Because I believe that homemade bread offers benefits on many levels, and that it is neither demanding nor difficult to make—that it doesn't have to disrupt the rhythm of your life but can become part of it—I begin without ceremony.
For crusty, country-style bread, which is bread in it's original and most basic form, you'll need the following ingredients: bread flour, water, yeast, and salt. As for equipment, a large bowl and wooden spoon are all that are required if, but an upright electric mixer makes the job a little easier. And a few other pieces of equipment that are useful but not entirely necessary are the following: a measuring cup, measuring spoons, plastic wrap, a baking stone in your oven (otherwise a heavy cookie sheet will work), and a basket in which to raise the bread.
There is undoubtedly more than one way to make a loaf of bread, and I've attempted to simplify it while not jeopardizing the process or the finished product. The steps which I use are equally basic and can be divided into seven distinct stages: making the "sponge" (the initial fermentation), mixing the dough, proofing the dough (the second fermentation), kneading the dough, shaping the loaf, proofing the loaf (the third fermentation), and baking the bread. And as with many things, when the process is broken down into straightforward stages such as these it's simplicity is easily apparent—all of the stages are simple to master and none should cause a person anxiety. I personally abide by the concept that once the ingredients are mixed together bread pretty much makes itself; the baker simply guides it along. And once you've made bread a few times the "guiding" becomes much easier and bread making can easily be assimilated into your daily (or weekly) life without difficulty.
To begin your bread you'll first need to activate the yeast, and this is done by making a "sponge". A sponge, when used in baking terminology, is really nothing more than water, yeast, and enough flour to make a thick batter. When the yeast becomes hydrated and consumes starches and converts them into sugars it expels gases—carbon dioxide and alcohol—which then push their way through the batter and form bubbles. Theses gases add flavor and character to bread, and also begin to stretch the gluten in the flour, which adds texture. After a short time the resulting product looks very much like a bubbling sponge, hence it's name.
Using a sponge as a preliminary method is not the only way to make bread, nor is it entirely necessary, but it is the method that I find produces the best loaf in the most uncomplicated way. And it is an interesting thing, I think, to see an active bubbling sponge on your kitchen counter, and to look and listen closely and see and hear the bubbles quietly breaking the surface in a possibly otherwise silent room is something to behold. To me this is a little slice of solace in the rapidly moving techno-world in which we find ourselves.
A sponge is really nothing more than another form of "proofing" the yeast. Proofing stems from the word prove, which refers to the earliest days of commercial yeast production when it was necessary to prove or test the yeast to make sure that it would still become active; to "prove" to the baker that it was still alive. Today, of course, with the reliability of yeast this is not necessary. But a sponge is also much more than just proofing yeast. In this first stage of fermentation this is where the yeast, water, and flour form their initial symbiotic relationship and loose their separateness, where three separate ingredients are no longer distinct but begin to form something different and singular: bread.
This said, to make a sponge for one loaf of bread combine in a bowl (if using an electric mixer, this can be done directly in the mixing bowl) 1 cup of bread flour, 1¼ cups of room temperature water, and two teaspoons yeast. Stir this together to form a batter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel and set it on a counter. At room temperature a sponge will be fully risen in about 30 minutes, but the finished bread will have better flavor and texture if the sponge is left to ferment for an hour or two. There is actually a lot of leeway here because a sponge can in fact be left to rest for up to twelve hours. So go ahead and do laundry, grocery shop, go to work or even to bed for the night—in short: don't worry about the bread at this point, or at all for that matter.
When you are ready to mix the dough you'll need another teaspoon of yeast, 2 cups of bread flour, and a teaspoon of kosher salt. Begin by stirring in the teaspoon of yeast, and then the flour and salt. If using an electric mixer, run the machine on low for about a minute, until it forms a mass; if kneading by hand, stir the ingredients until they form a workable mass, then turn it out onto a work surface. Knead the dough on medium speed for about 10 minutes, or by hand for about 15 minutes. When kneading by hand, do so with push-fold-turn motions: push the dough away from you using the heal of your hands, then fold it back, and then turn it and push again. At first attempt this may seem like the longest 15 minutes you can imagine, but once you resign yourself it can actually be rewarding (it's a good form of exercise for the arms and upper body). And if feeling a little frustrated don't be afraid to flip, toss, or even slap the dough around a little. It can be liberating, and all the while you'll be kneading the dough.
As the gluten stretches, aligns, and develops, the dough will become more supple. A good way to tell if the dough is kneaded enough is by using what is sometimes called the "windowpane test." To do this pinch a piece of dough and stretch it. A dough that has had enough kneading will stretch to the thinness of a windowpane; an under-kneaded one will tear easily.
