I have always found baking homemade bread to be truly simple. I just put flour, water, leaven and salt together and stir. I often put the water in the bowl directly from the tap and just turn off the tap when I think I have enough. I never measure precisely, and people always love my bread. I honestly think you can’t fail at bread making as long as you pay attention to the dough and don’t try to bake it when it isn’t ready.
Making bread you’re happy with is a matter of both the bread and your expectations. A loaf of bread doesn’t have to look the same every time or match a picture in a book. There is no one pathway to delicious bread.
Here, I’ll share how to make a crusty white loaf, a deeply flavorful multigrain bread and a lovely sandwich bread. I encourage a largely free-form, no-knead system in which your role as bread baker is like that of improvising jazz musician or nurturing gardener. It is a holistic system that recognizes fermenting bread dough as alive and ever-changing. It is a system that sees each batch of dough as having the potential to produce an infinite range of successful conclusions, such that each recipe is a window into a world of possibilities rather than an end in itself.
The Yeast You Can Do
Yeast is active in dough at any temperature above freezing up to the oven temperature that finally kills it (about 140 degrees Fahrenheit). Like plants, yeasts grow more quickly at warmer temperatures. Just as hothouse vegetables may look beautiful but have little flavor, when dough rises at hothouse temperatures (80 degrees and higher), you get good gas production but not good flavor. Yeast needs time to create good flavors. I suggest using an instant-read thermometer so you can check dough temperature conveniently.
Experiment with long, slow fermentations (12 to 20 hours). This means experimenting with a small amount of yeast in the dough — no more than one-half to 1 teaspoon per pound of flour — and dough rising temperatures from the low 70s down to those of your refrigerator. In a hot summer kitchen, mix the dough with cool water. In a cold winter kitchen, mix it with warm water. Be patient with your dough and it will always yield fabulous bread.
That said, sometimes you may need to make bread in a hurry. If you have to, use a packet of yeast (2¼ teaspoons), mix the dough with warm water and let it rise in a warm place — and be happy! It’s always better to enjoy a homemade loaf than plastic-packaged bread.
Yeast Types and Tips
Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the single-celled fungus responsible for fermentation in beer, wine and bread. Bread yeasts are simply strains of S. cerevisiae selected for maximum carbon dioxide production in doughy environments.
Yeast strains optimized for bread come in three forms: as blocks of refrigerated, active compressed yeast (19th-century technology), as granulated dried yeast to be rehydrated in warm water (1940s technology), and as finely milled dried yeast to be rehydrated with the flour (1970s technology). This last form of yeast is often called “instant yeast.” Beer and wine yeasts, which you can easily purchase online, produce exceedingly flavorful loaves.
In my talks with yeast companies, I’ve been consistently told that most of their customers are more interested in speed than taste. Instructions on yeast packets reflect this priority. Here’s my advice: If the yeast should be hydrated in water, then use warm water, as the packet directs. But if the yeast should be stirred directly into the flour, then, as a rule, don’t use water that is above 80 degrees. The worst that can happen if you use water cooler than the yeast manufacturer recommends is that less yeast will come back alive in your dough than the manufacturer anticipated. This means your bread will take longer to rise from a given unit of yeast, but because a longer rise is associated with better flavor, that is a good thing (unless you’re in a big hurry). If you’re in a hurry, use warm water.
For recipe improvisers, you may want to keep this in mind: Active compressed yeast contains lots of water, so you need to use more of it — about twice as much by weight as you’d use of dry yeast to achieve the same results. Also, some recent quick rise yeasts don’t seem to support repeated rises, so if your bread seems to die after an initial rise, try changing yeast brands.
No Need to Knead
Kneading seems inextricably linked to bread making, but a shift in thinking is underway on this topic. Many think breads require much less kneading than tradition suggests — or even none at all. The recipes I offer here are all no-knead recipes.
As many bakers are now discovering, kneading is not necessary for the development of a wheat bread’s gluten structure (for more information, see Healthy No-Knead Bread Recipes). In fact, the gluten network develops during fermentation. I stopped kneading bread 30 years ago after I did some testing and realized it didn’t seem necessary for the kinds of breads I like to make. Lately, my reading of 19th-century American cookbooks has made me suspicious of kneading for other reasons. For instance, the length of time a housewife kneaded her bread dough was long associated with how much care she was thought to be showing her family.
