by Berck

I’ve gotten several requests lately for my bread “recipe”. I don’t use a recipe for bread, and I don’t even really measure. In general, in order to make good food, it much better to learn techniques that get you toward an end goal than to follow a recipe. Baking a cake involves careful measurement, but bread does not.

I learned everything I know about bread from reading Peter Reinhart’s books and experimenting. I started with his recipes, but I’ve adapted them to my kitchen, temperament, ingredients and perferences. If you want a recipe, buy one of his books. Artisan Breads Everyday is probably a good place to start these days. That said, I’ll let you know what I do.

I’ll cover both sourdough and bread from commercial yeast. Other than the yeast source, I don’t do things much differently. I aim for a chewy, rustic, hearth-style artisan bread. I judge success by a loaf with a crumb that has nice large, irregular holes. I want the crust to be brown, ideally with some caramelized sugars on top that got there via enzymatic production.

I start with yeast and water. For commercial-yeast, I use SAF Red Instant. Any yeast will do, but if you use “active dry” yeast, you need to activate it with lukewarm water (100 degrees F). If you use instant yeast, this is not necessary, and I usually use cold, filtered watered from my fridge. I use one “packet” of yeast, though I buy it buy the pound and have a 2-1/4tsp measuring cup that is the same as a “packet”. I do measure the yeast.

I use roughly 2.5 cups of water. If I’m making sourdough, instead of yeast, I add roughly 8oz by weight of starter. I keep my starter as a 50/50 by-weight mix of water and flour which makes it easy to mix and easy to feed.

I use a mixer with dough hook. You don’t have to, but I’m lazy, and much of my techniques are optimized for laziness. Even if you’re planning on kneading by hand, it’s nice to bring everything together in a mixer. The nice thing about a mixer is that you can deal with very wet dough which, in general, produces a better result than dough that’s comfortable to work by hand.

I add 1 tablespoon salt. (I do measure the salt. For commercial yeast, I taste and correct the dough, but I’m not a fan of consuming raw sourdough, so I try to get it right.) Then I’ll add flour slowly, running the mixer incrementally until it looks like I have a dough that’s clearing the sides, but still sticking to the bottom of the mixer. I turn off the mixer and wait awhile. 5 minutes to half an hour. I try to mix at medium-high speed for 5 minutes, let it rest 5 minutes and repeat until it seems like it’s done. I aim to leave the dough too wet to comfortably hand-knead. Note that it’s much easier to add flour than water, so I try very hard to never wind up with a dough that’s too dry.

After mixing, I take it out, put it in a zip-lock bag. If I’m planning on baking the next day, or it’s always if it’s sourdough, I leave it on the counter for a few hours. When it’s roughly doubled, I let the air out, seal it up and stick in the fridge. Overnight is fine, 24 hours is better, 4 days is starting to push it. The longer you let it go, the more flavor you get. If you’re making sourdough and are seeking a more “sour” flavor, go for 3 days in the fridge. More than 4 days and the dough starts to break down.

I take it out in the morning and put it back on the counter for 4 hours or so, at which point it’s warmed up and happy again. Because the dough is way too wet to handle, I dump it onto a well-floured counter. I carefully shape it into a loaf and place it on some parchment paper. I try not manipulate it more than necessary, and use shaping techniques that result in a stretched outer surface. I cover it and let it proof until it’s ready.

Ideally that should happen it about 4 hours. I preheat my oven to 550 with a baking stone in the lower third of the oven. Don’t use convection settings unless you want a moon rock. I score the top of the bread with a razer blade for better oven spring. You want to make sure the stone is very nice and hot. When Jonah yells at me the oven’s been hot forever, I put the bread in and pour about a cup of near-boiling water on the bottom of the oven for steam. (You should probably use a pan, but I’m lazy and I have a gas oven, so I just pour on the bottom.) Close it up, reduce the temperature to 425 and bake for 15-20 minutes or so until it’s golden brown. You can thump it and it’ll sound hollow, but after you dial in your process you can tell by crust color. Let cool for at least half an hour. Ideally you should let it cool overnight, but it’s hard to resist warm bread.

In order to keep the crust crusty, I either cut it so I can balance the cut side face-down on the cutting board, or cover the open portion with aluminum foil. Don’t wrap the whole thing in plastic or you’ll ruin the crust.

Things that are important: Use good flour. If you want rustic bread, it’s hard to get good results with all-purpose flour. It doesn’t have enough gluten and will be too fluffy. Good bread should not be fluffy, nor should it be too dense. Americans have a thing for bland, flavorless, fluffy, white bread. If that’s what you’re after, the supermarket will sell you a loaf for $1.50 baked that day, and you can save yourself the trouble.

I’ve settled on King Arthur bread flour until recently because quarantine bakers have made it completely unobtainable for me. I’ve ordered a 50-lb bag of high-gluten ADM flour, and I’m excited to see how that works out. It has substantially more protein than King Arthur, and it may be that extra kick I’ve been looking for. Or it might make rocks…

It’s harder to make dough too wet than too dry. The wetter the better in the long run. It requires less kneading. If it’s too wet, you can’t get it to hold its shape. In my experience, it should be unpleasant to handle–it’s going to want to stick to everything if you’ve gotten it right.

You can bake bread the same day you mix the ingredients, but it won’t be anywhere near as good, and you probably need to work it a lot more for decent texture. I consider overnight to be an absolute minimum fermentation time for this sort of bread. Long, cold, slow fermentation makes for great flavor. Additionally, you get good enzymatic breakdown of the flour which makes it easy to shape, and gets you that beautiful irregular cell structure.

I do sometimes use bread pans if I want squarish loaves for sandwiches. I find them to be a lot of bother, and I’m generally okay with oval sandwiches. Even when using a pan, I still bake on a stone. If you’re shopping for a stone, you want the biggest, thickest one you can find. Thin pizza stones don’t absorb/transfer enough heat.

Baking without parchment paper is a lot harder–corn meal works, but it’s still almost impossible to move dough as wet as I like from wherever you’re proofing into the oven without parchment paper–it’s just too sticky.

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