Once the bread is kneaded sufficiently, wash and dry your bowl, and then using a napkin or paper towel wipe a thin glaze of oil on the bowl's inside. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel and set it on a counter or table or somewhere it will be out of your way. If left at room temperature the dough will rise and ferment within an hour or two…enough time to do laundry, cut the grass, or do other pertinent errands. But if you are invited to the movies or dinner, or decide to go to the gym or run other more lengthy errands, or would just simply like a larger window of time, put the dough in the refrigerator. Cold temperatures retard the dough, meaning it will rise but at a much slower rate; if the temperature of the dough drops a great deal its yeast production will be halted temporarily. But this is not a problem, when you return simply place the dough on the counter and wait for it to return to room temperature (this may take a few hours).
A simple way to test if the dough has risen enough is by using sight and touch: the dough will easily have doubled in size (and feels light for its size because it's full of air pockets), and when gently pressed with a finger its indentation will remain. If the dough is still "young," that is it has not risen and fermented enough, the indentation from your finger will spring back. There is really nothing more beautiful than a dough that is fully mature and risen. Ok, I'm being silly here; there are a few things.
A huge inaccuracy in many bread recipes is that you "punch" the dough down, to deflate it. I'd really like to know where this terminology originated (with someone who made heavy bread, no doubt). It's ok and even good to heavy-handle the dough during kneading, but once it's risen you should handle it gently. A risen dough is full of air pockets, this is what makes the finished loaf light, and the last thing you should do is punch all the air out of it. This doesn't mean that the dough should be handled like a newborn baby, but some care should be taken.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface; it will deflate somewhat on it's own, this is normal. With lightly floured hands cup the dough and make a small rotating motion. With a little practice you'll form a nice round ball. But if the shape is not perfect this is not a problem either because ultimately your bread is meant to be eaten, not simply looked at, though freshly baked bread is nice to look at.
If you have a baking stone, baker's peel, and a basket that is made just for the purpose of rising bread, flour the basket and place your ball of dough in it. If not, sprinkle a little cornmeal on a baking sheet (cookie pan or pizza pan) and place your ball of dough on that. Dust the dough with flour and cover it loosely with a towel. Here again we find ourselves with the time issue. This is a more crucial stage because over-proofed bread may fall, while under-proofed bread can be used as a ship's anchor, but nonetheless time can still be manipulated to your convenience.
If left at room temperature the bread will rise and be ready to go in the oven in about an hour. But in the same way as before the process can be slowed by placing the dough in the refrigerator. This is done by letting the dough rise about halfway and then putting it in the refrigerator. It will continue to rise and can be left in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours (I've even done this for as long as 18 hours). Once removed it has to be allowed to rest and return to room temperature prior to slashing and baking. Long fermentations are not necessary but do in fact improve the quality of the finished loaf. Most bakers will concur than slowly risen bread—bread that has been retarded under cool temperatures and risen at an extremely slow rate—will have a far better texture and more well rounded flavor.
These next and last stages are when you'll need to pay attention to the bread, and with some experience you'll be able to respond to the bread and know just when to ready yourself and an oven. This is the fun part.
You'll know when the loaf has risen enough by using the same test as before: site and touch. Prior to baking the loaf an oven has to be preheated, and it should be preheated before the bread has fully risen so it doesn't over-proof while waiting for the oven to heat. After some time you'll become accustomed to when to begin preheating your oven. If you are not sure it is better to turn on your oven a little too early than too late. Most ovens will take at least 20 minutes to fully preheat; if using a baking stone it may take longer.
Arrange the oven rack to a center position, and about ten minutes prior to baking the bread place a small pan containing about an inch of water directly on the oven floor; if you've an electric oven this may have to be done on a lower shelf. Any pan that is ovenproof will work for this, I sometimes use a small cast-iron skillet or a Pyrex pie dish. The steam that is created by the evaporating water moistens the bread's crust, thus allowing for more expansion while baking. It also creates a crisper crust.
When the oven is preheated and the bread is fully risen it will need to be slashed. This is done for a couple of reasons, aesthetic and practical. Slashed bread looks nice because the slash marks remain a little lighter than the rest of the crust, which can form a sort of pattern, but more importantly, slashing allows the bread to expand and rise rapidly in the oven; this is called "oven spring." This is important because the outer layers will obviously bake first, forming a crust, while the bread's interior is still raw and expanding. If the bread were not slashed the bread would be restricted and undoubtedly "blow out" haphazardly at the sides, giving it an undesirable look.
