i started baking bread out of curiosity and really, frugality. we are lovers of good, wholesome, artisanal bread. i am suspicious, to say the least, of grocery store bread, really it's the list of preservatives that i shake my head at. and while we're fortunate to live near an excellent farmer's market (wimbledon farmer's market for those who are local) with an impressive array of vendors, the bread we favour is £4 a loaf, and with le boy at the table, that only lasts a couple of days! and that's if he's distracted by other delights the kitchen has produced. needless to say, this was becoming an expensive indulgence in a daily necessity.
perhaps i could bake my own bread? perhaps i could feed our (small) family for mere pennies a loaf? and so i started experimenting. my first attempts were faltering. i started by following the quicker of the recipes to the letter. the bread was good, really an excellent first attempt, but the quick recipe calls for dousing the flour with yeast, and so the bread tasted yeasty. we wanted perfection. in all honesty, i'm not great at following recipes and it occurred to me that perhaps i could get a loaf we were satisfied with, with less yeast, and a middling rising time. a compromise so to speak (or taste?).
and so with my willing taste-tester at my side, i began baking bread. and since i've started we've scarcely bought a loaf! i think we're spending in the neighbourhood of 40p a loaf. because this recipe calls for so little yeast the overall cost is negligible and really bread flour is about as inexpensive as any ingredient comes.
so here we go, the recipe for white bread. i'll be back next week with a follow-up of our very favourite, whole grain, seeded bread that follows on the same principles as this loaf, but with some small tweaks to accomodate the whole grains.
firstly, bread requires remarkably few ingredients - flour, yeast, salt and water.
to 3 cups of strong white bread flour, add 1/4 tsp of yeast and 1/2 tbsp salt. the long rising time allows for the small amount of yeast to distribute throughout the dough and means that the 'yeasty' taste that can sometimes characterize homemade bread is no longer an issue.
mix the dry ingredients and add 1.5 cup of lukewarm water. i mix the dough in a stainless steel bowl and use a spatula to get all the dry mixed with the wet. i'm hoping (not so secretly) for one of these for christmas. it's really important to make sure all the dry bits are incorporated, the dough will be shaggy, and nearly impossible to knead as it's extremely sticky.
at this point, cover the bowl and leave in a warm place. i put mine in the oven, using the 'rising' function. if you don't have this a warm oven from after dinner or a warm place in the house will suffice. ideally the temperature needs to be about 70 F or 21 C. the first rise needs at least 9-10 hours. i usually make the dough after dinner and leave it overnight, waking early on 'bread mornings.'
after the rise the dough will look like this
the holes are the indication that the yeast has worked.
at this time you need to heat your oven to full whack - 450 F or 230 C. and you need to heat whatever you're baking your bread in at the same time. this is an essential aspect of this bread. it needs to be baked covered. so a dutch oven or a covered glass pyrex would work. i use my le creuset ovens. caveat: technically le creuset knobs are only recommended to 400 F or 200 C, but i've been using both my ovens at this temperature for months now with no problem - plus i have absolutely lovely, wonderful ovens that deserved to be used and why not use them? i'll just replace the knobs if they ever get damaged.
here's what i do next - pour a tsp of oil onto a flat surface, a kitchen board would work well, i cover my dough with aluminum foil, so i turn that over onto the counter, and smear some oil on it.
pull the dough out of the bowl, kneading it a couple of times in your hands, and then shape into a round loaf form. turn the loaf form in the oil and return to the bowl, covering again. allow to rise for another 30 minutes - 1 hour, this is about how long it takes my oven to heat.
once the oven is heated, take the baking pot out of the oven (CAREFUL it's very hot!) and drop the dough in - it should sizzle as the oil hits the bottom.
bake for 30 min with the lid on, take the lid off and bake for another 15-30 depending on how brown you want the crust.
according to what i've read it's the hot oven and the lid which makes all the difference. because this is a fairly wet dough this creates a steam action inside the pot which is why you can get a fabulous crust from this recipe (it's hard and crunches when you eat it).
remove from oven, and place on rack to cool (i just use the stovetop as it's gas and sort of rack-like?)
and really, make sure you enjoy this with butter, there's nothing better. nothing.
3 cups strong white bread flour
1/4 tsp instant/fast acting yeast
1/2 tbsp salt
1.5 cups lukewarm water
- in a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. add lukewarm water, stir to combine thoroughly, cover and leave for 9-10 hours in a warm place.
- preheat oven to 450 F or 230 C - making sure to also preheat whatever you are baking it in, form dough into round loaf, turn in oil and rise for further 30-60 minutes
- carefully place inside hot pot and return to oven for 30 minutes with lid on, and further 15-30 minutes with lid off
- remove from oven, allow to cool, and serve warm
because of the high water content the crust will eventually become more soft, it hardens again if toasted or if the loaf is put into a warm (350 F) oven for 10 minutes.
nytimes links: i very much recommend you read these articles if you're looking to develop your own technique, they gave me ideas and confidence to stray from the original recipes...