There’s nothing like warm freshly-baked bread with a bowl of soup, especially this time of year when the March winds start to howl. No-knead Dutch oven bread is this year’s sourdough. I missed the sourdough craze last spring as the grocery stores were out of yeast and flour. (Can you believe we’re now approaching the one year anniversary of this pandemic?) I’ve never worked with yeast before as the only kind of bread I’ve made, the Irish Soda Bread from last year’s St. Patrick’s Day blog, relied on a chemical reaction between buttermilk and baking soda, but the recipes seemed easy enough, and as I already own a heavy cast iron Dutch oven, I thought I’d give it a try.
I did have some hesitation though, as I remembered those early bread machines which were so popular as Christmas presents a few decades ago. My mother had one, and while the kitchen smelled wonderful while it was baking, the bread itself was yeasty tasting. There were prepackaged bread mixes you could buy for them at the grocery store, and the loaves were small odd shaped things with minimal crust, but the bread maker was donated to the thrift shop years ago, so my recollection is hazy at best.
My mother never made bread. We were Wonder Bread kids growing up, but every Wednesday when she got groceries in town, she would go to the International Bakery and buy a big loaf of Italian bread. I would arrive home on the school bus famished, and cut a thick slab of it, which lavishly spread with butter, would tide me over until suppertime. It was a big square loaf with a nice crust, and the inside was so soft and doughy it would melt in your mouth. I’ve never tasted anything like it since, but the bakery went out of business decades ago. Although I have found a place which sells an excellent pumpernickel bread.
Dutch oven bread is no-knead bread, baked in an extremely hot cast iron pot with the lid on, thus mimicking the traditional bread ovens that bakeries use to make artisan loaves. The steam generated by the Dutch oven produces a loaf with a nice crusty outside and a soft full-of-air-holes texture inside.
For something with only three simple ingredients there’s certainly a plethora of recipes out there. After wasting a considerable amount of time on the internet – Facebook (2 videos), googling (5 cooking websites) and youtube (2 videos), plus one video from a retirement home newsletter of someone’s dad baking bread – I was dazed and couldn’t remember which recipe was which. Anything requiring two risings or rising for 8 hours or more I eliminated – I’m not a morning person and didn’t want to be baking bread at midnight.
The amounts of ingredients varied too. The flour ranged from 3 cups to 5 and a half, (I have a smaller size Dutch oven), the yeast from half a teaspoon to two teaspoons or a whole packet, and then there was the type of yeast, traditional active dry yeast or instant, the salt from one and a half teaspoons of sea salt to one teaspoon of regular salt. Then there were all the extra ingredients and flavorings, sugar, olive oil, rosemary, dusting with cornmeal etc. It was mind-boggling. Finally I just sort of improvised, using a combination of the dad’s video plus an on-line recipe which allowed for instant yeast which is what I had bought.
3 cups of flour (I used all purpose white flour, the Robin Hood brand as that’s what I had, and that’s what the dad used in his video, but bread flour is okay too).
1/2 teaspoon of yeast (the dad’s video said 1/2 tsp of any kind, but I used the instant quick-rise brand. It was not too yeasty so the next time I would increase it to 3/4 teaspoon or even a full teaspoon)
1 teaspoon of regular salt (I didn’t have any sea salt)
1 1/2 cups of warm water (105 -110 degrees for regular yeast – not hot boiling water as it can destroy the yeast. The quick rising yeast I used said on the package to use water a bit warmer 120-130. Here’s where things got tricky – I just let it run from the tap and guessed, as I don’t have a food thermometer, just a meat one)
The Directions: Making the Dough:
Place the flour, salt and yeast in a bowl large enough for the dough to double in size. Then pour the warm water on top or make a well,. Use a spatula, wooden spoon or your hands to mix together. (I used my hands in disposable pandemic gloves!) The dough should be somewhat wet and sticky, but add a bit more flour if it’s too sticky to handle. I had to add a bit more water as mine was too dry.
Leave the bowl on the counter and let it rest with a towel or plastic wrap over it for 8-24 hours. If you’re short on time, you can bake as soon as 2 hours. The longer it sits, the better. You can also refrigerate it for up to 7 days. (online recipe directions)
I had intended to only leave it for 2 hours, but got side-tracked with cleaning a years worth of papers off the desk in the den which is a general repository for junk….so it was actually 3 hours before I checked. It had risen nicely, although I’m not sure it had quite doubled in size, and there were bubbles on the top but not many. (Perhaps a bit more yeast next time?)
