Category Archives: crusty

Sourdough Starter-Risen No-Knead Bread

I can never decide which look I like better... Pizza stone version on the left, Covered pot version on the right

Bread That Takes Time, but Not Your Time

A recent e-mail reminded me that I promised ages ago to share my sourdough version of the Sullivan St. “no knead” bread popularized by Mark Bittman in the NYTimes. Part of the reason I didn’t get around to it sooner is because it’s basically the same as the recipe I posted for crusty, shaped loaves—although that one uses just enough flour to make the dough kneadable. But the no-knead method probably deserves its own post.

Over time, I’ve developed three basic formulas to work with my sourdough starter: slow, medium, and fast. All three, even the “fast” version, work by letting time do the work that kneading normally does. A longer-than-normal rise enables long chains of gluten to form, and gluten is what forms stretchy membranes that trap the gas produced by the yeast, which is what causes bread to rise. The lack of kneading also means the dough can be wetter, because you don’t have to worry about it sticking to you. When that wet dough is baked it in a covered pot, it creates a steamy environment not unlike a professional steam-blasting oven, and that’s what produces the thick, crispy crust people associate with European-style or artisanal bakery bread. However, I’ve also had pretty good success with a baking stone and a splash of water thrown in a preheated dish on the oven floor (which often gets on the oven floor too, but that’s fine—more water in contact with more hot surface at one time = more steam).

The loaves above show the differences between the two methods—the covered pot method rises a little more and has a slightly nicer crust. Using a pizza stone enables you to make different shapes and slash the top in decorative ways. They were baked at the same time like so:

I put a loaf in the pot first, and then slid the rack back into the oven and just slid the second loaf onto the stone on a sheet of parchmentI removed the lid 25 minutes into the baking time, and the internal temp of the pizza stone was 195 F and the dutch oven loaf was 185F. I left the pizza stone loaf in for another 5 minutes, and the dutch oven loaf in for 10, after which they were both around 197-199F.    I couldn’t fit the pizza stone & pot side by side on the rack,
so I used the lid of the small dish to level the pot

The “fast” version takes a minimum of 6 hrs for the first rise. The “slow” version, which is the most similar to the original “no knead” recipe, takes at least 18 hrs for the first rise. However, those are 6-18 (or more) hours during which you don’t have to do a thing. Much like the no-knead pizza dough, this recipe virtually effortless. Five minutes to measure out the ingredients and stir them together, another minute or so to shape it, 30 seconds to throw it in the oven and another 30 seconds to add a splash of water at the beginning or remove the lid of the pot mid-way through baking. Even if it takes another few minutes to refresh the starter, the whole process probably takes less active time than making a trip to a bakery where you could buy something comparable.

And, of course, as with anything you make yourself, you can customize it however you want. Here are a few versions:

This probably had about 1/4 cup whole wheat flour, but no other additions. As you can see, that produces a much taller loaf. The Classic

About 1/4 cup each dried cranberries, dried apricots, and walnut pieces + 4 T. honey. Really nice with sweetened cream cheese. Cranberry, Apricot & Walnut

2 T. tomato paste, 2 t. garlic powder, 2 t. each dried oregano and parsley, and 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese. I didn't use the stone or water with these because I didn't want them to be so crustyGarlic, Tomato, & Herb Knots

I go through phases with slashing patterns--I've been on a seashell kick, but a simple X in the middle or # pattern works too. Multigrain, Flax, & Honey

Choosing Slow, Medium, or Fast

The long rise means it takes a little advance planning—if your starter takes at least 8 hrs to “refresh” (which most do) that means you have to start the process at least 16 hours in advance. So, for example, if you want fresh bread for dinner, you’ll probably want to refresh the starter before going to bed the previous night and make the “fast” version sometime before noon the next day. It’ll be ready to shape and bake that evening. If you want the bread to be done by 7, the dough should be made by 9am. If you want the bread to be fresh and warm for breakfast or a weekend brunch, just shift that all back a little: refresh the starter anytime in the morning or afternoon of the previous day, make the dough in the evening, and it will be ready to shape & bake when you wake up.

