Easy and Yummy Bread

Artisan BreadYes, you can make your own bread! You can save lots of money and get a better product than any store can offer you. And it won’t take all day. In fact, it’s easy and relatively work-free.

I’ve made bread lots of times in my life. I’ve done the mix-knead-rise-punch down-rise again-shape-bake dance more times than I care to count. It was always enjoyable in its own way, but a bit of a chore. Sometimes it turned out great, and sometimes not. Especially when I tried to be healthy and use only whole wheat flour. It was often either too crumbly or too dense. But now, I’ve found a way to make bread that is predictable, easy, and delicious.

The recipe I use originally came from a great set of books by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francis. The original book is Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. There are two more (to date), one about healthy breads (yes, they even have some gluten-free ones in there) and one about pizza and flatbread. But the concept is the same in all of them: you make a wet dough (called a sponge) that you keep in the fridge, and whenever you want fresh bread, you shape it however you want, let it rise briefly, and bake. No kneading, and except for the day when you make a new sponge, no mixing. It’s especially good for people who live alone because you can make however much bread you want, from one pita or roll to several loaves.

Obviously, you’ll need a fairly large container to mix the dough in, one that will fit in your refrigerator afterwards. Or, do what I do: mix the original dough in a large bowl; make the first batch of bread; then put the rest of the dough in a smaller container for storage. I use a plastic ice cream bucket. I used to have a large glass jar, but it broke and I haven’t replaced it.

Here’s the basic recipe I use. It’s so easy I have it memorized:

  • A container that holds at least 8 quarts. This will need to fit in your fridge because it’s where your dough will live between bread baking days.
  • A pizza stone or cast iron baking sheet. You can make do with a regular baking sheet, but only in a pinch.
  • Measuring cups and spoons, wooden spoon, etc.
  • 4 cups warm water
  • 7 1/2 cups flour (I usually use 2 cups white and 5 1/2 whole wheat. I have used all whole wheat and it came out fine, just a little heavier)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dry, granulated yeast
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Mix all the ingredients together to form a soft, fairly wet dough. No need to proof the yeast. Leave the dough to rise for 2 hours or more. You can let it rise overnight if you like. In fact, a longer rise will give it a bit of a sourdough taste, which is very nice. I put mine on top of the refrigerator where it’s always warm.

Once the dough has risen, you’re ready to shape your bread. Choose any shape you like: shape a rounded loaf, make rolls, make a braid, pizza crust, whatever. Dust a pizza peel or baking sheet with cornmeal, or line it with parchment, and set your creation on it to rise while the oven preheats. Slice a couple of slashes in the top with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape while the bread bakes. Otherwise, it may split.

Put the dough you haven’t used to make your first round of bread into the fridge for next time.

I make individual sandwich rolls because that’s the easiest thing for me to use. I dust the top of the dough with flour, grab a plum-sized lump of dough, and form a smooth ball. On a baking sheet lined with parchment, I gently lay the balls down, flatten them a bit, and slash them with a sharp knife so they don’t split during baking.

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Preheat a pizza stone or cast iron baking sheet in the oven at the same time. Baking your bread on a hot, heat-retaining surface will create the best crust and will bake your bread evenly.

Whatever shape you’ve chosen, let the dough rise again for about 30-45 minutes (it will take longer if you’re using dough right out of the fridge). Then just stick it in the preheated oven. I always take the preheated cast iron baking sheet out of the oven (carefully!) and simply slide the parchment that the rolls are resting on from the baking sheet they’ve been rising on, to the preheated one. Then pop it back in the oven. Someday I’ll get a silicone  mat and I won’t need to keep buying parchment.

One more step: Put a panful (about 2 cups) of water onto the bottom shelf of the oven, with the bread on the next shelf up. This creates steam during baking and makes for a delicious crust.

Bake your bread. Obviously, the time it will need will vary depending on the shape you’ve chosen for your loaf. My sandwich rolls take 20 minutes. A loaf would take longer, depending on its size. When it’s done, it should sound hollow when you tap the bottom.

Variations on a Theme

Starting with the basic recipe, you can add variety to suit your mood and palate. Use other flours. Add herbs, or cheese to the dough; give the top of your loaf an egg wash and sprinkle seeds or rolled oats or kosher salt on top. Make some pretzels or bagels. It’s really up to you. Check out the ideas in the Bread in Five Minutes a Day series.

Ready for Next Time

Now you have dough that’s already had its first rising waiting for you in your refrigerator. Whenever you want to make some more bread, just take enough of the dough out of the container for the size loaf you want to make, shape it, let it rise, preheat the oven, and bake.

Let me know how it turns out. If you have suggestions about how to fancy up this basic recipe, please share.

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