My advice to home bakers is to give up your bread machines, experience the pleasure of making bread by hand and don’t stress the kneading. To achieve breads with a good final form (remembering that form and taste are different things), you can give the dough a few folds as you form the loaf (see bread-folding photos in the Image Gallery, Step 1, Step 2 and Step 3). Folding is particularly effective in strengthening the gluten structure of softer dough. (For information, plus videos of the technique, see Bread-Folding Techniques.)
A couple of years ago I visited a friend of mine, a baker, at his main plant. He has a large baking business, Acme Bread Co., which is respected in the artisan baking world. I was struggling at the time with how to write down bread recipes, so I asked him whether he ever baked from written recipes. After a long pause, he said he must have when he was just starting out. In my friend’s bakery, recipes are adjusted on a daily basis, and that includes the oven temperatures at which they bake.
It was an epiphany for me. For the first time, I saw that for a commercial baker, the written recipe is the start of a lifelong association. The baker and the recipes evolve together.
I hope you think of the recipes here as beginnings, not ends. Change them. Make them yours. If you’re a meticulous person, then write down what you do. Try paying attention to dough temperature, recognizing that you are the gardener, the nurturer, of this living dough. There may not be flowers, but there are lots of complex fruits of the fermentation process — and many of the best fruits, the best flavors, are developed at low temperatures, even in the refrigerator. Experiment. You will be rewarded.
Crusty White Bread Recipe
This rustic white bread spreads out as it bakes, which forms natural breaks in its surface crust, creating a dramatic presentation. This bread is made with fairly wet dough, which is a requirement if you want big holes in the crumb, and it’s leavened with a small amount of yeast, which provides the opportunity for a long, cool rise — overnight and most of the next day at a cool room temperature. The long, slow rise lets the yeast and various enzymes develop maximum flavor in the dough, and also makes for a chewy texture. You can put a crisp crust on any non-enriched dough (flour, water, leaven and salt; no eggs) by baking it on a baking stone and setting your home oven to its highest temperature.
Ingredients and Supplies:
1 pound unbleached white flour
1 tsp dry yeast
1 tsp salt
1 1⁄3 cups water
Baking stone or cookie sheet
Pizza peel or heavy piece of cardboard
Note: If rehydrating yeast with water, subtract the amount of water you added to the yeast from the 1 1⁄3 cups in the recipe.
Starting the night before baking day, in a large mixing bowl use your hands to mix the flour, yeast, salt, and enough water to a form a soft and sticky dough, though the exact consistency may vary with the flour used. Cover, and let the dough rise at room temperature. When you get up in the morning, wet your hands, lift dough onto a flat, wet surface, then gently stretch it and fold it in half 2 to 4 times (see photos in the Image Gallery). Return dough to the same bowl, cover, and let it rise until it has doubled in size. If you take the temperature of the dough with an instant-read thermometer and it’s below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, you may want to put it in a warm place, otherwise the rise may take until the afternoon.
While the bread is in its second round of rising, line a bowl that will comfortably hold double the amount of dough with a cotton or linen cloth heavily dusted with flour. When the dough has doubled, gently turn out onto a work surface, and with wet hands and a dough scraper (if you have one), stretch and fold, and turn 2 to 4 times until the dough begins to stiffen and assume the shape of a ball.
Place ball into the bowl on the well-floured cloth. Cover, and let rise until the dough has almost doubled again, 1 to 4 hours depending on room temperature.
Turn onto a well-floured pizza peel or a well-floured piece of heavy cardboard. Slide onto a baking stone or cookie sheet in an oven preheated to 500 degrees. Bake until the crust is golden brown on top and the bottom crust is hard and thumps like a drum when you tap it (about 30 to 40 minutes). Set to cool bottom-up for at least 2 hours before slicing.
Note: Adding humidity to the oven always improves bread crusts. To achieve this, try keeping a pan filled with water in the oven while baking. You can also try baking with a stainless steel mixing bowl over the bread.
Opulent Farmers’ Bread Recipe
I created this recipe for a hearty, 3-pound loaf from a reference to “opulent farmers” I read in a 1795 British agricultural text. The farmers ate bread consisting of 1 part wheat flour, 1 part rye and 1 part barley. This dense, whole-grain bread has sweet undertones from the rye, made more complex by the wheat and barley. It was one of the first breads I made with my flour mill. I was amazed! I hadn’t expected the difference between store-bought and freshly ground grain to be so great. This is a good bread no matter the origin of the flour you use, but it’s a memorable bread if made with freshly ground grains.