You can always let it rise longer than the “minimum”—in fact, the longer you let it rise, the better. So if you have to be out the door by 8am and don’t get home until after 6, you can bake it anytime that night or even the next morning, and it’ll still be great. If I don’t manage to bake it within 24 hours, I usually refrigerate it in a zip-top bag and then let it come to room temperature for 1-2 hrs before shaping and baking it.

Aside from time considerations, which version I use also depends on how much bread I want to make and how much starter I want to use. I usually try to use 2 cups of starter per week—that’s just what works with my starter feeding routine—so if I want one loaf, I make the “fast” version. If I want two loaves, I use the “medium” recipe and double it. If I want a lot of bread or only want to use a little bit of starter (say, if I’m making something else at the same time that already uses a cup or more of starter), then I make the “slow” version.

You can also use cornmeal, wheat bran, or oats to prevent the dough from sticking to the towelThe cracks form because the bread continues rising after the crust begins to harden

Can It Be Moar Sour?

Yes.

The “slow” version produces the most sourdough flavor, despite starting with the least sourdough starter. I assume that’s mostly because the yeast have more time to do their thing, but I’ve never done a “slow” and “medium” loaf side by side to see if they’d be different even if they were allowed to rise for the same amount of time. In general, I get a lot of tang if I let any of the versions rise for 18-24 hours. In warmer weather, as little as 12 hours can be enough to produce a pretty sour loaf.

Probably the best way to maximize the sourness is to let the dough rise for 18-24 hrs and then refrigerate it for 3-4 days. The yeast will keep doing their thing—digesting the starches in the flour and producing acid and alcohol, and the bread will get more and more sour. Eventually, they’ll either run out of food or produce an environment too acidic for them to live in. However, I haven’t run into any problems as long as I bake the dough within a week of making it.

Can It Be More Whatever?

Yes. Just add whatever. Prefer whole wheat? Fine. To make it 100% whole wheat, you’ll need a starter made with whole wheat flour. If you don’t care about the percentage, you can use whole wheat flour with a starter made with white flour. It will be denser than the white wheat version, but will still rise and be tasty. Prefer not to use sugar? Fine. The original doesn’t, but I find that a little sugar improves the oven spring a lot, probably by speeding up yeast activity. Two teaspoons isn’t enough to make it taste sweet—most of it probably gets eaten by the yeast and transformed into gas, acid, & alcohol—so if you want a sweet-tasting bread, add more sugar (or maple syrup or honey or malt syrup or brown rice syrup, you get the idea).

interior shot of the fruit & nut bread, which also had a high proportion of whole wheat, thus the denser crumbI almost never make the “basic” recipe. I usually use at least 1/4-1/2 cup whole wheat flour and add some oats and sunflower seeds. Other possible additions include olive oil or melted butter, honey, grated hard cheeses, diced cooked or cured meats, herbs, tomato paste, chopped sundried tomatoes, dried fruits, nuts, flax meal, fried shallots, garlic powder or paste, wheat germ, and oat bran. Probably not all at once. Diced pepperoni, olive oil, tomato paste, shredded sharp cheddar or aged gouda, fried shallots, and oregano is a killer combination—like pizza in bread form. Fresh rosemary, swiss cheese and pine nuts are pretty great together, too. It works best if you whisk semi-liquid ingredients like honey, olive oil, or tomato paste into the starter (and water, if using) before adding the dry ingredients so they get evenly distributed.

See the recipe below for suggested amounts of additions, or just improvise. I also included the recipe below for the version pictured at the top, which I made this week. Instead of white bread flour, I used a multigrain flour made by Westwind Milling Co. that contains hard winter wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and corn (available at By the Pound if you’re in the Ann Arbor area). I whisked some gluten into the flour before adding it to the starter because many of those grains have a lower gluten content than wheat. I also threw in some whole rolled oats, flax meal, sunflower seeds, and honey. I used the “medium” version of the recipe, doubled for two loaves, and let it rise for 24 hrs. The result was sour and nutty and chewy and complex and just slightly sweet. It’s denser than the classic white flour loaf, but something about cold weather makes me crave that kind of heartiness. I’ve been loving it slathered with butter and topped with sprinkle of coarse salt or dipped in runny egg yolks.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen No Knead Bread
see this post for advice about making a sourdough starter

