This time of year, we are all bombarded with resolution messages. It's as if an imaginary slate is wiped clean every January, and you're supposed to begin planning ways that you will improve over the fresh, new year.
Often people’s resolutions tend to be the same from one year to the next, and it’s been my experience that it’s just as hard to change on January 1 as it was on December 31. I think learning how to make bread is a much better way to approach thinking of change. It teaches you that improving is a process. It's not a single decision, as it is a series of steps. You will get better, but it's going to take time. Keep at it. Rejoice in the victories, and own and learn from the mistakes.
It would be hyperbolic to say that bread saved my life, but it did provide me with a vital creative outlet during a time I had been laid low by life. New York is an incredible city, but when you are accustomed to finding peace in the planet’s wild places, NYC can be a difficult place to wrap your mind around. If you're not careful it’s easy to get caught up in the city's endless race. Wash, rinse, repeat, wash, rinse, repeat. Some people seem to have an innate affinity for New York. I had to marinate in it for a while before I learned to love living in it. There is an incredible amount of things to experience in this city, but it just wasn't enough. A few winters ago I found myself pining for mountains and rivers. I missed late nights spent tying flies and early morning drives with the promise of rising trout at the end of the journey. I realized I was missing the satisfaction of skillful engagement. I needed to make something. I needed to put my senses to use in the service of creating. Winters in the city tend to be primarily spent indoors, and there are few things that make being inside more pleasant than the smell of homemade bread baking in the oven.
Bread is deceptively simple. It’s comprised of just four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. Anyone can measure out and mix those ingredients together, but the real trick lies in learning how to coax the best flavor and texture out of those ingredients. A base level of knowledge helps, but no matter how much you have read, you're still going to be clumsy the first time you try. More than likely you will end up with dough all over the kitchen and pull a flat, misshapen loaf out of the oven. That said, your home is still filled with that delicious smell, and that lackluster loaf is still going to taste pretty damn good.
I've grown particularly fond of a certain rustic style of bread. It’s really the essence of bread. It’s just those four simple ingredients mixed to form a very wet dough. All breads benefit when you give them more time to develop flavor, but these rustic loaves really shine when you extend the fermentation by using less yeast. These extended fermentations allow the flour more time to break down into its constituent parts. Sugars are released as the starch breaks down, creating a more flavorful dough and caramelizing in the crust as it bakes.
Resist the temptation to add more flour to the dough when you mix all of the ingredients together. It will make the dough easier to handle, but it will also dry the loaf out. At first it may look like a bowl full of wallpaper paste and impossible to handle, but you just need to be patient. Time plays a critical role here as well. Cover the bowl and let it rest for half an hour. When you come back, the dough will have begun to form gluten.
Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Rather than kneading it, you are going to stretch and fold the dough. It’s really simple. Just lightly pull up on one end of the dough until you feel it has reached the end of its elasticity. Fold the dough back on top of itself, and do the same thing to the other side. Form the dough into a ball, place it back into the bowl, and let it rest for roughly 15-30 minutes until it has relaxed again. Keep doing this, three to four more times, until the dough has completely come together. The combination of time and stretching and folding will build gluten, doing the work of kneading with a lot less mess.
At this point, you could set it aside and let it double in size, but your bread will be much more flavorful if you let it rise overnight in the refrigerator. The cold will slow down the fermentation and give the starch more time to break down and build flavor. If you go this route, just pull it out of the refrigerator in the morning, and let it rest in a warm place. The dough may not have risen much in the refrigerator, but the warmer environment will reinvigorate the yeast, and it should double in size fairly quickly. We have a little gap between our refrigerator and cabinets that we use as our bread incubator. Putting it up there for about an hour or two usually does the trick. Once the dough has warmed a bit and doubled in size, scrape it out onto a floured surface, divide it, and preshape it. Let the preshaped loaves rest for about fifteen minutes, until the gluten has relaxed, before shaping the final loaves.
Let the batards rest, seam-side up, on a floured linen cloth until they barely spring back when you gently poke it with your finger. Score the loaves with a razor and transfer them on to a hot baking stone in a preheated oven. You want to bake these loaves in a really hot, 500-550 degree, oven. Bake for 15 minutes before turning the loaf 180 degrees. Continue baking it for another 15-25 minutes until the crust is a rich, nutty brown. After you bake a handful of loaves, you will begin to recognize when they are done by the smell that permeates your kitchen. It’s those little bits of experiential knowledge that I love so much about baking bread. As our world becomes increasingly complicated and less intuitive, I find it grounding to be able to recognize the smell of a perfectly cooked loaf of bread.
You’re supposed to wait 30 minutes before slicing. The loaves are apparently still cooking and will be more flavorful if you wait. Good luck with that. To me, there are few things as delicious as bread, fresh out of the oven, slathered generously with butter. Let us know if you have any questions or would like to share your successes or failures with bread baking. You can find us on the social sites below.