Yeast! The English once called it “godes good,” believing it was a demonstration of God’s kindness. Yeast earned its place of respect because, for thousands of years, it was the invisible workhorse that fermented our fruits and grains to make wine, beer, and sake, and that quickly brought life to an otherwise inert dough of flour and water.
Yeast thrives on sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste products. What good luck is that? Farmers recognized yeast’s usefulness very early in the history of plant domestication and farming. One of the most robust of the wild sugar-loving yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, became so central to fermenting activities that it migrated from nature into our homes. Like cats, yeast is a semi-domesticated organism. This means that while the yeast that’s around our houses, and in and on our persons, has changed somewhat from its wild ancestor, they’re still very similar. “Yeast” comes from Middle English “yest,” meaning foam or froth. If you add 1 teaspoon of yeast and a similar amount of sugar to 1/4 cup of warm water and leave it for a few minutes, it will begin to foam up. While people didn’t have an accurate scientific understanding of what yeast was until the late 19th century, they knew what it did and how to collect it and use it.
Yeast is good because it’s so easy to use and so easy to manage. If you put creativity and imagination into yeasted breads like many bakers do their sourdough breads, you can be the master of making the bread soft with a sweet, fresh aroma or giving it the chewier texture and tangy flavor of a sourdough bread. You can do this by altering the amount of yeast, the temperature of the dough, and the time and environment in which the dough ripens. By adjusting the amount of water, you can shift from the fine-textured crumb of sandwich bread to the large holes of Italian ciabatta. I want to offer you a recipe with the flour-to-water ratio of many French-style breads, which will give you a nice open crumb and a crisp crust. Make it a couple of times, and then start improvising.
This recipe lends itself to experimentation, and will make a versatile loaf with a smooth crust. I want to introduce you to the idea of personalizing your bread by decorating the crust. All over the world, innovative bakers see the surfaces of their breads as canvases for personal expression. You, too, can do amazing things by using stencils (dusting flour for white and cocoa for dark designs), slashing the dough (either directly into the dough or through a layer of flour dusted over the bread), or with a combination of slashing and stenciling. Whether you bake in a tin or on a baking stone or baking sheet, a few minutes of attention to the crust will take your bread out of the realm of the everyday, and into a space where cooking and art come together.
If you have children, or are baking bread during the holidays when family and friends are around, decorating the surface of breads can itself become an engaging social activity. Creating stencils is an absorbing pursuit for people of all ages, and cutting patterns into the floured surface of the proofed bread with a razor is really exciting. If you’re decorating breads with several people, you may want to have a few breads going at once, or you can make rolls to decorate.
For inspiration, look at the images accompanying this article, go to Downloadable Bread Stencils to download printable stencil templates, or check out my Pinterest boards with images of slashed and stenciled breads and how-to videos (http://goo.gl/NWMmKN ). You can purchase ready-made bread stencils from a number of online retailers, or visit your local craft store to find painting or quilting stencils you can repurpose for decorating breads. I think making your own stencils is a fun project in itself!
To make your own stencils, you’ll need a sharp utility knife, sturdy paper or plastic, and a surface to cut on. I recommend cutting your stencils out of old file folders or cardstock. You’ll also need a very fine sieve for dusting flour onto the bread through the stencil. The only real trick to stenciling breads is that after you’ve dusted the stencil with flour you’ll need to lift it straight up and away from the bread so you don’t spill any flour. Adding tabs to your stencil can help with the vertical lift. If you buy plastic stencils, you may find that dusting the underside with flour will help keep them from sticking to the dough.
Professional bakers use a double-edged razor, called a lame, to slash their loaves. You can order a lame online, or carefully tape over one edge of a double-edged razor and hold the taped edge between your fingers when making cuts (see photo in the slideshow above).
For deep slashes to open up spectacularly, the formed and proofed bread has to be in the perfect state of readiness to go into the oven. The proofed bread should have swelled, but not yet doubled, when you cut your deep slashes. Choosing that moment takes practice; I get it right about half the time.
While this recipe calls for active dry yeast, you can add instant yeast directly to the flour along with the salt. I prefer bread with the lower salt quantity, though the higher quantity is standard. This dough is wetter than a sandwich bread. The surface will be sticky. Work the dough with clean hands that you keep wet by dipping them in a bowl of water. Use a dough scraper to keep your work surface clean.
This recipe also calls for a folded kneading technique, similar to many no-knead bread recipes. If you aren’t yet familiar with this technique, watch Northwest Sourdough’s video of professional bakers demonstrating how to fold and shape a boule (http://goo.gl/2vjPjP). Yield: One 1.25-pound loaf.
• 3-1/2 cups unbleached white flour (15 ounces)
• 1-1/3 to 2 teaspoons salt
• 1-1/2 cups warm water
• For a 1 to 1-1/2 hour rise, 1-1/3 teaspoons active dry yeast
• For an overnight or long day rise, 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
• For an overnight rise, 3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
Note: After these doughs have started rising at room temperature, they can be refrigerated for up to a week, when they’ll develop the texture and taste tonalities of a mild sourdough. Try to get into the habit of always making more dough than you need to bake so some can be refrigerated.
1. In a bowl, mix flour and salt and set aside.
2. In another bowl, mix yeast in warm water, following yeast packet instructions.
3. Set a “sponge” (pre-ferment) by making a well in the flour and then adding the yeast mixture. Mix until smooth.
4. Dust with flour, cover, and set aside in a warm place.
5. When the sponge is clearly active and has risen, and the dusting of flour has cracked, form into a rough mass by hand or with a mixer.
6. Turn out onto a board and knead for a few minutes, until the dough becomes stretchy and elastic. This is a wet dough, so remember to moisten your hands and use your dough scraper.
If using a reduced yeast quantity and a long rise, you can reduce the kneading to a thorough mixing; the gluten will develop as the dough rises.
7. Return to a bowl, cover, and let rise to double in bulk.
8. When risen, turn out onto a lightly floured board and gently stretch and fold the dough over itself a few times. Return the dough to a bowl, cover, and repeat 3 to 4 times at 10- to 15-minute intervals.
9. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit for a soft crust, and up to 425 degrees for a crisper crust.
10. Gently stretch and fold the dough to form a ball, oval, or ring-shaped loaf.
11. When formed, place the dough on a piece of parchment paper and cover.
12. When the dough has started to increase in size, but before it has doubled, slash or apply stencils and then immediately slide the dough, still on its parchment paper, into the pre-heated oven directly on a baking stone or baking sheet.
13 The bread will be done in approximately 40 to 50 minutes. If dusted with flour, remove before the flour begins to darken.
When you feel ready for a change, start experimenting! For a more traditional variant of this basic recipe, substitute 2-1/2 cups white flour and 3/4 cups rye flour for the unbleached white flour to produce a classic pain de campagne.
William Rubel has been baking bread since he was 11 years old, and enjoys an improvisational approach to baking, often using his outdoor oven to test traditional recipes. He is also fascinated by traditional foodways, and in 2004 published The Magic of Fire, a book on hearth cooking. Find his instructions for cooking in an outdoor oven in our June/July 2017 issue.
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