Easy, fuss-free, foolproof, French-style bread you can make at home without a single minute of kneading. Baked in a Dutch oven (although I have recommendations for alternatives if you don’t have one).
“Bet you could bake a damn good loaf of bread if you just tried,” Keith said, as he attempted to stretch the squished bag of “100% stone-ground wheat” sandwich bread back into squares. The unfortunate bread had made the car ride back from the supermarket doubling as a sofa to a 2-lb bag of yellow onions.
I was transferring vegetables from our bags into the fridge. His words stopped me dead in my tracks. My hang hung frozen in mid-air, clutching a bag of parsnips. He couldn’t possibly be being serious. But, apparently he meant every word. I was at a loss. Other than sticking meat into the oven for kababs, I had never baked anything at all until that point. I’d never even made chocolate chip cookies. Or a birthday cake from a box. So this was really, really odd.
“Bread? Me? Bake bread? You’ve got to be out of your mind; do you know how hard that is? If baking bread were so easy, everyone would be doing it,” I finally managed. My then (fiancé) thought I could bake bread. Now there’s a joke if I ever heard one.
“If you can clone sixteen genes at a time into bacteria, you can probably learn to bake good bread,” he said.
“Anyway, this thing is beyond repair,” Keith continued, tossing the bagged bread into the trash, “I’ll just have to pick another on my way home from work tomorrow. Do you have anything else I can take for lunch?”
I put the thought of baking bread right out of my mind. And out of my mind it stayed until he brought it up again a couple of months later. Now, as a general rule, Keith does not nag. So, I was very surprised at his insistence. “I’d be willing to bet money the the very first loaf of bread you bake will turn out better than this wheat sponge disaster from the supermarket,” he whispered in my ear again one day when we were stuck with a snow storm outside, and nothing but sandwich bread to dip in the coq au vin (made with an old, over the hill, rooster) I had braised for 5 hours as snow came pouring down from the sky all day.
“Maybe I will bake a loaf so you will finally shut up once you see how terrible I am,” I said, and stuck my tongue out at him — because I am such an adult.
“Deal! But, you have to put in the same kind of effort you put in when you try making anything new. No throwing in the towel before it’s done, okay?” he said.
I let another few months go by. By then, I’d upgraded Keith to the status of husband. Finally, my parents returned back to India. And, having no more excuses, I set out to bake bread.
I searched for the simplest recipe I could find…which turned out to be Jim Lahey’s famous “No-Knead Bread“. Food websites and the blogosphere was buzzing with praise for this fabulous, fool-proof method. “Pah! I’ll manage to bungle up even his so-called foolproof recipe,” I thought to myself as I combined flour, water, yeast and salt into a shaggy dough. 18 hours later, with a lot of swearing, I (mis)shaped the loaf and dropped it into a hot, hot Dutch oven and slammed the oven door shut. Thirty minutes later, when I went to remove the Dutch oven lid for the final 20 minutes of baking, I expected to see — I don’t know what I expected to see — a big lump of dough, black like coal and hard like a brick, perhaps. Instead, inside the Dutch oven, crackling in the heat, dusted with flecks of flour, sat a gorgeous, tanned, dome of bread. When I turned it out at the end of the baking time and knocked on its surface, it rang hollow.
We waited as long as we could manage to be patient, 30 minutes, and then cut into it. Crackling crust gave way to a creamy interior. The inside was a network of beautiful holes — the type you get when the really posh restaurants serve you bread before your meal. And the flavour was oh, so mellow and pleasant. We gobbled it all up in a single sitting and then, I went into the kitchen and made a second batch of dough. The “100% stone-ground sandwich bread” has never crossed our threshold since.
Here’s how the dough looks when I mixed it on a a rare very dry Boston day:
And this is how the dough should look. I added 1 tablespoon of water to the dough above and mixed it for a few seconds. The dough should be wet. And after you let it sit for a few minutes, it should spread out like I imagine an amoeba would.
I find that I always need ¼ cup more flour than the recipe calls for to get the dough to look right when I bake bread in Boston. If you live in a humid place, you will probably end up using some extra flour too.