FAST (min. rise 6 hrs)

  • after risen, the dough will be airy and have a vast network of bubbles2 c. refreshed starter (1:1 flour:water)
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 2 1/4 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar (optional—improves oven spring)

MEDIUM (min. rise 12 hrs)

  • 1 c. refreshed starter
  • 1 c. water
  • 3 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar 

SLOW (min. rise 18 hrs)

  • 1/3 c. refreshed starter
  • 1 1/2 c. water
  • 3 1/2 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar

for lack of a towel, I've used old pillowcases before. not recommended if you have any doubts about the colorfastness of the fabric dyeequipment: a kitchen towel (not terrycloth) and baking stone or covered pot
extras: more flour, cornmeal, wheat bran, or oats for dusting the flour
substitutions: any flour can be used in place of the bread flour—add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of lower-gluten flour; you can use whey or water used to soak dried tomatoes or fruit in place of the water; you can use any kind of sweetener in place of the sugar or leave it out
additions (per loaf): 1/2 cup rolled oats, grated cheese, or dried fruit; 1/4 cup sunflower seeds, nuts, diced cured meat like pepperoni, sundried tomatoes; 2 T. olive oil or any other oil or melted solid fat, tomato paste, honey or maple syrup, fried shallots or garlic, flax seeds or flax meal, wheat germ, oat bran, or fresh herbs; 2 t. dried herbs, garlic powder, or other spices.

1. Whisk liquids & semi-liquids together (starter, water, honey or tomato paste, etc.). If adding gluten, whisk that into the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.

2. Combine all the ingredients and stir just until the flour is moistened—usually about a minute. The dough should be sticky and shaggy. If you can knead it without it sticking to you, add more water 2 T. at a time until it’s too sticky to knead. If it’s so wet it’s more like batter than dough, add flour until it can be shaped into a ball that won’t immediately flatten into a pancake. Getting the consistency right may involve some trial & error, but even too-dry or too-wet doughs will probably produce tasty bread.

it's hard to communicate texture in visual form--you can see how it sticks to the spatula. And yet it's stiff enough to pull away from the bowl a little.

3. Cover and let rise for 6-24 hrs. The dough is ready when it has more than doubled. There may be fat bubbles on top, and the dough should be full of air—see the honeycomb texture in the picture next to the ingredient list. The less fiber in the flour and the more sugar in the dough, the more it will rise.

4. Optional step I usually skip: Flour a work surface and scrape the dough out onto it. Fold it over itself once or twice. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest 15 min. I assume that’s meant to make it easier to shape. I usually just shape it in the bowl:

5. Flour your hands enough to keep the dough from sticking to you, scrape the dough out of the bowl and form it into a ball. Dust a cotton towel with flour (or cornmeal or wheat bran or rolled oats) and put the ball seam-side up in the towel. Dust with more flour, gather the ends of the towel, twist and pile on top of the loaf. Let rise for 1-2 hrs—longer is better, but 1 hr is sufficient. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look like it has risen much, it will rise more in the oven.

it's so wet there's not really a "seam," but there will probably be one side that's not as smooth; that side goes up in the towel becasue it will be inverted into the pot or onto the baking tile.

twisted up and ready for the second rise 6. 30 min before baking, preheat the oven at 450F with a covered oven-safe pot inside (like a Dutch oven or Le Creuset) including the lid OR a baking stone and a baking dish on the oven floor. I think this makes it look kind of like a sand-dollar; Brian thinks it looks kind of like a marijuana leaf. Kind of like a Rorschach test.When ready to bake, carefully turn the dough into the pot and cover OR turn onto a piece of parchment paper, slash with a sharp knife if desired, and slide onto the stone. If using the baking stone, pour 1/2 cup water ino the preheated dish on the oven floor. 

7. Bake 25-30 minutes, and then remove the lid or turn the loaf for even browning. Bake another 5-25 minutes until the crust is browned on top and the internal temperature of the loaf is between 190-200F. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can check for doneness by tapping the bottom of the loaf. When it’s done, it will sound hollow.