Preheat the oven to 450 F starting about half an hour before the rising is complete. (As I got distracted with the paper sorting and forgot to preheat the oven, supper was left over stew with day old biscuits instead of fresh bread!) Place your 4-6 quart Dutch oven WITH THE LID ON IT, into the oven for at least 30 minutes to get hot. You want to add your Dutch oven BEFORE preheating so it preheats with the oven, to prevent it from cracking. And always remember the oven mitts – as the oven will be hot, hot hot!
Shaping the Dough:
Flour a piece of parchment paper and generously flour your hands. Turn the dough onto the paper. It will be sticky. Do not punch down, knead or roll it out. Gently and quickly work the dough into a French boule (round ball). Lightly dust the top with flour and then use a bread knife to add 1 – 4 shallow lines across the top. Scoring the bread with a cross lets the fairies out and stops them from cursing your bread. (Just seeing how many of you recall the fairy tale from last year’s Irish Soda Bread!) Actually, scoring helps it to expand while heating, and makes it look very artisan-like. My French boule kind of flopped over while I was waiting for the oven to heat, so next time I would work it into shape on a floured board and then transfer it to the parchment paper. I found it hard to work with it on the parchment paper as the paper moved around too much.
Picking up the corners of the parchment paper, carefully place it in inside the Dutch oven. Careful it will be hot – oven mitts! Cover with the lid and set the timer for 35 minutes, still at the 450 F.
As I had cut too large a piece of parchment, some of it was outside the lid, so after awhile I started to smell the paper singeing. Plus the whole kitchen smelled of yeast, which I discovered has quite a chemical smell. What I did not smell was the lovely scent of bread baking, because the lid was on!
After 35 minutes remove the lid and bake an additional 10-15 minutes or until golden brown. When you remove it and knock on the bottom of the bread it should sound hollow.
I set the timer for ten minutes with the lid off, but I should have checked it after five, as it was a bit too brown looking, but oh my, the crust was divine, crackly and crunchy and delicious! The inside was not too yeasty tasting, which had been my fear, but soft and doughy. There weren’t many air holes, so more yeast or rising time next time.
Allow to cool on a cooling rack and then slice and serve. Store in a paper bag so it doesn’t soften. I did, but the next day it was too hard, so I think a Zip-lock bag would have been better, or a bit less cooking time next time.
So ends my first foray into bread baking. Overall I was satisfied with the end result, but would tweak the recipe to add more yeast and more rising time, buy a food thermometer as I suspect my water wasn’t warm enough, and perhaps experiment with half whole wheat flour, next time. I would also prep the ingredients in the morning, (I started at 2 pm), and time it better, or maybe even leave it in the fridge overnight, although my fridge is very cold. I did find it was best eaten the same day, warm with butter. I hope this post inspires someone else to give it a try. (Sorry, Dave of Life in a Word, you’ll have to wait until after Easter!)
When I was working I took a sandwich for lunch almost every day, but I don’t buy much bread anymore. Bread has gotten expensive. It costs me $3.50 the other day to buy a loaf of the ordinary white my mother likes, occasionally it’s on sale for $2. My whole grain brand is seldom below $3. An artisan load can easily run $4 or $5. The baking dad in the video said he was able to make 25 loaves of bread from the big 25 lb bag of flour he buys, making it $1 a loaf, something to consider if you’re on a budget or have a large family.
I worked with a new immigrant from one of the Eastern European Bloc countries, and one day in the staff room, she let me sample her homemade bread. It was a dark almost pumpernickel color with a nice texture, just bursting with flavor. She made all her own bread every week for her family, as back home bread was so expensive, that no one could afford to buy it at a store. A box of cereal cost $20, due to runaway inflation, so people cooked from scratch. I asked her for the recipe, which she scribbled on a piece of paper – three simple ingredients…infinite variations. (She also added a few teaspoons of butter and sugar and did two rises). If I can bake bread, anyone can….but I don’t think I’ll be opening a boulangerie anytime soon. I suspect the art of baking the perfect loaf of bread might require a bit more practice. If there’s potato soup for St. Patrick’s Day, I’m willing to give it another try.
(1900 words about bread?)