It took me just twenty years to figure out how to bake a good loaf of bread reliably. Oh I had the occasional success, a few perfect products here and there, but being able to consistently produce something that absolutely beat out store-bought items had eluded me. Then, a few months ago, I started getting experimental.
I’d always followed traditional recipies for bread. You know the ones – bloom yeast in sugar water, add to dry stuff, mix, knead, proof, knock down, proof some more, bake. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. And then one day, while contemplating sour dough, I had a thought. Why bloom the yeast with sugar? Why not just bloom it with some of the flour and treat it like a loose starter? Worked like a charm, and the details are below. I’ve done it this way ever since and haven’t had a single problem.
I discovered later that my clever idea has been around for, oh, a few thousand years and is referred to as the “sponge” method. What surprised me is that, although I am by no means a rampant baker, I do spend a fair amount of time reading about this sort of stuff, and I’d never heard of it.
To any experienced bakers reading this please keep in mind that these instructions were originally written for a friend who had given up on baking thanks to her own repeated failure and subsequent oven-phobia. This was an effort to inspire her to take another crack at it.
At any rate, here’s my recipe. You can optionally switch out one or two cups of white flour for something more interesting like Rye or Spelt.
This will make one “average” loaf (in your standard loaf pan) or you can form it into whatever shape(s) you desire – I like doing single rustic round loaves generally.
1 cup of plain old all purpose flour – for a more airy crumb use bread flour
1 tbsp of dry yeast (the old fashioned dry kind, not instant, not fresh, the cheap stuff)
1 and ½ cups of very warm water (just at the point where it’s unpleasant but not painful to stick your finger in it)
Mix the flour and yeast in a bowl (preferably the bowl from a stand mixer if you’ve got one with a dough hook, but you don’t need it)
Add the very warm water and mix until you’ve got a smooth paste (I use a whisk for this)
Leave the mix in a warm place, uncovered, for at least one hour (the longer you leave it, the more the finished loaf will lean towards a sourdough flavor – I think the longest I’ve let it go is about four hours, any longer and you should probably cover with a damp kitchen towel).
2 cups of plain old all purpose flour
1 tbsp of kosher salt
Mix flour and salt together in a bowl and then add to the starter. Combine thoroughly (if you have a stand mixer, use the dough hook and let it mix for about ten minutes) until you have a dough that’s slightly denser then stiff porridge – it should be sticky, but not gloopy. In the mixer it will tend to partially coat the inside of the bowl.
Now, take this sticky mass and dump it onto a clean work surface. DO NOT TOSS FLOUR ON THE SURFACE! Yes, I know this is counter to pretty much every kneading process you’ve ever seen, but just trust me on this…
You are going to need a pastry scraper – you know, one of those flat squares of metal or plastic. The dough is going to want to stick to the work surface. Your goal is to knead the dough with the help of the scraper, but not add flour if at all possible. If the dough isn’t sticking to the surface when you start, then it’s too stiff and you need to get more water into it.
Now you knead the dough. It will take several minutes (dough kneading is sort of a Zen thing, and experience determines speed). The goal in kneading is to keep folding the dough onto itself and trapping as much air as possible inside while you do so.
As you knead, moisture will be absorbed by the flour, and the dough will become less sticky. If after several minutes the dough is still determined to stick to the work surface while you knead, then add a very tiny amount of flour (about ½ tsp). Keep kneading and adding tiny amounts of flour until the dough stops sticking while you knead (you know you’ve got the balance perfect when you can continually knead the dough without using the pastry scraper, but the dough glues itself to the work surface if you leave it sitting for more then ten seconds).
Now, take the dough, form it into a ball, give it a little sprinkle of water (I run my hand under the tap and then just smear it across the ball) and cover it with a bowl at least four times larger then the ball (yes, leave the dough on the work surface and just cover it with a bowl – none of this namby pamby “oiled bowl covered with damp cloth” garbage). If you don’t have a really big bowl then go ahead and do the old-fashioned oil-in-bowl method, but either use really good oil that will add some flavor, or a completely neutral vegetable oil. Using oil will change the color and texture of the finished crust, usually making it both browner and thicker.
Now leave it alone for about an hour. It will rise. After an hour, punch it back down to its original size, form it into whatever you want (and in or on whatever pan you’re going to bake it in) and leave it alone for another 90 minutes or so. It should be covered (and a bit more water smeared on it) but don’t cover it with anything that might come in contact with it while it rises. This is why I like those simple round loaves – I just toss the dough ball on some parchment on a sheet pan and recover with my big-assed bowl.
Preheat your oven as hot as you can – usually around 500 degrees.
Very gently transfer the risen dough to the oven, and as soon as you close the door reduce the temperature to between 410 and 425 degrees (ovens are notoriously inconsistent, so your mileage may vary).
Leave it alone to bake in solitude. It’s done when the crust is “golden brown and delicious ™”, and it sounds hollow when you tap it.
You’ll probably have to do the recipe a few times before you figure out a reliable time/temperature for your preferred loaf style. Also, depending on the heat distribution of your oven, you may find that you get a big air-pocket in the top of the loaf (this can also happen if the skin of the loaf gets too dry during the second rise).
If that happens, then slit the top of the dough with a very sharp knife right before baking (yes, it appears there is a reason bakers do that as it turns out – it’s not just cosmetic).
Hopefully this will propel you towards bread self-sufficency and a desire to experiment further, and without having to spend twenty years getting there.