Recipe: Multigrain Bread with Sunflower Seeds, Flax Meal, and Honey
(2 loaves)

  • 2 cups refreshed starter (1:1 flour:water)
  • 2 cups water
  • 5 3/4 cups multigrain flour (like the Westwind Milling Multigrain Bread Flour, which contains hard winter wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and corn)
  • 1/4 cup vital wheat gluten
  • 1/4 c. flax meal
  • 1 cup oats
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 T. honey
  • 1 T. kosher salt

Follow the same method outlined above. Divide in half and rise in two separate bowls if your mixing bowl isn’t large enough to hold the dough once it’s more than doubled.

Before rising8 hrs probably would have been enough; I let it go 24.

Sourdough-risen No-knead Pizza Dough

with a spicy tomato sauce, bacon, cherry tomatoes, sauteed onions, and fontina cheese

Homemade Bread When There’s No Time to Make Bread

One of the perks of being in graduate school is that I basically work from home most days, so if I want to take a break in the middle of the afternoon to knead bagel dough until there’s enough gluten to make a baker’s windowpane, I usually can. But I know that’s a luxury not everyone has, and sometimes even I can’t seem to fit all that kneading in. As much as I might like to live by some sort of mantra like, “If I’m too busy to knead bread for 15 minutes, I’m too busy,” sometimes, like it or not, busy just happens.  

Ezekiel, just after being refreshed with 1 c. bread flour and 1 c. water, already bubblingHowever, I also have this yeast creature named Ezekiel, and if I don’t bake with him at least once every  two weeks (and preferably every week—keeps him more active), he will eventually suffocate in his own excrement. That may be one of the biggest deterrents for people who might otherwise be interested in creating and maintaining their own starters—even if you’re an avid baker, a sourdough starter represents a kind of commitment. Whether or not you’re type to get emotionally invested in your fermenting flour paste, the whole endeavor is likely to seem like a waste of time and food if you’re just going to end up killing the stupid thing in a month or two anyhow.

However, thanks to the no-knead method popularized by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Bakery and Mark Bittman of the NYTimes, the inevitability of weeks when you will be too busy to knead a loaf of bread shouldn’t stop anyone from having a starter. Honestly, no-knead bread is probably the only reason Ezekiel is still alive. There are some culinary justifications for the no-knead method too—if you don’t have to knead a dough, it can be stickier and that increased moisture content is one way of producing a crackling “artisan bread” crust. Also, the long, slow rise produces the big pockets of air and uneven crumb people have come to expect and desire from “rustic” breads like ciabatta. But the best part by far is being able to make homemade bread with about as much time and effort as it takes to boil an egg.*

I’ll post my sourdough-risen adaptation of the classic crusty Dutch Oven-baked boule everyone loves eventually. But I think the best testament to the versatility and ease of the no-knead method is no-knead pizza.

The Four Keys to Great Pizza Crust

1) Gluten 

Pizza is even more reliant on gluten than most yeast breads. Without a lot of gluten, the crust will tear before you can stretch it thin enough to be a crust instead of something more like focaccia. can be rolled thinner for a true thin crust, but then it won't get those big fat bubbles, which I loveLots of gluten is also what makes pizza crusts chewier than normal bread—usually, you want something closer in texture to a bagel than sandwich bread. Normally, you produce gluten by kneading the dough for a long time, but the no-knead method uses a very long rise instead, which facilitates gluten production without any effort on your part. Time basically does the kneading for you.

However, you do need to use a high-protein flour to give time the raw material to work with. If you substitute all-purpose flour, the crust will probably tear when you try to shape it. If you don’t want to buy bread flour because you’re afraid you’ll never 5 lbs of it, but you do have access to a “natural foods” store, you can use vital wheat gluten to increase the protein content of regular or low-gluten flour—whisk 1 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of all-purpose flour or 2 T. per cup of whole wheat or cake flour into the dry ingredients before combining them with the wet ingredients.

2) Olive Oil

The traditional no-knead dough recipe contains no fat at all, like a baguette dough, but pizza dough usually contains at least a little fat both for suppleness and for flavor. So instead of using Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead pizza dough, I use the “Olive Oil Dough Master Version” from the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, adapted to work with my 100% hydration sourdough starter (a 1:1 combination of flour and water by volume). Any kind of oil will work, but I think my favorite thing about this dough is that you can smell and taste the olive oil in the final product. 

