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