Bread baking intimidated me. How long to knead it? How much elbow grease? How sticky was too sticky, how "shaggy" too shaggy? And even the yeast: It needs warm water, like 115 degrees, to activate it. Much hotter and you've got dead yeast stew.
But then three things happened.
1. I found myself living in the Netherlands for a year with a lot of time on my hands.
2. My husband, training for a marathon, started hoovering up as much food as I could produce.
3. I read the New York Times' no-knead bread recipe.
I began to bake bread. Every day. I tinkered with the basic recipe, using Google Translate to find out the Dutch words for rye flour and whole wheat and spelt. While making breakfast (usually toast from yesterday's loaf, topped with Nutella and hagelslag, the chocolate sprinkles that the otherwise-healthy-eating Dutch mysteriously nosh in the morning), I would mix up the day's dough quickly with a wooden spoon, slap a film of plastic wrap over that bowl and forget about it all day. At 5 p.m. I'd punch down my dough, turn it onto a floured board, preheat my oven and by dinner time the house would be filled with that smell, the one Realtors would bottle if they could.
From the no-knead recipe, I am able to get several different kinds of breads, including the round country rye and baguettes pictured.
I hear what you're grumbling now: I can barely get dinner on the table at night without adding bread-baking to my list of chores. With no kneading, it takes me four minutes to mix up a batch of dough in the morning. I timed it. And late afternoon I call my minions at home — all right, it's a single 16-year-old minion, not always long of attention span — to preheat the oven and punch down the dough. I roll into the driveway and it's ready to go. Total expenditure of my time: four minutes. Cost: $1.
I use no special equipment, no bread stones or fancy KitchenAid mixers. Just a mixing bowl, a spoon and a heavy Dutch oven with a lid. With the lid on, that Dutch oven captures steam as the bread begins to cook (I remove the lid for the last 15 minutes or so of baking). If you don't have a Dutch oven, you can create oven steam a couple ways — by spritzing a spray bottle of water on the oven floor and walls (avoid the oven light bulb) when you put the bread in, or by preheating a cast-iron skillet on the bottom rack and dropping in a few ice cubes at the start of baking. What does the steam do? It keeps the dough stretchy for a little longer and causes the starches on the bread's exterior to "gelatinize" so it browns and crisps.
Even organic flour is cheap. For my breads, I mix unbleached all-purpose (a blend of high- and low-gluten wheats) and bread flour (a high-gluten flour with small amounts of malted barley flour and vitamin C or potassium bromate added to increase gluten elasticity). In my experience, straight bread flour makes a tougher, heavier loaf, but straight all-purpose doesn't yield a crunchy, hearty crust or nice height for the finished loaf. If I'm using 3 total cups of flour, I may substitute another flour for up to 1 cup, maybe rye flour and a teaspoon of caraway seed or whole wheat flour (low gluten levels will make whole wheat breads have a softer crust, so add less whole wheat flour if crunchy crust is important to you).
I use regular-rise Fleishmann's in the yellow envelopes or, if I'm baking a lot, in the small glass jar. The only thing you need to be careful about is the expiration date. Yeast is a living thing that will die a slow and hopefully painless death in your refrigerator over time. I use regular kosher salt (which contains no additives) and I use filtered tap water. And that, my friends, is the whole enchilada.
Þ In order to have your bread improve from loaf to loaf, stick with one recipe and tinker, recording your results in the margins. Enjoy the crust you get with a sticky dough? Replicate it. Not happy with how dense the whole wheat loaf turned out? Back off on the amount of that flour.
Þ Since you're letting your bread rise on the counter all day, you may need to use slightly less yeast than called for in most recipes. Experiment with the quantity of yeast, evaluating how dense the crumb is and how much "yeasty" flavor the finished bread has.
Þ What your crust says: Too dark? The oven is too hot. Can't get it to brown enough? Try a higher oven temperature (or maybe you forgot the salt). Too hard? You didn't proof it (let the yeast develop) long enough or you used too much flour.
Þ Once baked, store bread cut-side down in a bread box or loosely covered on the counter. Plastic wrap will soften the crust, and the refrigerator will toughen the bread's interior. To re-crisp, spritz the surface with a little water and stick in a preheated 400 degree oven for a few minutes. Fully cooled bread also freezes well.
Þ Bread machines: They are to bread-baking what white zinfandel is to wine-drinking, a necessary evil that gets rookies to give this thing a whirl. Fresh from the machine, warm bread can be tasty, but it never has a good crust or the right crumb. Yes, you got one for a wedding gift. Leave it in the box and try the recipe at left.
Þ Advice: Websites like King Arthur Flour's offer lots of nuts-and-bolts troubleshooting advice. My favorite cookbooks about bread are by Beth Hensperger. She's written a ton (my favorite: Bread, Chronicle Books, 1988). Jeff Hamelman's Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes is also easy to follow and very lovely, and Daniel Leader's Bread Alone is super detailed.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.