3) Refrigeration

can be used just like the refrigerated dough you can buy at the storeMost pizzerias refrigerate their crusts for a minimum of 24 hours. The cold slows the yeast activity  down and enables even more gluten development and a lot of flavor development, which is largely due to the yeast byproducts. You can bake the crust without refrigerating it, and it will turn out okay; however, it will be way better after at least one and up to ten days in the refrigerator. While that might be a bummer for instant gratification-seekers, it actually makes this a super convenient meal. You can throw the dough together one day and then after the long rise, divide it into individual pizza-sized amounts and store them in separate ziptop bags in the refrigerator for use basically anytime in the next two weeks.

Then, whenever you want pizza, all you have to do is roll it out, top it, and bake it. Even if you grate the cheese by hand and the toppings you want to use take some prep work—like cooking bacon and sautéing some sliced onion in the rendered fat or chopping up a pear or bell pepper—you can do that in the time it takes the oven to preheat. Baking only takes 15 minutes, and if you’re of the mind that pizza alone isn’t a complete and balanced meal, you can use that to throw together a salad or cut up and steam a head of broccoli. If you use already-prepped toppings like shredded cheese, canned artichokes, and pre-sliced olives or chopped up leftovers, the whole process takes less than 20 minutes of active time. Either way, your pizza will be done in less time than it takes to get delivery.

4) Hot Oven & Stone

While the exact temperature may vary by oven, which you’ll only figure out by experimenting, you can narrow your search to 400F+. A super-hot oven is what makes the yeast go crazy, producing those great big bubbles and crisping the top of the crust. For a crisp bottom crust, you need a preheated surface—ideally a baking tile or pizza stone, but a preheated baking sheet is better than nothing.

For my oven, 15 minutes at 500F is perfect—I get a soggy crust at both 450 or 550. You’d think it would just get crisper as the oven gets hotter (or at least I did), but when I tried it at 550F, after 12 or so minutes the top was starting to burn and the bottom wasn’t totally crisp, and got softer and limper as it cooled. At 450, the bottom would begin to burn by the time the cheese on top melted and despite that, never got totally crisp.

As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t have to drop $40 on something specifically marketed as a baking tile or pizza stone at Williams-Sonoma, you can use any unglazed quarry tile that will fit in your oven, which should be available at most home improvement stores for a couple of dollars (Alton Brown claims they cost $0.99 in the 2007 Good Eats episode “Flat is Beautiful” and katie k at the Fresh Loaf recommends asking for “saltillo tiles” which ran about $1.50 in Southern California in 2006).

1 pizza serves 2-3; we usually eat 2/3 for dinner and leave the last two pieces out for a snack later that night. on rare occasions, they survive and become breakfast the bubbles inevitably collapse a little once you cut the pie

Recipe: Sourdough-risen No-Knead Pizza Dough (makes 2 12”-14” pizzas)

(adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day; for the instant yeast version, see Steamy Kitchen)

  • 2 c. refreshed starter
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 2 1/4 cups bread flour (may substitute some or all whole wheat flour, but add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup)
  • parchment paper or cornmeal and additional flour for dusting baking sheet

1. Whisk the olive oil into the refreshed starter, and then add the rest of the ingredients (aside from the parchment paper and cornmeal) and stir just until combined—about 1 min.

2. Cover and let rise 8-20 hours or until the dough is more than doubled in size and there are fat bubbles on the surface.

ingredients just combined into a dough--it will be sticky about 12 hours later. also an illustration of why if i cooked more during the day, my photos would be so much nicer

3. Divide the dough into two balls. Stretch the surface of each one and pinch the edges together and then roll it around on a smooth surface to form round balls with taut surfaces. Pour some olive oil into two zip-top bags (I usually use the 1 qt. size) and spread it around a little or spray a little cooking spray into them and tuck one ball into each bag. You could also just store the whole thing in one gallon-sized bag and pull off a grapefruit-sized hunk when you want to bake, but I find the one ball, one bag method to be a little more convenient.

how dirty does "smooth, taut balls" sound? oiled bags

4. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 10 days. Alternatively, shape and bake now.

