Artisan bread: easy, easy, easy!

I’ve known for several years that home cooks could bake artisan-type bread, the kind with the crispy crust and the chewy interior with lots of air holes, in a Dutch oven, but a recipe published in The Oregonian in about 2012 finally got me going.2014-01-10 11.25.56

I’ve always baked bread, and in the past had perfected several shortcuts, such as kneading the dough in a food processor and even letting it rise in the processor’s bowl, then using the blade to “punch” it down before forming the bread on a floured surface.

But this new recipe is far easier. It takes less than 10 minutes to whip up enough dough for a week’s worth of bread for Robert and me–about five smallish loaves. Keep the dough in the fridge, pull off a chunk from time to time, and enjoy fresh bread every day.

Ingredients

  • 6 1/2 cups flour
  • 3 cups water, cold or lukewarm
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher or sea salt
  • 1 scant tablespoon dry yeast, or one packet (see below for sourdough instructions)

Basic method

I’ll explain the ingredients in more detail below, but here’s how the bread works.

1. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well.  There’s no need to knead. The dough should be very sticky almost wet. Cover and refrigerate.

2. When it’s time to bake a new loaf, scoop out a chunk of dough, form it, let it rise 40 minutes, then bake for 30-35 minutes at 450° F. See more detailed instructions about baking below.

Flour:

I usually use

  • 4 cups bread flour (Bob’s Red Mill, Stone-Buhr, King Arthur),
  • 2 cups whole-wheat and/or rye (use dark rye flour, which is whole-grain)
  • 1/2 cup (or a bit more) Bob’s Red Mill rolled cereal mix (I’ve used 5-grain and 7-grain, and there’s also a 10-grain variety), which add a wonderful texture. Other options include oatmeal, rye flakes, barley flakes, etc. If making rye bread, try 1/4 to 1/2 cup pumpernickel (whole rye groats) and a generous 1 tablespoon caraway seeds.
  • About 2 tablespoons flax meal

Have fun experimenting with the mix of flours, but beware of using too much whole-wheat or rye. The gluten in the bread flour is what supports the bread. I tried adding vital wheat gluten to help dough with large amounts of whole grains to rise better, but it made the bread too tough.

Sometimes I add a teaspoon or two of sugar or barley malt syrup to help the yeast grow. Maybe it works … I like the bread either way.

Water

In My Bread, the book that started the home-baked artisan bread revolution, Jim Lahey uses 1 teaspoon of yeast and cold water to make a dough that rises very slowly. Since I always refrigerate the dough at least overnight before baking at, it really doesn’t matter what temperature the water is. I often use lukewarm water from my electric kettle.

Yeast

One packet, or a scant 1 tablespoon of active dry yeast is plenty to leaven this whole recipe. You could use even less, a la Lahey, if you are using loose yeast. Bulk dry yeast keeps for years in the freezer, but if it’s been awhile, to proof it to make sure it’s viable.

In the fall of 2013, my friend Steve from Taborgrass gave me some sourdough starter, and I have adapted the bread recipe to use that. Every time I open the container from my fridge, I think “happy, happy, happy!” If it sits for quite awhile, a gray layer of liquid forms on top that is mostly alcohol. I usually mix most of it back into the starter, then lift out about 1 cup to add to my ingredients for the bread. I feed the remaining starter with 1 cup flour and 3/4 cup filtered water.

To compensate for the liquid in the starter, I reduce the amount of water in the recipe to about 2 cups.

Salt

The amount of salt, 1-1/2 tablespoons, may seem like a lot, and you could use as little as 1 tablespoon. However, the bread really tastes better with the larger amount of salt.

Baking

So, every day or two I scoop out a good fistful of dough, about the size of large grapefruit, and let it rise for 20 minutes on a floured cloth. The dough is wet, remember, so it helps to dust it and the hands with flour. Roll it about on the floured cloth, quickly forming the dough ball into a comfortable loaf shape. This only takes a few seconds. Sprinkle a little more flour on top of the dough and let it sit for 20 minutes. Total rising time is 40 minutes; it takes just 20 minutes to preheat my oven.

After 20 minutes, turn on the oven to 450° F and put a cast-iron Dutch oven and its lid in the oven to preheat.  When the oven is hot, working quickly, open the oven, pick up the dough by putting a hand under the cloth, and gently tip the dough into the hot cast-iron pot. Sometimes I slash the top with a sharp knife, but that step isn’t necessary (my son-on-law has since given me a handy French razor for just that purpose; it has a plastic sheath that protects the blade). Quickly replace the lid and close the oven, then set the timer for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, reset the heat in the oven to 425° before opening the oven and taking the cover off the pot. The lower heat helps the interior cook more thoroughly. Bake for another 10 to 13 minutes, until the loaf is a strong brown–as Lahey writes, almost mahogany. Set the pot on top of the stove and immediately scoop out the loaf with a spoon or spatula; put it on a rack to cool. Try not to cut into it until it is completely cool, otherwise the interior will be gummy.

 

 

 

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