Tips for Making Homemade Bread

With this simple recipe, making the perfect bread isn’t just possible, it’s certain. Called ‘artisan’, ‘no-knead’ or ‘bachelor’s bread’, there are only four ingredients, and one of them is water! This bread has become my signature item and I always get requests to, “Just bring some of your wonderful bread.” This is an excellent homemade bread that is easy to prepare.

Water, yeast, salt and flour. That’s it. But, like all masterworks, the trick is in how you put them together. Thankfully, this recipe works best when you have a sloppy technique and an I-don’t-care attitude. I’ll emphasize the few key tips you need to know.

Mix in a large plastic bowl-

* 1 1/2 tablespoons of yeast (any type will do, and if you don’t care to measure, use a packet and a half).
* 1 1/2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Don’t cheat here; use kosher salt, not iodized or sea salt.
* 3 cups of water at about 100 degrees. That’s the temperature where it first feels warm to the touch.

Swirl this mixture a bit with your fingers (remember we are being sloppy) until it mostly dissolves. Then add –

* 6 1/2 cups of unbleached flour. Use unbleached the first time you make it and then feel free to change to whatever flour appeals to you. Sifting isn’t necessary.

Stir it all up just long enough to moisten the flour throughout. Place the bowl (covered loosely) in a warm area for at least 2 hours and as long as 5 hours if you have something else to do. I like to start a load of wash and leave the bowl in the laundry room. Washing and drying a couple of loads keeps the room warm and moist.

Now, put the bowl in the fridge for at least 3 hours. No need to knead. Three hours minimum, but you can just leave the whole mess for as long as a week with no problems. If you are storing longer than a week, you can freeze at this step for up to a month.

When you are ready to bake your bread, pull up a ball about the size of a large grapefruit and cut it free from the rest with a serrated knife. Plop this onto a floured surface. The dough will seem too moist and sticky, but don’t worry, that’s how it is supposed to be. To make cleaning up quick and easy I spread out a couple of sheets of newspaper to work on. Don’t worry about the newsprint ink, they use non-toxic vegetable dyes now.

You are going to shape the dough into a nice slumpy ball. This is the hardest part to describe, but it isn’t critical. Pick up and hold the dough mass in both hands, thumbs on top and fingers underneath. Use flour on your hands and the dough as needed for handling. Now, pull with your thumbs and tuck with your fingers. You are stretching the top around and tucking it under. You should end up with a nice, smooth, upper surface. Don’t cheat and knead the dough. Pull and tuck for only 30 seconds or so – just long enough to shape it.

Set the dough aside to rise for 40 minutes. This is a pretty firm time. When you have 20 minutes left, put a pizza stone in your oven and set the oven at 425 degrees to pre-heat. If you skip this step, the bread will be undercooked.

Just before you put the dough in, cut three parallel slices in the top with a pair of scissors. The dough will be too soft and sticky to cut with a knife. These cuts allow the bread to break open in a controlled fashion. Also, put a small Pyrex glass dish on the bottom shelf of the oven, filled about 1/2 inch with boiling water. This will keep the bread baking in a moist environment – a key tip!

Take out your hot pizza stone and sprinkle with corn meal (to prevent sticking or burning). Put the loaf on it (sizzle!) and place in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes and then cover the top of the loaf with foil. Just lay a piece on top loosely – this will keep the crust from burning later on. After 10 more minutes, take the foil off and brush the top of the loaf with olive oil. Finally, check your loaf after 10 additional minutes. You should see a caramel-colored crust that will be hard when you tap it. That’s 30 minutes total baking time.

Remove your loaf and slip it off the pizza stone. Let it cool (if you can resist chowing down immediately). Cooling allows some of the internal moisture to work it’s way into the crust, making it a bit less crisp and a bit more chewy.

After about 15 to 20 minutes, break out the bread-knife and butter. If you want to re-heat later, just put the loaf in a paper bag and heat in a 200 degree oven for about 15 minutes.