5. Remove dough from cold storage 30 min-1 hr before rolling it out to let it warm up a little. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 500F with a baking tile placed on a middle rack or a baking sheet on the lowest rack possible—or even on the floor of the oven. you can also stretch it with your hands and toss it in the air. I am not that cool.

6. Roll the dough to approximately 1/4” thickness for a chewy, bubbly crust. For a true thin crust, roll it as thin as you can make it—until you can almost begin to see light through it. The best way to create a mostly even circle is to flatten the dough into a round and then roll from the center to the top edge and then turn the circle 90 degrees and repeat—roll, turn, roll, turn, roll turn, etc. always rolling in the same direction, straight from the middle of the circle towards 12 o’clock. 

7. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a lightly floured towel (I usually cut open the ziptop bag and use that as the oil will keep it from sticking). Let rise for 20-30 minutes while the oven finishes preheating and you finish prepping any ingredients.

8. Top as desired. Alton Brown insists that less is more. I think it’s your damn pizza and you should do whatever you want with it. Some combinations I especially like:

With no sauce, just brushed with olive oil:

  • sautéed shallots and shitake mushrooms with fontina
  • firm pears and blue cheese (with or without bacon and/or arugula)
  • lots of fresh herbs, garlic and a hard cheese like asiago

With tomato sauce:

  • eggs (either scrambled or just broken, whole, onto the pizza so they cook over easy in the oven) with peas and ham or bacon (fake bacon works just about as well) with pressed mozarella or monterey jack
  • artichoke hearts, sliced olives, and asiago
  • salad shrimp, diced green onions, blanched asparagus tips, and a hard, sharp cheese like parmeggiano-regiano grated coarsely or peeled in strips with a vegetable peeler
  • fresh tomato and garlic with slices of fresh mozzarella (basil optional)
  • leftover meatloaf with onion and sharp cheddar

With an herb or arugula pesto:

  • sautéed bell peppers and onions with pepperjack cheese
  • fresh tomato and mozzarella (a repeat, but it’s a classic)

and bacon, sauteed onions, cherry tomatoes, and fontina wasn't half bad either 

9. Bake for 10-15 min. or until cheese is melted and crust is golden-brown.

*Why this is the standard metric of simplicity, I don’t know. I mean, I had to look up how to boil an egg not that long ago. And anytime you have to drain something and then shock it in ice water, that’s probably at a level of complexity belied by the way “boiling an egg” is invoked. I mean, have you seen The Worst Cooks in America? How many of them would know how to boil an egg? I mean, I’m sure they could put an egg in boiling water—but how many of them would know when to pull it out and how to prevent that unappetizing grey outer layer of yolk from developing? Clearly a cliché from another era.

Baking Crusty Shaped Loaves at Home with Sourdough or Instant Yeast

Ezekiel vs. Red Star Rapid-Rise

The primary difference between the kind of bread that you can buy in plastic bags for as little as $.99 a loaf at most supermarkets (exemplified, of course, by Wonderbread) and “artisan” breads that go for $5+ at bakeries isn’t actually the kind of yeast or flour or any special oils or add-ins. Usually, it’s the crust. And the key to the crackling, chewy crust that says “artisan” to most people is moisture.

When a loaf is exposed to the dry heat of the oven, a couple of processes are set in motion—the yeast start to go crazy and produce gas much more rapidly, which is what creates more holes in the dough (sometimes called “oven spring”), and the starches begin to gelatinize. In a regular, dry oven, the starches on the outside gelatinize really quickly, which can retard the rise a bit and create a smooth exterior. Steam slows the gelatinization process for the crust, which changes the texture.

Bakeries usually achieve their result with special ovens that blast loaves with steam in the early stages of baking. The no-knead method popularized by the NYTimes achieves similar results with a wet dough and a preheated, covered pot, which creates a mini-sauna for the loaf. I use the no-knead method a lot, adapted for my sourdough starter, and it probably has the best reward/effort ratio of any recipe I use regularly—the only thing I can think of that would even compete is roasted garlic. But sometimes I want a shaped loaf with the same kind of crust—a baguette or something with an interesting slashing pattern. Those are hard to achieve if you’re just dumping a dough too wet to knead into super-hot pot.