Contrary to what you would think, it is actually much more stressful to bake consistent loaves of bread if you don't weigh out your ingredients. It isn't necessary, but everyone scoops flour differently, so your three cups of flour will likely not weigh the same as when I measure out three cups of flour. I use a cheap food scale from Amazon in my kitchen. All kitchen scales are easy to use. Once on, put the bowl you will add the flour to on the scale and press either "Tare" or "Zero". Once the scale reads 0 g with the bowl on it, start scooping flour into the bowl until you read 400g. There's nothing more to it. I do the same thing for water and the salt, just in separate bowl.
- 400 g (3 cups) all-purpose flour
- 300 g (1⅓ cups) cold, tap water
- 8 g (1¼ tsp) kosher salt
- ¼ tsp instant yeast
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- pre-cut sheet of parchment paper
- Flour, for dusting
- colander or mixing bowl (bigger than the dough)
- 4½ - 5½ qt Dutch Oven or other oven-safe pot with a lid
- Make the Dough: In a big bowl, stir the salt into the flour. Now add the water and yeast. Combine with a wooden spoon for about 30 seconds until you have a wet, sticky dough. The dough should come together, into a ball, but be extremely sticky. If your dough is not coming together, then add some more flour, a tablespoon at a time, and stir until it does. If your dough looks easy to handle, it is too dry. If this happens, add 1-2 tablespoons of water until it looks shaggy and quite sticky.
- First Rise: Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to sit at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for 18 hours. After 18 hours, your dough will be dotted with bubbles. When you lift the plastic wrap, a sharp, acidic smell will assault your nose. This is good. Roughly push the pre-cut sheet pf parchment paper into the colander and dust some flour onto the bottom.
- Shape the Dough: Use the olive oil to make an oil slick on your kitchen counter, and grease your hands as well. This will keep the dough from sticking to you. Dump the dough out onto your oil slick. Strands of dough -- this is the gluten -- will stick to the sides of the bowl. Use your fingers to pull those out.
- Second Rise: Lift one side of the dough and fold it into the centre. Repeat, working your way around the dough for a total of 8-10 times. This should take you 2 minutes. Pick the dough up and place it into the parchment-lined mixing bowl, turning it over as you put it in. Dust with a bit of flour. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.
- Prepare for Baking: 30 minutes before the end of the second rise, adjust an oven rack to the centre of the oven. Put the Dutch oven (with the lid on) into the oven and preheat to 475 F. When the oven has pre-heated, take the Dutch oven out very carefully and close the oven door immediately to keep the heat from escaping. Transfer the dough into the hot Dutch oven by gathering up the corners of the parchment paper and plopping it inside. It's okay if the dough does not land in the middle; the bread will still come out fine. Using oven mitts, put the lid back on and place the Dutch oven into the hot oven.
- Bake the Bread: Bake for 30 minutes. You should be able to smell the bread by now. Using oven mitts, carefully remove the lid. Continue baking the bread for another 20-30 minutes, until the surface of the bread starts to take on the colour of caramel. If you prefer your bread pale, then bake it for less time (15 minutes).
- Cool and Serve: Very carefully so as to not burn yourself, tun the bread out onto your counter. The bread should still be crackling. Resist the urge to cut right into the bread. Instead, transfer the bread to a cooling rack using kitchen towels (the bread will still be very hot). Allow it to rest for at least an hour -- preferably two. Cutting into bread that is still too hot will ruin the texture inside.
2. Remember that once your Dutch oven goes inside the oven, it will be HOT. Always use oven mitts. When you take the lid off before the final 20 minutes of baking, put an oven mitt over the lid so you do not accidentally touch the lid with your bare hands 2 minutes later. Believe me, I know.
3. Keeping your oven hot is critical. Putting a big piece of dough that has been sitting at room-temperature into the hot Dutch oven will bring down the temperature of the oven, so you want to retain as much heat as possible. You have to move fast when you are transferring your dough into the Dutch oven. Don't leave the oven door open. Do not open the oven door to peek at your bread.
4. Finally, why do I have measurements in grams and not pounds and ounces? Because it is infinitely easier to scale recipes up and down when the measurements are in metric. Plus, I am a scientist. Metric is the better way. America needs to come out of the dark ages of measurement, get with the times and just go metric.