Simple Steps to Bread Baking

Bread baking is cloaked by a bit of undeserved mystery — many people assume it takes a long time and involves complicated steps but that couldn't be further than the truth.

| February/March 2001

The second rising doesn't really count as a step — after all, the dough does the work. You can tend your garden, curl up with a book or go for a long walk.

The equipment list is pretty short, too. You need an oven capable of heating up to 475°F (245°C) for at least 20 minutes, a small sheet pan, a bowl with a plastic bag to cover it, and an accurate clock. Most of the other necessary items can be found in any minimally-stocked kitchen. It's best if your room temperature is a moderate 60 to 70°F but there are ways to compensate for deviations in temperature.

The following recipe will yield two loaves, about 1 1/2 pounds each, of basic French bread. It's a slightly sour bread with a crisp crust and a chewy interior. Don't let the 12-hour first rise alarm you — if you assemble the dough in the evening and let it sit overnight, the hours go by pretty quickly. After the first rise, you can mix in any number of ingredients for a little variety, but get comfortable with the basic recipe first.

Basic French (Overnight) Bread

2 lbs. unbleached white flour (6 1/2 cups unsifted)
1 teaspoon instant yeast (or 1 1/2 dry yeast) dissolved in water below
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons warm water (100°F to 120°F)
3 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

Combine all ingredients together in a large bowl and mix with your hands, or use a five-quart mixer with a bread hook attachment. Then, knead for five to ten minutes until smooth and elastic. (You can leave the dough in the bowl while you're knead ing or turn it out onto a light ly floured sur face.) Put dough cover it with a plastic sheet or bag, and let it rise overnight in a warm and still environment.

After the first rise, the dough should resemble a stringy spider web when stretched out. Punch it down, then divide and shape the dough into loaves of any shape. You can now set it aside for the second rise, or proofing, which will take about three hours.

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