I've been itching to do a post about my bread making adventures for a while, but wanted to make sure my methods were thoroughly tested before I sent you into your own kitchens on a hope and a prayer. I think at this point I've got a pretty foolproof method for baking bread at home - and here's why I think it's important:
Everywhere you look is a diet book or blog telling you "bread is evil." Yes, bread as we know it in the store today is total crap. It's full of preservatives, has ingredients like antibiotic & growth hormone treated milk, and that's not even the worst part. Bleached flour? Why do I want to eat bleach? No one wants to feed their family bleach. But because the task of baking it ourselves sounds insurmountable and old fashioned, and because Ezekial bread (the only really acceptable form of pre-made sliced bread in the market) costs $5 a loaf and tastes like, well, Ezekial bread, we keep buying things like "Healthy Life" bread. Which, by the way, only has 45 calories per slice for a reason: it's not real food.
Eventually you decide that either you'll have to give up bread....which is no life to live at all. Bread is delicious. Alternatively you can try out this recipe and eat better bread than you ever have before - and I promise you won't be instantly transported back to the kitchens of Downton Abbey. This whole process has an active work time of about 30 minutes, I kid you not. This sourdough recipe is my current favorite.
3 1/2 cups of flour
(this can be bread flour, whole wheat flour, all purpose unbleached flour, etc. Just please don't use bleached flour. I haven't tested any gluten-free flours yet but I don't see why an all-purpose gluten free flour wouldn't work. Let me know if you try it!)
1/4 cup sourdough starter*
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 1/2 cups very HOT water
(many recipes call for purified, but I personally just don't think you need to have a Brita pitcher to make homemade bread. My tap water worked just fine.)
*On the note of the sourdough starter - I purchased mine via Amazon here. It shows up at your doorstep and you add a little water and flour to it every day for a week. Then once you've decided it's big enough, you store it in the fridge and "feed" it once a week. It's basically like a very low maintenance pet that keeps you from ever having to buy yeast. I was very intimidated by it until I actually tried it, and realized how simple it is to keep one.
Making Your Bread
1. In a big bowl, mix the flour and salt together. Fill a separate bowl with either 1 1/2 cups hottest water from your tap, or if your tap water doesn't get very hot just microwave it. Add to that 1/4 cup of your sourdough starter (which will very likely be the consistency of taffy.) If your water isn't hot enough, your starter won't dissolve well, and then when you mix it into the dough some parts of the bread will be more "sour" than others. After I remove 1/4 cup of the sourdough starter I feed it again with 1/3 cup flour & 1/4 cup hot water. Then it goes back into the fridge until you need more bread.
2. Pour your water & starter mix into your flour mixture and stir to combine, but don't overmix it. It doesn't need to look like a perfectly round ball of dough at this point. Cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and let it rise for 18 hours. I'd like to point out that I totally understand many of us don't have time to schedule our lives around a dough-rising schedule, so if your dough only rises for 16 hours or as many as 22, it will turn out just fine. Just maybe don't start at a time that will make it impossible for you to continue the process 16-22 hours later.
3. When you come back to it, your dough will be considerably larger (like the photo above.) Flour a work surface generously - I just spread out parchment paper to avoid a mess. Flatten your dough out a bit, flour it well, and then fold it onto itself until it forms a ball. Cover that with plastic wrap and let it rest on your counter for 15 minutes.
4. This is the final proofing step - I swear you will get to eat eventually! It's a lot of prep steps, but fortunately most of them take 5 minutes. Line a bowl with a heavily floured towel, set your ball of dough in, and fold the towel over the top. Let rise for two more hours.
5. An hour and a half into the proofing stage, preheat your dutch oven. I used a cast iron soup pot, but any really large heat resistant pot with a lid will be just fine. Set the oven to 500 degrees, and place your pot inside for 30 minutes.
6. Remove your heated pot from the oven, and then gently place your proofed dough inside. Your dough does not have to reach the edges of the pan - it will spread as needed, just make it a nice shape in the center. I frequently burn myself during this step, be really careful!
My bread didn't stick at all, but if you're really nervous about it you can line your pan with parchment paper. If you decide to do this, your dough may not have as nice of a crust. Definitely don't grease your pan, it will smoke.
7. Cover your pot and place it in the oven for 30 minutes at 500 degrees. After 30 minutes, remove the lid and reduce your oven temperature to 450. Bake for another 10-15 minutes - keep an eye on it, mine was done after 10, some ovens may take longer.
8. Remove your bread from the oven, pop it out of the pot, and place on a wooden cutting board to cool. Make sure you share while it's fresh out of the oven, that's the best part! I eat it plain with butter or jam, it's wonderful with soup, and also makes great sandwiches and French Toast. The bread will last 4 or 5 days before getting too hard. Possibly more if you keep it in a Ziploc in the fridge!