Bittman makes it sound nigh-impossible to achieve bakery results in a home oven any other way:

I have tried brushing the dough with water (a hassle and ineffective); spraying it (almost as ineffective and requiring frequent attention); throwing ice cubes on the floor of the oven (not good for the oven, and not far from ineffective); and filling a pot with stones and preheating it, then pouring boiling water over the stones to create a wet sauna (quite effective but dangerous, physically challenging and space-consuming). I was discouraged from using La Cloche, a covered stoneware dish, by my long-standing disinclination to crowd my kitchen with inessential items that accomplish only one chore. I was discouraged from buying a $5,000 steam-injected oven by its price.

But I have a method that I think works pretty well. It’s somewhere between the La Cloche method and the pot of stones method—it does require specialized equipment, but a baking tile is far more flexible and affordable than a La Cloche. Alton Brown says you can use any “unglazed quarry stone” and according to this post at The Fresh Loaf, “saltillo tiles” that fit the bill were selling for $1.50 at Home Depots in Southern California in 2006. For the steam, I set a cast iron pot on the floor of the oven, and just after I slide the shaped loaves onto the baking tile, I pour 1/3 cup warm water from the tap into the pot and then quickly close the oven. Five minutes later, I pour another 1/3 cup water into the pot. None of which seems especially dangerous, expensive, space-consuming, or challenging, and gives me crusty loaves in whatever shape I please.

windows live writer's photo-editing capabilities are cool, but just short of fix-your-cockeyed-framing cool

For these loaves, I used a basic baguette recipe, which I got from Brian’s grandmother. I had some whole wheat pastry flour and medium rye flour to use up, both of which are low-gluten flours, so I added a little vital wheat gluten, which you can get at most “natural food” retailers (it’s the primary ingredient in seitan). Gluten is the protein in wheat, which creates long stretchy chains when combined with water, and those capture the gas bubbles created by the yeast. If you use more than 1 cup low-gluten flour (which includes all-purpose wheat, whole wheat, and any kind of rye or spelt) you will definitely need to add gluten to get results that look like the pictures. I also threw in some flax meal, oats, and sunflower seeds.

A few days later, I was invited to a friends’ house later that evening and decided I wanted to take them some bread, but obviously it needed to happen fast, so I used packaged yeast. The dual recipes below the jump demonstrate the interchangeability of starter/instant yeast (I also explain how to substitute either in any recipe here). There are some slight differences—the sourdough version takes longer to rise and will contain more lactic acid which gives it a slightly more sour and “bready” flavor. Since the instant yeast version rises faster at room temperature, depending on when you slash it, the oven spring might not be as dramatic so the slashes will look deeper in the final loaf (like they do in the picture on the right at the top).  But either way, I think the result is lovely—a moist, chewy interior and crisp, shattering crust, great flavor and aroma.

These recipes are also completely flexible—you could use any combination of flours and add other seeds or nuts or dried fruits or grated cheeses or cooked alliums. You could shape it differently to make a baguette or a classic boule. If you can dream it, you can bake it.

the loaf of my dreams

Recipe and instructions, with pictures, below the jump.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Multigrain bread (1 big loaf—I doubled this to make 2)

  • 1 cup refreshed starter
  • 1 cups water
  • 3 cups flour (I used 2 cups bread flour, 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour, and 1/4 cup dark rye)
  • 1 T. vital wheat gluten (optional)
  • 1/4 cup oats
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 T. flax meal
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 1 t. sugar

Recipe: Instant Yeast-risen Multigrain bread (1 big loaf)

  • 1 2/3 cups lukewarm water (not over 115F or it’ll kill the yeast)
  • 1 package granulated yeast
  • 3 2/3 cups flour (I used 2 2/3 cups bread flour, 2/3 cup whole wheat flour, and 1/3 cup dark rye)
  • 1 T. vital wheat gluten
  • 1/2 cup oats
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 T. flax meal
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 4 t. sugar

1. Prepare yeast: If using sourdough starter, measure out the amount required. If using instant yeast, combine the yeast with the sugar, 1/4 cup of the water and 1/4 cup flour, creating a “sponge.” Let the sponge “bloom” for 5-15 minutes.

