Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Secret of Baking Bread

I learned an important lesson yesterday--you don't need a recipe to bake bread. I suppose I should have known this all along, but sometimes obviousland is just too far away for me to channel it. I blame the cookbooks. I have several bread baking cookbooks, and they are all illustrated with beautiful photos of perfect bread. Who doesn't want to bake perfect bread?

The problem is that each recipe can stretch out to 4 pages or more, so by the time you finish reading it, you're already discouraged and would rather just pay someone else to bake perfect bread for you. Well, I have tried several methods in the past few weeks and got fed up with baking mediocre bread that takes seven days for this and four days for that and two more for the fermenting and then you have to stand on your head and recite the Bhagavad-Gita and even then you're not guaranteed to have great bread...I just don't have time for this sort of thing, and I'm sure most of you don't either.

Well, yesterday I got smart. I had a sourdough starter in the fridge that had been glaring at me with its little bubbly eyes because I hadn't fed it in over a week. I took it out, prepared to throw it away, and of course it was alive and thriving so I couldn't throw it away. I controlled myself and did not reach for the bread book.

1.) I just added water and flour to make a wet starter (1 1/2 cups flour and 1 cup water) and let that sit overnight. If you don't have a starter, you can make a quick one by mixing 1 cup flour and 1 cup water with 2 teaspoons instant yeast. Of course, you can make a sourdough starter, but that will take several days to a week. It's your call.

2.) The next morning I added another cup of water and enough flour to make the dough--I did this by feel, not even bothering to measure the flour, and I added some salt and a little yeast for good luck even though there was a sourdough starter in there. I mixed it in my KitchenAid stand mixer until the dough came together, but you can do this by hand as well.

3.) I let it rise once (2-3 hours), deflated it and divided it in two, and let it rise again (about 1 hour).

4.) Meanwhile, I preheated the oven to 450 with a baking stone in the oven (never put a cold baking stone into a hot oven). A baking stone is really the best way to bake free-form loaves--it results in a nice, crispy crust and insulates the dough when you have to open the oven. You can also use a cast-iron pan for this. Make sure your oven has been preheated for 30 minutes before you put your loaves in--this ensures that the stone or pan is very hot.

5.) Then, I scored the loaves and slid them onto the baking stone on a piece of parchment paper (you can use a peel if you have one; if not, turn a large baking sheet over and place a piece of parchment paper on it--use this flat surface to slide the paper and dough onto the hot baking stone inside the oven)

6.) I quickly sprayed the inside of the oven with a mist of water (get a spray bottle that you reserve just for baking--the mist creates steam inside the oven that helps the bread rise initially--it's called "ovenspring").

7.) I shut the door for five minutes and then opened it and sprayed again.

8.) Then, I turned the temperature down to 400 and let it finish baking (about 25-30 minutes)--the bread will be a deep brown color.

9.) Make sure the loaves cool completely before you slice them. I know it's hard, but if you slice the bread while still warm from the oven you will ruin the texture of your bread--it will be gummy instead of springy and chewy (if that makes any sense at all). If you desperately have to have warm bread, toast it before you eat it.

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