Edited on 16 July 2017. I’ve simplified the procedure I published back in 2014. I removed some steps I found to be unnecessary.
Baking bread is alchemy. Flour, salt, yeast, water, time, and heat combine to yield chewy, airy, crispy-crusty gold. For a long time, kneading, the deep tissue massaging of a lump of dough to develop the gluten and give bread its chew, was a barrier for me. This procedure, which is lightly adapted from the one widely shared by Mark Bittman, which is adapted from that of Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City is free of both kneading or special machines. As it cools, it sounds like a crackling bonfire. It’s awesome.
What’s the difference between what I do and what is described in their procedures? I’ve eliminated the step of proofing the dough in a cloth towel. Getting the dough out of the towel is a messy step, took a lot of extra time, and omitting the step still resulted in excellent bread. I’ve also eliminated the step of additional baking after removing the lid. I found that baking with the lid on at higher temperature achieved the high quality bread.
I usually start this recipe in the evening after I get home from work so that I will have hot, fresh bread for breakfast the next morning. In the winter, if we plan to have stew for dinner, I will start it in the morning before I go to work for fresh bread in the evening.
The amount of active time is around 10 minutes total for the whole recipe, including getting out bowls, measuring, mixing, getting the oven ready, and transferring the dough into the pot and getting the hot, fresh, crackling bread out. The heavy lifting is done by the combination of yeast, which eats a bit of the carbohydrate and produces carbon dioxide gas and some flavors, and water, which activates the gluten and allows it to organize into the long strands that give bread its toothiness.
I have had consistent, excellent results using cups and spoons scooping and tapping flour to level and scooping and scraping to level for the other dry ingredients. Hardcore bakers weigh ingredients. That level of precision makes a difference in a lot of baking, but isn’t critical here.
- 3 cups of bread flour. Up to 1:1 bread flour to whole wheat flour is also nice. All purpose flour, which has less gluten than bread flour, also gives a nice product, but will be a bit softer and flatter. You can effectively convert all purpose flour to bread flour by adding vital wheat gluten.
Optional: 1 tablespoon of vital wheat gluten if using all purpose flour or whole wheat flour. Adding this results in a taller structure and crisper crust. If you are using rye, I would add 3 tablespoons unless you like dense bread.
- 5/4 teaspoon of salt
- 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast (a packet contains about 2 1/4 teaspoons)
- A bit more than 1.5 cups of warm tap water
1 bowl, at least 3 quarts
1 piece of plastic wrap
1 spoon or spatula (optional)
1 cutting board or other clean work surface
1 pot (I use an enameled iron dutch oven, but any heavy, lidded vessel free of plastic parts or nonstick coating would work.)
1 set of potholders
1 oven capable of 500 degrees F
- If you are able to program a start time for your oven, place your pot and lid on the lowest rack in the oven, set the baking temperature to 500 F, and set the start time for about 30 minutes before you plan to bake the bread; when I mix dough in the evening, I set my oven start for 5:30am because I usually get up between 5:30 and 6:30am and my oven is waiting for me. For my oven, I’ve found that this is the amount of time it takes for the oven to get to 500 F. If you have an oven thermometer, you can see what it takes for your oven. I’ve found that the preheat timer on my oven doesn’t come close to the time it takes to actually get the oven to temperature. If you cannot program your oven, that’s ok. You’ll just have to turn it on manually later.
- Add the flour, salt, and yeast to the bowl and mix them together.
- Add the water. Start with 1.5 cups, mix, and add splashes of additional water until the dry ingredients are mostly incorporated.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and clean up the mess. Let the dough ferment (proof) on the counter for 6 to 24 hours. You don’t need to sweat the time and proofing temperature. Leaving the bowl on the counter at whatever ambient room temperature is works for me year round. When the dough is ready, it will appear wet, spread out in the bowl, and dotted with carbon dioxide bubbles from the fermentation. NOTE: If you find that you won’t be baking the bread within 24 hours of mixing, store the dough in the fridge, unless you like to make booze.
- If you weren’t able to/forgot to program your oven to start, place your pot and lid in the oven and heat the oven to 500 F at least 30 minutes ahead of baking to allow the oven to get to temperature. As mentioned in step 1, leave an analog oven thermometer in your oven near the front visible through the glass so you can understand how long it takes for your oven to get to temperature and minimize energy use.
- Flour a work surface and turn out the dough. Fold it over itself four times, shape it into a round, and cover it with the plastic wrap from the bowl.
- When the oven is hot, take the pot out of the oven and remove the lid. Keep the potholder on the lid to remind you that it is hot! If you like, you can sprinkle some cornmeal in the pot, but I’ve found this to be unnecessary. Slash the top of the dough if you like. Plop the dough into the hot pot. It is ok if it is messy looking. It will sort itself out while baking.
- If you like, you can sprinkle sesame seeds on top.
- Place the (HOT!) lid on the pot and return it to the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 460 F. Set a timer for 50 minutes. The closed pot creates a steamy environment, which is critical for the development of crispy crust.
- Take the (HOT!) lid off of the pot and check for golden-ness. Continue baking with the lid off if you feel it needs a bit more color. I can’t remember the last time I needed to do this.
- Remove the pot from the oven and transfer the bread to a cooling rack. Smell the hot, fresh bread.
- Listen to the crackling sound as the bread cools.
- Share it and eat it with butter and jam.
- Start over.