Ezekiel 8 hrs after a feeding, refreshedan instant yeast sponge, just mixed after 10 minutes, activated

2. Combine all ingredients. Dump it all in a bowl and stir it together until a dough begins to form.

 February bread 064

3. Knead. Dump the ingredients onto a lightly-floured surface and treat it like a muscle you were trying to massage. As Harold McGee explained in yesterday’s NYTimes, the more you knead, the more even and consistent the crumb will be (more gluten to trap the gas => more smaller holes, rather than a variety of different-sized holes). So if you want a loose dough with big pockets, all you need to do is get the dough into a vaguely coherent loaf-like object and then let it rise a long time. If you want a very even, consistent crumb or don’t have the time to let it rise, knead the dough for about 10-15 minutes or until the surface doesn’t tear anymore as you knead it—instead, it’s a smooth, round ball. If you’re going for the lots-of-kneading method rather than the lots-of-rising method, you can test the gluten formation by making a “baker’s windowpane.” Pinch off a bit of dough and stretch it as thin as you can—if you can get it thin enough to see light through it, there’s enough gluten.

4. First rise: place the dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, cover it, and let it sit for 3+ hrs (for the sourdough) or 1+ hours (for the instant yeast). You want it to be doubled in size. You can leave it alone for longer than that and nothing bad will happen—though I wouldn’t let it sit out more than, 12 hours unless I wanted a really sour, sourdough flavor. Basically, you can just let it rise until you feel like dealing with it again. One way to test if it’s risen enough: if you make a depression in it with your thumb, it should not “heal” immediately, meaning you should still be able to see the depression a minute after you made it.

Ezekiel double-batch pre-rise Ezekiel double-batch 5 hrs later

Red Star single batch pre-rise Red Star single-rise 1 hr later, the condensation on the plastic is from the yeast breathing

5. Shape: Flour your hands well and scrape the dough out of the bowl, onto a lightly-floured surface. Fold the dough over itself a few times, and then create a round, oblong, or baton. Pinch the bottom together gently—it doesn’t need to be a smooth seam.

pictured on my Silpat, which no dough, no matter how sticky, can stick to. Without one, you just have to be more generous with the dusting flour.

6. Second rise: Sprinkle a towel with flour. I generally use the towels my grandmother made from rice sacks in an act of early-20th C. frugality, but I have used pillowcases in the past. Just nothing terrycloth. Gently wrap the loaf or loaves in floured towel(s)—I generally wrap them a bit like a starlight peppermint, twisting the edges and then loosely piling them on top. If you want to bake it the same day, let it rise another 40 min (for the instant yeast) or 1-2 hrs (for the sourdough). Otherwise, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 4 days and remove 1 1/2 hours before baking to let it come back to room temperature.

placed on the floured towelwrapped up like a hard candy stored in the refrigerator, next to the ketchup and pickles 

7. Pre-heat the oven and slash the loaf: 20-30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450F with a baking tile on an oven rack in the middle of the oven and a cast iron pot or broiling pan placed on the oven floor. When ready to bake, invert the dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper so the seam from shaping is on the bottom. The baking sheet is just used to transport the bread to the oven, like a pizza peel, so if it has edges, invert it–you want it to be able to slide the loaf onto the preheated stone. Using a sharp knife, make 3-4 cuts about 1/2” deep in the top. The slashes prevent the crust from splitting randomly during the oven spring and affects the final shape of the loaf. For oblong loaves, diagonal slashes are the norm. For a round boule, crosses, squares, or slashes like rays of light emanating from one side of the loaf seem common. Slide the loaf onto the preheated baking tile, and pour 1/3 cup warm tap water into the preheated pan.

from The Global Gourmet, picture links to source

8. Bake: Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the crust is a deep golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. After 5 minutes of baking, add another 1/3 cup warm tap water to the preheated pan.

9. Cool. Remove to wire racks. When you first take the loaf out of the oven, the cool air will make the crust audibly crackle, or “sing.”

it was suggested to me that these look like maggots. i disagree. you decide.