I love bread, and I love figuring out how to do things that I don’t need to do… learning for the sake of nothing more than curiosity & personal gratification. So it’s no surprise that I am on this mission to bake the perfect loaf of bread. Off the bat let’s just get something straight. I have no idea what a global standard for perfection might be. I’m not saying that to contradict what I hope to accomplish but it’s that perfect is subjective in this case. I’m not trying to win a medal for my bread. Perfect for this exercise is meeting an uninformed standard of excellence that lives inside my head.
Bread is regional. I love a crispy, almost hard on the exterior, random air, and light chew of a French baguette. Or the soft chewy, more evenly aired texture of the Italian Ciabatta. With that, I’ll leave my knowledge of the world’s breads to the experts. I would suggest starting with CNN’s World’s 50 Best Breads and then diving deeper via Google for more info on what you find tasty & inspirational. You’re going to want to research recipes and follow along with some videos by a chef or two that suits what you are looking for It’s really a good way to start, there are a few chefs I go to for background on many things I like to cook. This is assuming that like me, you don’t sit around with a pint talking to your buddies about the protein quality of different flours. I’m not much for research, I like to look for a few opinions, find a couple that I feel align with my ideas, and go. I have that personality that I’d rather mess up a bunch of times rather than read and research a ton. I’m also of the personality that I will then kick myself when I mess up for that ignorance I often go into projects with. But I really do advise finding a chef with a background or taste that suits you. It’s not worth following someone that you don’t relate to, just because they may be popular, successful or rich. Billy Parisi has, for many recipes, been a go-to for me and an inspiration. My love of making bread and the foundation of my own technique was built off of his artisanal loaf article and recipe. But as can be expected, I didn’t pay enough attention to the ‘why’ in his direction, I have always believed that harder and more…effort, handling, yeast, etc was better. When it comes to the bread I wanted to make nothing could have been further from the truth. Man, if only there was an article like this for me in the past… No details, technical crap that you’ll forget as soon as you close the laptop, nope. Something I might actually read and absorb.
Available ingredients, equipment, time, physical constraints, and more are of course going to play a huge role after you’ve decided a direction to take. From there a little ignorance created bread that was too dense, too wet, even with bubbles that were small and too consistent. Over cooked bottoms, soft crust. And TOO much handling. I didn’t really understand that the technique of lightly stretching and folding dough was an extremely important part of the randomness of air pockets and the rustic mouthfeel. I thought that was just an easy way out and that the more aggressively I knocked down and kneaded the dough the better! But I’ve learned. Now after integrating the yeast and salt I am very gentle with the dough and handle it as little as possible.
So on to what I do…. First off, the flour. I have to say that I agree with Billy Parisi and really appreciate all the benefits of Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour. To get a more chewy body I also now add BRM Vital Wheat. I can pretend to know the details of why these both matter but in this blog, I assume that you are like me and more interested in advice than details. The bottom line is that it’s the gluten. The wonderful protein makes the bread alive, elastic as a dough, and chewy in your mouth.
Additionally, I use a dutch oven in a basic kitchen oven. The same yeast we’ve all been buying at the supermarket. Kosher salt and tap water. Yes, just tap water. When I thought I was having an issue with my yeasts I would try all sorts of store-bought distilled, spring, and so on. I do have a water softener as the water in my town is about 13.5 grains. I installed the water softener in between my experimenting and I do think the drop in water hardness did help, although I have nothing to back that up.
So that’s kinda it. All I’ve got. You didn’t come here for a history lesson or some high school science on gluten. Let’s back some bread. I hope you’ve found this post at the least a little bit informative and maybe if we’re lucky helpful in getting you closer to your ‘perfect’ loaf of bread. Enjoy!
- 700 grams BRM Artisan Bread Flour
- 50 grams BRM Vital Wheat
- 5 grams yeast
- 20 grams kosher salt
- 525 grams warm tap water
- Mix the flour and water in a large bowl
First I combine the flour with a whisk. I’ll make a basin in the middle of the flour and slowly pour in the water. Now for nothing more than not gobbing up my hands too much, I’ll fold from the outside in with a spoon. Carrying the flour into the center of the water. Once that is as good as it gets I’ll handwork the dough until mixed through. Side note, I like to use only one hand. It makes it a little easier to keep things clean. And keeping things clean now means less clean up later. But a clean towel over the bowl.
- Rest for 10 minutes
- Mix in the yeast and salt
This is the most aggressive I will be with the dough, working it just enough to assure everything is combined. Shape the dough into a ball. Put the towel back over the bowl.
- Rest for 20 minutes
- Stretch and fold
Sprinkle a small amount of flour on the top of the ball and gently lift it from the bowl. Turn the floured side down and place the dough into the bowl. Lightly flour the top. Stretch and fold the dough back. Left third to the center, right third to the center. Now stretch the other way, folding in thirds as before. Now repeat both steps again. Cup the dough and make it into a ball again. Don’t press on the dough, cup it underneath so that it is gathering and gets a bit smooth on the top and sides. Cover it again.
- Rest for 60 minutes
- Repeat step 5
- Rest for 120 minutes
- Set your dough for it’s final rest & preheat your Dutch oven
Repeat the previous step except only once in each direction and very gently. Take your towel you have been using and line your bowl with it. Lightly sprinkle flour on the towel. Cup the dough, tucking it under all the way around. Fold the towel up and over the dough. In the meantime, fire your oven to 425 degrees. Place your Dutch oven with cover in place onto the cooking rack.
- Rest for 60 minutes
- Place your dough in the Dutch oven
Carefully remove the dutch oven and remove the cover. Fold the towel back on your bowl and tip the bowl into the dutch oven so that the dough flips out. It should land upside down with that nice smooth face on the bottom. Replace the cover and slide the vessel into the oven.
This is a little subjective and something I’m still messing with a bit, to be honest. But I’ll cook the dough for 25 minutes. 15 minutes in I will rotate the dutch oven 180 degrees. At the end of the 25 minutes, I will remove the lid and leave the oven door cracked open a few inches, cooking the bread for another 10 minutes. I’m trying to allow the moisture still inside the bread to withdraw. So that is a total of 35 minutes in the oven for me.
Remove the bread from the oven. Take it out of the dutch oven and place it on a rack with at least an inch of airflow underneath. This will help it continue to lose the moisture that will result in a soft crust.
- Dry out your crust
Your crust will likely soften for a bit while the internal moisture evacuates. It should set back to crispy after 90-120 minutes. If not set your oven to no more than 250 degrees and place the bread directly on the rack. Keep the door open and let it sit for 10-15 minutes. That should help get the crust you’re looking for. I actually like to make my bread so that it comes out of the oven around midnight the day before I’m planning on serving….