For awhile now, friends & family have been asking me to teach them to bake my bread or write up the method I use, and I have put it off repeatedly. Not because it’s a closely guarded secret, but rather because the “method” is actually a bit of a moving target, a never-ending work-in-progress. As an experimentalist/obsessive-compulsive, I simply cannot leave well enough alone, and am always tweaking my recipes in one direction or another, not necessarily to improve them so much as to see what-happens-if.
Therefore, in order to teach one of my recipes to others, I have to somehow wrestle this greased pig to the ground to take its current snapshop. On top of this, most people haven’t the time nor inclination to be as obsessive as I am about measurements, materials, and methods, and want just a simple 1-2-3 recipe that they can throw together at the end of the day without giving much thought to the whys and what-fors.
The following recipe is where it stands as of today. It makes a single, 800g, round, “miche” or country-style loaf, with 100% white flour. There are endless variations on this theme possible, some of which I will describe in due time (including a 100% whole wheat loaf, especially for J&D and their fancy-pants Hawo grinder), but for now, this is the best place for beginners to start. It is a relatively easy dough to work with, and the most forgiving. Above all, its flavor is bad-ass, particularly after 3 or 4 days’ worth of fermentation. Once you master this loaf, you’ll be ready for anything.
So here goes:
(*I call this ‘some-fold’ bread, to distinguish it from the ‘No-Knead Bread’ recipe popularized by Mark Bittman and Steve Lahey in the NYT a few years ago, which was the jumping off point for this recipe. My method remains ‘no-knead’, but does call for more work than the former, with corresponding improvement in flavor and longevity.)
Makes one 800g loaf
(Note: if you have a digital scale, please use it to weigh out the ingredients as listed below; you will get much more consistent results. If you don’t have one (yet), at least make sure you use the correct type of measuring cups: metal squat ones for dry ingredients, pyrex ones for liquids.)
2-3/4 cups All-Purpose Flour (410g)
1-1/4 cup water (300g)
1/3 cup Sourdough Starter or Yeast Sponge (80g)
2 tsp Sea salt or Kosher salt (10g)
Rice flour for dusting
Tools (see notes section below for explanations):
Enameled Cast-Iron Pot (6-8 quarts)
Flat, square-sided tupperware container
Straightedge razor blade or serrated knife
Plastic dough scraper
Metal bench scraper
Place flour in plastic container. Mix water and starter or sponge in a bowl until homogeneous, then pour over the flour. Stir with a dough whisk or a wooden spoon until flour is fully incorporated. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes.
Place a quart container of water nearby, for dipping your hands into as you work. Sprinkle half of the salt over the dough. Wet your fingertips, and press the salt into the dough for 30 seconds or so. Flip the dough over, and repeat with the remaining salt. Cover tightly and let sit for 30 minutes.
Wet your hands, and very gently press the dough to flatten it slightly. You want to stretch it out to the edges of the container while maintaining any trapped gas bubbles that have formed, so don’t manhandle it. Wet your hands again, and lift one edge of the dough, pulling it toward the center of the mass, and drop it there, like you are folding a letter into thirds. Continue like this, working your way around the dough until you come back to the starting point, or just until the dough starts to tighten up. Cover and let sit for 1 hour.
Repeat the stretch-and-fold once per hour for a total of 3 or 4 reps. Over this time, the dough should change from a shaggy, rough mess to a silky smooth ball. After the last stretch-and-fold, cover the container and place in the refrigerator.
The dough may be baked as soon as 24 hours later, or held in the refrigerator for as long as 1 week. The flavor and acidity will improve over time, so I like to give it at least two days. (If you make a larger batch of dough, doubling or quadrupling the above recipe, you can take out portions for baking at any point during the week.)
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and dump it onto a well-floured countertop (if you are dividing a larger batch of dough, portion out what you need and return the remainder to the fridge). Dip your hands into flour, and then gently flatten the dough into a thick, rough circle 6-8″ in diameter, again being careful not to de-gas it.
Flour the top surface of the disc liberally, and then flip it over. With both hands, grab the circumference of the disc and pinch it together, forming the mass into a tadpole shape. Turn the mass on its side, so that the tail is laying flat on the countertop and to one side. Place the heel of your hand just above the base of the tail (imagine you are giving it a karate chop), and roll the mass forward under your hand. This is a little hard to describe, but will make sense after a few tries; the point of the exercise is to seal the tail tightly and to pull the skin of the dough toward it, tightening the ball, which will give the loaf ‘lift’ as it proofs and bakes in the oven. Place the ball on the countertop tail side down, dusting its upper surface with flour.
Line your colander with a towel and dust it liberally with rice flour. Place the dough in the center of the towel, tail side up.