Like all whole-grain breads that are largely based on grains other than wheat, the Opulent Farmers’ Bread has a sticky crumb until the finished loaf has rested overnight.
This powerful bread goes well with strong flavors, such as a richly flavored stew or aged cheddar and chutney. Breads like this were staples in Europe for thousands of years. It is nutritionally rich, great-tasting, real food.
Ingredients and Supplies:
2 cups whole-wheat flour
2 cups whole-rye flour
2 cups whole-barley flour
1 1⁄8 tsp dried yeast
2 tsp salt
2 3⁄4 cups water
Baking stone or cookie sheet
Pizza peel or heavy piece of cardboard
White flour for dusting formed loaf
Note: Sift out larger grains for a slightly lighter loaf. If rehydrating yeast with water, subtract the amount of water you added to the yeast from the 2 3/4 cups in the recipe.
Starting the night before baking, in a bowl mix the wheat, rye and barley flour along with the yeast, salt and enough water to form a supple yet firm dough. After mixing, work over the dough with wet fists for half a minute or so until it has a satiny feel. Cover and let rise at room temperature.
The bread will not double, but will get noticeably softer. In the morning, if you cut into it with a sharp knife, you’ll see small air holes. With wet hands, gently de-gas the dough, cover and let rise again.
After a few hours, turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and gently shape into an oval or circle. Dust with flour and set aside to rise. Gently lift the bread and place it on a well-floured pizza peel or a well-floured piece of heavy cardboard. Slide onto the baking stone or cookie sheet in an oven preheated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, and then lower the oven to 350 degrees. After an hour, lower it to further to 325 degrees. I do bake the bread for 2 1/2 hours. I like a very strong, crisp crust, and I have exceedingly sharp knives. Unless the bread is burnt on the outside or raw on the inside, there is really no right or wrong to baking times. Bake to your taste. If your intuition tells you that you 2 hours is enough, then take it out. Traditionally, if you thump on the bottom of the loaf and the sound is hollow, the bread is done.
When done, remove from the oven and let cool, bottom side up. Do not slice until the next day. You will find that the bread’s flavor improves for several days after baking. Store it wrapped in a towel.
(These baking instructions are a corrected version from those printed in the magazine. To read more from the author on the topic, check out the comments, below. — MOTHER)
Basic Sandwich Bread Recipe
When the meal isn’t the bread but what’s between the slices, you’ll want something much lighter than the Opulent Farmers’ Bread but with a finer crumb than the Crusty White Bread. A good sandwich bread has character but is soft and cakelike and plays the role of supporting actor to the fillings. Historically, American sandwich bread has been lightly enriched with a little fat in the form of milk and oil. The recipe here is based on an early 18th-century English bread called “French bread.” The only change I’ve made is cutting back on the eggs from three to one (the original is more like a challah). This recipe calls for more yeast than the Crusty White Bread so the bread will rise faster and yield a softer crumb. It also calls for less liquid so the crumb will be finer in texture.
Ingredients and Supplies:
3 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1 tbsp softened butter
1 egg, preferably from a pastured chicken for the rich color and nutrition the yolk provides, beaten
1 tsp salt
2 1⁄4 tsp dried yeast
1 1⁄4 cups milk at room temperature
1 bread tin, buttered
1 egg, beaten and thinned with water, for brushing (optional)
Note: If rehydrating yeast with water, subtract the amount of water you added to the yeast from the 1 1⁄4 cups of milk.
Put flour in a mixing bowl along with the softened butter. Use your fingers to work the butter into the flour until no large pieces remain. Next, add the beaten egg, salt and yeast. Holding the bowl with one hand, stir in enough warm milk to form a dough. At this point, the dough should be raggedy and rough.
Turn onto a lightly floured board, wash your hands of dough, and with wet hands knead a few times to be sure the dough is well-mixed, then place in a clean, lightly buttered bowl and let the dough rise, covered, in a warm place. After it has doubled in bulk (about 1 1/2 hours), turn onto a lightly floured board. Gently press out the gas and form dough into a rectangle to fit into a buttered bread tin. Cover, set in as warm a place as you have, and let rise until nearly doubled. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the bread is ready, brush the top of the loaf with a beaten egg thinned with a little water (this step is optional). Bake until crust is golden, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven, turn out of the tin, and let cool on its side for at least 3 hours before cutting.
William Rubel has been making bread since he was 11 years old. His first book on the subject, Bread, will be published by Reaktion Books in late 2011.