Friday, May 21, 2010

Baker, baker

Michael asked me if I could do a post about our bread baking. I believe that the proper response to such a request is, "Get your own damn blog," but since I'm a nice person (and since our bread is indeed beautiful and worthy of publicity), I said "yes" instead.

We started baking our own bread about two years ago. Sure, we've broken down and bought the occasional baguette, but for the most part, all the bread that we've had in the house since then has been made by us. It started (as I suspect it did for a lot of people), with the New York Times article on no-knead bread. The recipe relies on time, rather than physical kneading, to get all of the ingredients properly incorporated. It also calls for baking the dough in a pre-heated Dutch oven. This mimics an industrial steam-injection oven by capturing the moisture from the bread as it's baking, leading to a crispier crust. Finally, it uses much more water than a conventional bread recipe, which helps to create a chewy texture with an open crumb.

Like this:
Still too technical for you? Here are the details:
6 and 1/2 cups of flour (we use a mix of 2 and 1/2 cups of white flour, 2 cups of bread flour, 1 cup of whole wheat flour and 1 cup of rye flour)
1 and 1/2 tablespoons of salt
1 tablespoon of yeast
3 and 1/4 cups of water (more or less)

All of the ingredients get mixed together in a large food-grade plastic bucket, and then left out on the counter to rise for a few hours before we either shape a loaf or stick the whole thing in the fridge until we're ready to bake.

Incidentally, that last bit is a modification to the original recipe, inspired in part by some innovations we found in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (see also this article). Because the dough really doesn't need any attention paid to it, you can make a huge quantity, let the yeast do its thing for a while, and then put the whole mess away until you need it. Our recipe usually makes enough for three good-sized loaves.

Also, taking a leaf out of the sourdough book, we almost never wash the bread bucket (avert your eyes, Mom!). This lets the nice yeasty flavor sit and ferment between batches, and we can then incorporate these flavorful bits into the next batch.

The assembly technique, such as it is, is dead simple. Mix all of the ingredients together in the bucket:

Michael likes to put some of the water in first and use it to help him scrape the old dough bits off the sides of the bucket. Then the flour, salt, and yeast goes on top and gets mixed together, and the rest of the water goes on top. It turns out looking like a soft, sticky mess. Way too wet to knead, even if you wanted to.

Then it sits on the counter...

...for a few hours...

...until it's doubled in size.

When we're ready to bake, we pull off a piece of dough and spread it out on a heavily-floured counter. We pat it down to re-distribute the air bubbles, then fold it back on itself to create a rough boule:

Then it goes into a heavily-floured banneton, or bread-rising basket (courtesy of my bread-loving brother Eliot):

The dough hangs out in here for about an hour to proof, sprayed with vegetable oil and covered with plastic wrap to keep the top from drying out. After the hour is up, we pop a large stone pot into the oven to preheat, set the temperature for 500 F, and set the timer for another hour. That's to ensure that the pot and the oven are searing hot when the dough is ready, and to ensure that the dough itself is fully risen and ready to bake.

When everything is ready to go, we turn the dough out onto a piece of parchment paper (notice the nice pattern on top from the flour in the banneton):

Using the parchment as a sling, we transfer the dough to the pot, clap the lid on, and bake at 460 F for half an hour. Then the lid comes off, the temperature goes down to 450 F, and we bake for another 10 to 15 minutes.

At this point, we lift it (carefully!) out of the pot and put it on the rack for another 10 minutes or so to crisp the bottom. It comes out golden brown and crackly:

Et voilĂ . Eight bucks at least at an artisan bakery, wouldn't you say?