Professional bakers use a tool called a lamé to slash their bread; it's basically a razor blade on a stick. A lamé can be fashioned with a Popsicle stick and a razor blade but a single sided razor blade held in your hand works fine also, as does small sharp knife. The key is that whatever you use it should be sharp, lest you drag the blade across the risen bread rather than slice into it: excessive force or pressure on "ripe" or fully risen dough can cause the bread to deflate.
If you are using a basket to raise your bread now is the time to turn it out onto your baker's peel and give it a few quick slashes; if you have leavened your loaf on a sheet pan slash it as it is. The slashes should be rather quick and not cut too deeply into the dough, just about an eight of an inch or so, enough to allow its crust to expand. Some of the more common patterns are an "X" or cross, or three or four perpendicular or parallel slashes, or even your initials are fine. The pattern you choose is really up to your own creativity, but I find those that are symmetrical yield better looking bread. But this is just my opinion.
If you are baking the bread using a peel and stone, open the oven and rest the tip of the peel on the center of the stone. With a quick jerk pull the peel out of the oven as if you'd just reached your arm into the oven and the heat was startling. If baking the bread on a sheet pan place it on the center rack and close the oven door.
Within the first five minutes or so the bread will rise considerably; this is amazing to watch, I think. The bread will take about 20-30 minutes to bake. I say "about" because all ovens bake differently and at different rates. And many ovens have hot spots, areas that are hotter than others. So depending on your oven's consistency you may need to rotate the bread once or twice during baking so it bakes evenly. If you have a spray bottle you can also spray the bread and inside of the oven as you rotate it. But regardless, when you do open the oven do so for the shortest time possible because an oven will cool rapidly with its door open, which can have detrimental effects on the ensuing bread. So while marveling at your half-baked bread with the oven door open, marvel briefly and close the door.
A simple way to tell if bread is done is to tap it, especially on its bottom. If the bread is cooked throughout it will sound hollow when tapped; if it sounds dense or wet the dough is not thoroughly cooked. A more accurate way to check for doneness is by checking its internal temperature with a probe thermometer. When the bread is sufficiently baked a thermometer will register approximately 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the bread from the oven, and the pan if using one, and place it on a wire rack or a towel to cool before slicing. The bread that you've made was done so in pretty much the same manner—other than a modern stove and electric mixer¬ and commercial yeast—as it has been for thousands of years…water and flour, which has been inoculated with yeast. If you have a radio or television on turn it off, because while the bread is cooling the crust will crackle for about 5 minutes, and it's a beautiful sound. Now is a good time to be in awe of your loaf of bread.
Because you've been in or around the kitchen for the last hour or so baking bread you are probably not fully aware of how its pleasing and heartwarming aroma has permeated your home. But everyone else will comment on it (and ask for a slice of bread), and that alone will hopefully be encouragement enough to bake the next loaf.
There are plenty of ways in which to bake a loaf of bread, and there are even more books about bread baking than are really needed; this is just one recipe for baking bread the way I usually bake it. After some time, like me, you may not even measure all of the ingredients accurately; you'll just know by site, feel, and taste when it's right. In the event that you require a more conventionally written recipe, follow the one included below. It can easily be doubled, yielding an extra loaf to freeze or give as a gift. But keep in mind that recipes are just simply formulas, and that your own intuition will be what eventually guides you.
As aforementioned: bread is simple to make, and it's a food our body yearns for; I know mine does. And regular bread baking can easily be incorporated into modern life. My schedule is as busy as the next person's and I personally bake bread once or twice a week. It can be made in as little as 3 or 4 hours, but the timing of the process can be manipulated to extend over many hours for your convenience.
Look for part two in this series in the next month where you'll gain more understanding on bread making. I'll offer a brief discourse on bread's ingredients and their symbiotic relationship. Simple, interesting recipe variations will be included.
Simple Rustic Bread
Makes 1 loaf
1 ¼ cups water
3 teaspoons yeast
3 cups unbleached bread flour, divided
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon cornmeal
Combine the water, yeast and 1 cup of flour; stir to form a batter. Allow to ferment for 1 hour.
Add the remaining 2 cups of flour along with the salt and knead the dough for 10-12 minutes.
Place the dough in a bowl at room temperature, cover it with plastic wrap, and allow it to ferment for 1 – 1 ½ hours.
Dust a baking sheet with the cornmeal. Remove the dough from the bowl and gently shape it into a ball. Place it on the baking pan and cover with a towel. Allow it to rise for 1 hour.
Position the oven rack to the center of the oven and place a shallow pan of water directly on the oven floor. Preheat the oven to 425F.
Using a sharp knife, slash the loaf and put it in the oven. Bake the bread for about 20-30 minutes. Remove it from the oven and place it on a wire rack or towel to cool before slicing.