Breaking bread

Linda Henderson photo.

It is February, it is cold outside, and at our house, it is the one month of the year we stay at home most weekends and cook. I have discovered I love to make simple artisan bread.  

In many parts of the world, bread is eaten with every meal. Outside of the United States, bread- making is taken very seriously. In France, a trip to a favorite bakery is part of the daily routine.  People choose their bread with care and only frequent the baker who has what they think is the best bread.  

Not us in the United States. Most of us have come to rely on the stuff that comes in plastic bags and is found on the grocery store shelf. I think bread needs to hire an advertising agency to publicize its virtues. Flour, water, salt and yeast — these basic ingredients have fed humans for thousands of years. Separately they cannot sustain life, but when you combine them and apply heat, they form bread. They become the basic food of most societies and have everything necessary to sustain life.  

We seem to have developed a fear of bread, especially gluten and yeast in the United States. There are people who do have a disease, Celiac disease, that does interfere with the digestion of the proteins in gluten. According to the Celiac Foundation, “Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide.” So, for these people, they must avoid gluten, but for the rest of us, bread should and can be a part of our daily diet.

I must admit, I feared yeast for many years, but not because of a disease process but because I didn’t understand how it worked or how to use it. But then, I found artisan no-knead bread, and my world was changed. Artisanal breads are generally round loaves that are hand-shaped. Rather than putting them into a baking pan, they are baked in large, covered Dutch oven pots at high temperatures. The heat and the covered pot produce steam, which causes the bread to rise, be moist inside and cook quickly.

There is something almost magical about the process of bread making. You add water to flour, salt and yeast, and it turns into a lovely round loaf that has a crusty golden-brown exterior and a heavenly aroma. The interior is soft and filled with tiny air holes.

I know it sounds way too easy, with flour, water, salt, yeast, time and no kneading, but it really is that easy. The secret ingredient is time. It takes between 12 to 18 hours for the dough to develop. Over that period, the dough will ferment and develop. The gluten will ripen and fill the dough with air. This is a much slower process than using kneading and larger amounts of a leavening agent. There is a satisfaction that comes from the hearty, complex loaf of bread that makes artisanal baking worth the wait.

Back to my fear of yeast. Yeast is a living organism, which may explain my fear. With baking soda, you add an acid liquid, and it activates immediately. The action of yeast is activated by water, temperature and time. The more variables, the scarier the process is. Like how the temperature of the kitchen will affect the dough; how humidity will affect rising of the dough; and how the ingredients in the dough will affect the growing yeast.

Here are some tips I’ve picked up, and, yes, I have made all these mistakes. Do not use hot water to activate the yeast. Use room-temperature or slightly warmer water, around 90 degrees. You do not have to have sugar to activate the yeast. Modern yeast does not require sugar for activation. Yeast will feed upon the starches in the flour and expiring CO2. Flour and yeast combining cause a chemical reaction that produces the rising of the dough. Yeast feeds and reproduces between 70 and 80 degrees. If your house is too cold, turn on the clothes dryer and place the dough bowl on the top of the dryer. If your house is too hot, find a cool place to let it rise. Yeast goes dormant at below 50 degrees, so if you keep it in the refrigerator, let it warm up before adding it to your dough mix.

During my exploration of bread making, I have discovered that there are many styles of bread baking, and for the most part, they are based on traditions of different regions of the world.  French bread is a long loaf, golden crust, with a light chewy interior and made with white flour.  French bread is tightly controlled; French law dictates that the loaves contain only flour, water, yeast and salt.

Although pizza, spaghetti and other pastas are normally associated with Italy, bread plays an extremely large role in the diets of most Italians. There is rarely a meal served in Italy where bread is not included. Various cities in Italy have their own distinct recipe for bread making, but many contain cheeses and vegetables.

American bread recipes were brought over by pioneers and homesteaders from their native countries and adapted to the conditions found in the “New World.” North American breads are unique for sourdoughs, skillet corn breads and quick breads, which are made without the traditional yeast leavenings.

my basic no-knead recipe:

3 cups of all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for dusting

1/2 teaspoon yeast

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 cups of warm water (about 90 degrees)

In a mixing bowl, add flour, yeast and salt; whisk the dry ingredients together. Add the water to the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until all are combined. Do not over stir or knead. Dough will be wet and sticky; best description of the mixture is it looks like a shaggy mess.

Next, place the dough into a floured large plastic or ceramic bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise for 12 to 18 hours at room temperature. Your dough is ready when it has puffed up in volume and doubled in size.

Start pre-heating oven and a 6-quart covered Dutch oven (oven safe cast iron, enamel casted iron, Pyrex or ceramic bakeware) at 500 degrees.

Drop the proofed dough onto a lightly floured parchment sheet. Shape the dough by folding the dough in half and then fold it in half again. Tuck the sides of the dough into a ball. Shape with a gentle hand to prevent it from completely collapsing. If the ball of dough is sticky, dust the top of the loaf with flour. Cover the ball of dough with plastic wrap and allow it to rise again. Let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes to one hour.

To enhance the browning of the bread, score the top of the bread with a very sharp knife. This is optional, but it creates peaks of browned crust.

After the dough has had time to proof, turn oven down to 450 degrees. Remove pot from the oven. Be very careful to not touch the pot without protection as it is very hot. Place the bread into the pot using the parchment paper by gently lowering the dough and the parchment paper into the Dutch oven. Cover with the lid and return the Dutch oven with the dough to the oven.

Bake for 30 minutes, covered. After 30 minutes of baking time, remove the lid and let the bread bake and brown for 10 to 15 minutes to desired level of brownness.

To make sure the bread is completely cooked, take its temperature. Carefully tip the bread onto its side and insert a thermometer into the bottom. The thermometer should read 200-205 degrees. If it is less than 200 degrees, place the loaf back into the oven for a few more minutes.

When the loaf is done, transfer it to a wire rack to cool. Resist the urge to slice the bread as it will continue to cook inside as it cools. Let it cool for at least one hour. Cutting it when it is hot will cause the bread’s internal structure to fall.

Who knows, now that I am mastering Artisanal bread-making, maybe I will take on biscuit making or even homemade yeast rolls.

Linda Henderson
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