Cover it loosely with another towel, and let sit for at least 1 hour. When the dough is ready for baking, it should be close to room temperature, and should not spring back when poked gently with a fingertip. If not, don’t worry about it, it should still bake fine, as long as it has had at least an hour to proof.
In the meantime, place the pot and its cover on the center rack of your oven, and heat it to 500˚F. In order for pot to absorb enough heat to bake the loaf well, it will need to heat for at least 30 minutes beyond the point the oven comes up to temperature (90 minutes should be enough.)
When you are ready to bake, carefully remove the pot from the oven, place it on your stovetop, and put the cover to one side. Flour your hands and the bottom of the dough (the ‘tail’ side) liberally. Lift the colander in one hand and flip the dough into the other hand, removing the colander and towel. Holding the dough in both hands, very carefully and very gently drop it into the center of the pot. Remember, the pot will be ridiculously hot at this point and will give a nasty burn if you touch it, so DON’T TOUCH IT. Slash the top of the loaf in an X pattern, just deep enough to cut the ‘skin’ and expose the moist interior, about 1/4″ deep, nearly from edge to edge of the loaf. Cover the pot and return it to the oven. Lower the oven temperature to 450˚F, and set your timer for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 400˚F and remove the pot lid. Set your timer for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, examine the loaf for color, which you want to be russet rather than tan. It is better to err a little on the dark side, since even a burnt crust will have a well-baked interior, while an undercooked loaf will be doughy and insipid, and will not keep well. Remove the loaf if it is done, otherwise check every 5 minutes until it is. To get the loaf out of the pot, carefully tip it onto the counter.
Place the loaf onto a cooling rack and allow to cool overnight. Resist, if possible, the urge to slice the bread while it is still warm. The center of a loaf right out of the oven will still be quite gummy; it will be difficult to slice, and will not keep well if cut into too soon.
To store: leave the loaf out on the countertop, cut side down. Do not place it in a bag, which will only encourage the growth of mold. Left out, it will slowly go stale, but that is fine since stale bread remains good for toast, crostini, breadcrumbs, bread puddings, dipping into hot bowls of soup, and so on, while moldy bread is nothing but food for squirrels.
Flour: If you live in the northeast, you are golden, since King Arthur brand all-purpose flour should be easy to find. Even though it is billed as ‘all purpose’, it is about 12% gluten, making it not so hot for flaky biscuits or airy angel food cake, but right on the money for crusty bread. On top of that, it is flour of very high quality and consistency. If KA is not available, look for bread flour, or all purpose flour with 10-12% protein.
Water: Yeasts and bacteria don’t play well with the chlorine in tap water, so use filtered or bottled water, or let the chlorine in your tap water evaporate by leaving a pot of it out on the counter overnight, uncovered.
Sourdough Starter or Yeast Sponge: This bread is better made with a sourdough starter, since it will have greater depth of flavor and will keep longer. To feed your starter, give it equal weights of flour and water, or 1 c flour and 5/8 c water. It is best to do this at least 4h before you want to use it, preferably the night before.
If you don’t have a starter, you can also use a yeast sponge instead, using the following recipe:
1 cup of flour (250g)
5/8 cup of water (250g)
1/4 tsp instant yeast (1g)
Stir ingredients together and let stand overnight at room temperature, covered. When you return to it, it should be bubbly and alive. Use within 12 hours.
Rice flour: Rice flour can be found at health food or grocery stores, or made by grinding white rice in a spice mill or coffee grinder, to the consistency of fine cornmeal.
Enameled Cast-Iron Pot: Nothing fancy needed, as long as it is heavy walled and has a heavy, tight-fitting lid. Le Creuset-style knockoffs can often be found at discount houseware shops for a song.
Linen dishtowel: Linen is best, since dough does not stick to it. Cotton will work, but you’ll probably need to compensate by dusting with more rice flour.
Plastic Colander: Should be large enough to hold the fully-proofed loaf, at least 10″ in diameter, with round sides, lots of holes, and self-supporting. Good ones can be found on the cheap at asian markets.
Tupperware container: Should be large enough to hold the fully risen dough, 4 quarts or so, and wider than it is tall.
Straightedge razor blade or serrated knife: For slashing loaf. A sharp, serrated-edge knife will work, though disposable, double-edged razor blades give a cleaner slash. See the photograph for a makeshift cork-handled slashing tool, which is just a double-edged razor blade carefully embedded into a cork (replace the blade once every four bakes or slow, they go dull quickly.)
Dough whisk: Also known as a Danish dough whisk; a double loop of stiff wire on the end of a wooden handle. This is the bread maker’s best friend. It makes quick work of mixing doughs and batters, and cleans up easily.
Plastic dough scraper: Useful for pulling dough out of containers. A flat plastic or silicone spatula is an acceptable substitute.
Metal bench scraper: For dividing dough and lifting it off of the countertop. A long metal spatula will work.