There is nothing like the aroma and taste of freshly baked bread. Think it’s too complicated or time-consuming to make it yourself at home? A simple technique with minimal effort, tools and ingredients will revolutionize the baking experience for you.
The “Bread in 5” method lets you create a large batch of dough that mixes up in no time and, after rising for two hours on a countertop, waits for you in the fridge to use as needed—all in the same container. You don’t have to knead it or use a starter. All that’s involved on baking day is five minutes (or less) active prep work to shape the dough and, after it has rested, slide it into the oven. The secret is a very wet dough that will keep for up to 14 days. Although you can bake a loaf the same day, the dough is easier to handle if you wait a day or two. Also, the taste develops more depth as it ages and takes on some sourdough-like characteristics.
As you delve into bread making, there are tools and gadgets you might want to add to your kitchen equipment, but you don’t need much to get started.
Essential: A pizza stone is the best way to develop a crisp, brown crust, when paired with a broiler tray to hold water to make steam. And you’ll need a pizza peel or rimless baking sheet to slide the loaf onto the stone.
Handy: A five-quart plastic storage container for mixing and refrigerating the dough, though you can use a similarly sized bowl (loosely covered with plastic wrap) or lidded stockpot. If you have any wrist problems, a dough whisk (shown at right) makes hand-mixing easier than a wooden spoon…or use a stand mixer or high-capacity food processor with the dough hook/blade. You should also have an instant-read food thermometer and an oven thermometer to check the accuracy of your oven—this avoids both over- and underbaking.
Nice to have: A digital scale is the foolproof way to measure your ingredients rather than cup measurements.
Master No-Fail Bread Recipe
This simple loaf is based on the country-style boule (ball)—free-form round country loaf—found all over Europe, and it’s a great way to begin your bread-baking adventures. Once you learn this basic recipe, you’ll be able to make a limitless number of variations. This recipe makes four small loaves and can be doubled or halved. You also can use it for pizza dough or focaccia.
These recipes were first developed using brands of unbleached, all-purpose flour readily available at the supermarket—specialty or artisan bread flour isn’t required.
3 cups (24 oz/680 g) lukewarm water, about 100ºF
1 Tablespoon granulated yeast
1 Tablespoon kosher or other coarse salt (can increase to 1½ Tablespoons or to taste)
6½ cups (2 pounds/910 g) all-purpose flour (if not weighing flour, use the scoop-and-sweep method described in the box below)
Additional flour for dusting
Cornmeal or parchment paper
Step 1. Mix yeast, water and salt in a five-quart container, bowl or pot. Add the flour, then use a wooden spoon or dough whisk to mix until uniformly moist, producing a loose dough that will conform to the shape of the container.
Step 2. Cover with a lid (not airtight) or loose plastic wrap, and allow to rise at room temperature for about two hours.
Step 3. Refrigerate in the same container, covered but not completely airtight so that the natural gasses can escape, for up to 14 days. The dough can be used after at least three hours of refrigeration but will be easier to work with after a day or two. Note: The dough will initially rise to the top and then shrink down on its own.
Step 4. On baking day, dust a pizza peel with cornmeal or cover with a piece of parchment paper.
Step 5. Sprinkle the surface of the dough with flour, and pull up and cut off a grapefruit-sized piece of dough. Put the remaining dough back in the fridge.
Step 6. Sprinkle the dough with more flour to prevent sticking, and shape a smooth ball with your hands by gently stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom, rotating as you go. Shaping should take no more than about a minute, as you can see in the video at Youtu.be/bIb8fC9BdWs.
Step 7. Place the dough ball on the prepared peel, and cover with plastic wrap or a roomy overturned bowl and allow to rest at room temperature for 90 minutes. You may not see much rising.
Step 8. Forty minutes before baking, place the pizza stone on a rack near the center of your oven and the base of a metal broiler pan on a low rack, and preheat to 450°F.
Step 9. After the dough has rested, dust the top liberally with flour, then use a serrated knife to make three or four one-half-inch-deep parallel slashes across the loaf. (The slashes enable gasses to escape during cooking without cracking the crust.)
Step 10. Slide the loaf off the peel and onto the baking stone. Produce steam in the oven by pouring one cup of hot or cold water into the metal broiler pan. Quickly close the oven door. Using steam creates a richly browned and crisp crust. You want the steam to dissipate by about one-third of the way through baking so the crust can crisp
Step 11. Bake about 30 to 35 minutes or until the crust is richly browned and firm to touch. Allow to cool completely before eating.
With simple changes to the master recipe, you can re-create the fresh-baked rye bread flavor that used to be available in most American cities. Follow all of the instructions for the master recipe above with the following adjustments…
Step 1. Replace one-half cup of the all-purpose flour with rye flour, and add one Tablespoon of whole caraway seeds.
Step 6. After shaping the ball, gently stretch and roll it into an elongated oval form.
Step 9. Skip the flour-dusting, and instead paint the surface of the dough with water and sprinkle with more caraway seeds to taste. Then make the slashes across the loaf.
Use the boule dough or a no-caraway rye for a sweet, nutty variation. This “roll-in” technique can be used to add any combination of seeds, chopped nuts and/or dried fruit. Follow the master recipe above except for the following adjustments:
Step 6. After forming a rough ball, sprinkle with a little flour and flatten the dough with your hands or a rolling pin on a flour-dusted board to a thickness of about one-half inch. Sprinkle with one-quarter cup of chopped walnuts and one-quater cup of chopped dates or whole raisins. Roll up the dough to form a log, crimp the ends shut, and tuck them under to form an oval loaf.
Step 8. Oven temperature is 400°F.
Step 11. Baking time is 35 to 45 minutes.
No-Fail Bread-Making Tips
Any type of yeast will do—instant, quick-rise or active dry granulated yeast. But always check the printed expiration date to make sure that it hasn’t expired. Yeast is one instance where printed expiration dates do matter.
The water for the yeast must be lukewarm, never hot. That means no warmer than 100°F, or just barely warm to the touch—use an instant-read thermometer if you’re not sure. Colder water will require more time for the yeast to work, while warmer water will kill the yeast and the dough will never rise.
Don’t compact your flour. If you don’t have a digital scale and are measuring flour by volume, use the scoop-and-sweep technique to avoid compacting it and getting too much. Dip the measuring cup into the flour bag or jar, and sweep a knife across the surface to level it off (see a video at bit.ly/ruTXhZ).
For a great crust, don’t cut short the preheating time.
Let bread cool completely before slicing—if not, slices will get gummy as you try to cut through the loaf.