The most comforting and best tasting food in the world is bread. I don’t care what kind of delicacies you have eaten or how sophisticated your palate is, whether you are child or an adult and where you come from, no one can resist freshly baked bread. I can honestly say that it is my absolutely favorite food to eat and absolutely the most temperamental, difficult to master and hardest to cook.
Al lot of though and work goes into a properly baked bread. How many of us, really have a bread baking, stone, fire burning oven? You need to trick your normal house oven into thinking it is all that.
How much gluten is in each flour kind? What is in the water? Do I use commercial or natural yeast? Do I bother with making and training the starters?
Once I started baking bread a few years ago and begun reading about bread baking and countless recipe books and advise later, I realized that you probably need a lifetime to learn to bake perfect bread, every time. All of the above questions about flours, water, yeast, temperatures and starters were haunting me and all of the conflicting advice confused me. I kept on baking, coming up with different results each time, learning from my mistakes each time. These days, I can produce great bread 2 out of 4 times as long as it is the kind of bread I baked before and as long as I do not violate some of my own rules (which I do often).
Here are a few of my own rules:
1. Don’t bother with naturally born yeast, feeding and training starters unless you are really ready for very unpredictable results, foul smelling science experiments and middle of the night terrors that you forgot to FEED IT again.
2. If you do decide to work with starters, stick to store bought bread until you get the hang of it, which may be never.
3. Invest in a scale, cups are a poor way to measure different types of lours.
4. Dough does not like to be rushed.. good bread takes time
5. Dough does not like to be abandoned, if you leave it out to long, it will over-rise and leave you and your bread flat.
6. Your bread dough likes your hands, not the dough hook of a Cusineart. You will feel the dough better and get the hang of the proper texture if you mix and knead by hand.
7. Flour matters, so experiment with as many types and combinations as you can, to find what works best for you.
8. Never cut hot bread
Here is one of my favorites and the ones that most of the time it turns out well.
3 cups of King Arthur Italian blend bread flour
1 ½ cups of stone ground wheat bread flour
2 cups of King Arthur bread flour
1 ½ tablespoons of instant yeast ( I like SAF Red Instant yeast)
1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
½ tablespoon sugar
3 cups of warm water at 105 or 110F. ( The water should not be warmer than 115F as it will kill the yeast, but I like to make to start off with hot water, as I keep my yeast in the fridge and I find that very warm water wakes it faster)
Makes 2 medium size loafs or one very large one.
Mix the yeast and about 1 cup of water in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Let stand for about 10 min. Add all of the flour, sugar, salt and the rest of the water and mix just to combine.
Turn out into a floured board and knead with your hands until the dough begins to feel warm, about 5 minutes.
Place into a lightly oiled plastic bowl large enough to accommodate rising dough. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for about 1 ½ hrs or until the dough doubles in size.
After the dough rises, turn it out onto the floured surface and knead very lightly with your hands, be careful not to deflate the dough to much. It should feel light and stretchy now.
Place back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for a slow rise.
At this point you can keep it in the fridge for up to 1 week without baking.
Take out the dough and let it come to room temperature.
On the floured surface, knead the dough until it is very stretchy but still soft and airy. At this point you can do the windowpane test. Take a small piece of dough and stretch it like a membrane between your hands. Look up at the light, of the membrane is thin enough to see the light through and does not tear, you have the right dough consistency. If not, keep kneading.
Shape the loafs and place them on the parchment paper and cover with a kitchen towel.
In the mean time, prepare the oven.
Line the very bottom rack of your oven with a baking stone or unglazed quarry times (See note). On the very top rack place an empty baking pan which is at least an inch deep. Crank up your oven to as high as it will go (mine goes only up to 550F). Let the oven heat up for 1 hr after it comes up to full temperature. This gives your loafs just enough time rise.
Score your loafs with a razor or sharp knife in whichever patter you prefer to help them rise in the oven.
With the loafs fully risen and oven pre-heated, place your loafs directly on the tiles. You can keep them on parchment paper if you prefer they are easier to move this way.
Working quickly, add about ½ inch of very hot water to the hot baking pan. This will create steam in the first few minutes of baking and will help to create a cracking crust. You can also spray a few squirts of water on to the oven sides and floor; just don’t get it on the glass door. Believe me, just don’t… it ruins your whole week.
Bake the bread at 480F for the first 10 min and then lover the temperature to 455F and bake for an additional 15 min of making medium size loafs. If you are baking one large loaf, bake it for 35- 40 min total.
Take the bread out of the oven and cool it on the cooling rack, to prevent the crust from getting soggy on the bottom. After a few minutes you may hear your crust start to make cracking sounds as it cools… don’t be alarmed, this is the best sound in the world. It means you achieved a crackling crust.
Resist the temptation to tear into the hot bread. Allowing it to cool is part of the cooking process and makes for proper crumb and flavor development.
One thing I can tell you is that no matter what you put in front of your guests at the table, all of the freshly baked bread will be gone first. It will yield you the most compliments and make for most conversation. And this makes sense, because nothing makes us feel more at home than bread.
Note: Baking stones can be quite expensive and they tend to crack. I go with unglazed quarry tiles which are about 70 cents apiece at your local hardware store. These are the brick colored, Mexican looking tiles. Just make sure they have a flat surface, not glazed. They are easier to replace when crack and certainly cheaper.