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.)