idea has been bantered about a bit at orchestra so I think it might just be time for me to invest in one. What’s your favorite size for bread?? Like the one in the photo?? I can hardly wait to try this out!

    January 8, 2012
    • What a kind word from you Smidge! Thank you so much! My favorite size for bread is the round 5-1/2 quart. (And yes, that’s the one pictured here.) I’ve used a larger oval, and though it works fine, the bread doesn’t end up as lofty as what you see in this picture. Let me know when you’ve made your first – I’m kind of excited for you. 🙂

      January 8, 2012
  12. Such a beautiful loaf – have never cooked mine in a Dutch oven and am looking forward to giving this a go!

    January 9, 2012
  13. Very interesting article Spree, very in-depth thank you for sharing. I don’t make bread often enough, but do occasionally. I have a sour dough starter that originated in the Yukon, 6 years ago! It now resides in my freezer and comes out occasionally to be defrosted and reactivated, amazing thing bread and yeast. BTW sourdough is my favorite. Lightly toasted, with a smear of butter and an egg over easy…bliss:)

    January 9, 2012
    • First Chica Andaluza’s lemon tree and now Lesley’s sourdough starter! Two big envies in less than a week! 🙂 I guess I’d never considered that you can store a starter in the freezer – I love a good sourdough too and now you’ve got me thinking how good that would be baked in the Dutch oven. I’ll get to work on that! Thanks, Lesley.

      January 9, 2012
  14. Val #

    That crust looks good! Photography lovely as usual. I think I’ll keep an eye for a dutch oven.

    January 9, 2012
    • Val #

      I meant to say ‘keep an eye out’!

      January 9, 2012

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