I tried to bake bread one or two times in my twenties, failed horribly, and then didn’t try again for twenty years. I might have waited another decade if it wasn’t for the disruption of the Covid lockdown, when getting a fifty pound bag of flour delivered seemed like a more sensible choice than going out to buy fresh bread a couple of times per week.
The core recipe that I use as my baseline approach comes from “The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” although there are numerous alternatives in this family.
They’re all very close to two cups of flour for each cup of water, plus a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon or less of yeast, although folks generally make enough dough for several loaves at once.
The dough is just stirred together and left to ferment without kneading it. With a teaspoon of yeast you’ll get a full rise in two hours, whereas if you use a quarter teaspoon of yeast it’ll take around twelve hours.
I like the crust created by baking in heavy covered pan, like a dutch oven, which traps some of the moisture that steams out of the dough. Other people bake on a baking stone of flat tray but put a second tray on a lower shelf of the oven with a cup of water in it, which help to produce a similar steam effect. And of course baking in a loaf pan or pyrex bowl is also always an option.
I’ve done loads of these over the last six months and never had one fail, so the technique seems pretty robust.
The proportions below yield just over a pound of dough.
You can easily double or triple this recipe, although you will need a very large bowl because it will more than double in volume as it rises.
In a large mixing bowl, combine:
- One cup of warm water
- A teaspoon of salt
- A teaspoon of yeast
- Two cups of all-purpose flour, plus a couple extra tablespoons.
Mix until there are no dry spots with loose flour.
Cover the bowl, but don’t completely seal it, and leave it somewhere warm to ferment. (If your kitchen is cold, turn the oven on for one minute and then off again, and let the bread rise in there.)
Wait for about two hours. The dough will rise and become stretchy. Turn it out of the bowl, divide it if necessary, and roughly shape it into a loaf.
At this point, the dough can be refrigerated overnight, or for several days. The flavor will continue to develop during this period.
When you’re ready to bake, turn the dough out onto a floured cutting board and allow it to rise again for about an hour.
At least half an hour before you start baking, heat the oven to 450° and pre-heat a heavy covered pan, such as an enameled or cast-iron dutch oven.
When the dough has risen for the second time, and the pan is hot, carefully remove it from the oven, drop the dough in, slash the top with a knife, put the cover on, and return it from the oven.
Bake for 25 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for about 15 minutes more, until the crust is nicely browned.
Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the loaf to a cooling rack. Resist the temptation to cut into it immediately.
There are innumerable variations:
- The Bittman/Lahey recipe uses only a quarter as much yeast, which then requires a 12-18 hour rise period. (See the Mark Bittman & Jim Lahey’s recipe in the NY Times.)
- Instead of baking in a covered pan, you can bake on a baking stone or baking sheet, with a second baking dish containing a cup of water in the oven to provide moisture. (See this King Arthur Flour recipe for example.)
- Some people bake in a buttered glass Pyrex bowl. (See this recipe for an example.)
- For focaccia, bake a flat loaf in a baking dish or pie plate with olive oil, herbs, and perhaps some vegetables. (As per this recipe.)
- For rolls, divide each pound of dough into around eight small lumps, lightly dust them with flour, arrange them in a buttered baking dish, and brush the tops with butter.
Today’s variation: half a cup of cut oats, half a cup of whole-wheat flour, and a heaping cup of white flour, along with the usual cup of water, teaspoon of salt, and teaspoon of yeast. Allowed to ferment for eight hours, shaped into a loaf, an hour to rise, top dusted with “everything bagel” topping, slashed, and baked at 425° in a parchment-lined dutch oven with the lid on for twenty five minutes and off for thirty five.