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How to Make the Easiest, Cheapest, and Most Delicious Bread You’ve Ever Tasted

Note: The following post is part of the Ordinary Times Food Symposium.  All symposium posts can be found here; an explanation of the symposium here.  

Also, those looking for the bare-boned actual recipe without the benefit of walk trough should feel free to skip to the end.

 

The Wonder of Fresh Baked Bread

I’ve only ever stolen one thing in my life, and in true Valjeanean fashion it was a loaf of bread.

It was during my freshman year at college, and directly across the street from my dormitory sat a Franz Bread bakery. (For those not in the Pacific Northwest, Franz is kind of the local low-end bread you find at pretty much every supermarket.) Late at night Sunday through Wednesday, well after midnight, the bakery would bake bread on an industrial scale. If you were up at 2:00 in the morning with your windows open the smell would come wafting in, and suddenly you’d be starving. After bacon, I’m not sure that there’s a more iconic delicious smell than fresh baked bread, and night after night we’d make noise about how one of these nights we were going to sneak in the factory and steal a loaf.

And then one night, probably due to some combination of double-dare, alcohol, and cute girls hanging out with us, I actually did it.

I had to climb a chain link fence, but after that it was astoundingly easy. The back door was propped open with a brick, presumably to provide the workers with a cool breeze. Ten yards from the door was a conveyor belt with loaf after loaf being whisked by on their way to the slicing machine. There was no one at all in sight. I ran in and… errr… pinched a loaf, then darted back outside, over the fence, and back into the dorm. We had no knives, so we all just tore off pieces and ate it as it. My mom didn’t really bake ever anything other than Christmas cookies, and so that was my first ever taste of out-of-the-oven fresh bread; at that moment it was the best thing I had ever tasted. A few of my dorm mates went ahead and scaled the bakery fence several times in the weeks that followed but the door was always closed and locked, and thus was my life of crime nipped in the bud. Still, that loaf of cheap Franz bread remained my all-time favorite bread-eating experience for decades.

Those who are regular readers know that while I’m a full-throated gastrophile and culinarian, I’ve never really been a baker of anything — especially bread. I have always found the thought of baking bread a little intimidating. For years friends who have known this about me have urged me to buy a bread machine, but I’ve always resisted that route — partially because I find machine bread to be overly dense, and partially because throwing a bag of pre-made mix into a hole and hitting an ‘On’ button doesn’t feel to me like making bread.

And then this recipe came into my life.

I make this bread several times a week now. My son prefers it to store-bought for sandwiches, my spouse prefers it to store-bought for toast, and I prefer it to store-bought for basically everything. It’s unbelievably simple; there’s no kneading, and though the dough itself needs time to both rise and bake the amount of time you actually spend making it is five to ten minutes, tops. Plus, it’s the perfect cheap-ass gourmet pantry item: A loaf of high-end fresh bread at my grocer sells for anywhere between $5.00 and $8.00 a loaf; a loaf of cheap, crappy bread is anywhere from $2.50 to $4.00. The total cost of ingredients for a loaf of this bread is somewhere between one and two quarters. And as if all of that isn’t enough, it makes the house smell divine.

The recipe below has its roots in a New York Times article by Mark Bittman, but it also takes bits and pieces from other food bloggers who have attempted to play with it over the past year (such as the great parchment-paper idea devised by the gal at Steamy Kitchen), as well as some off-the-cuff suggestions from my wife.

If you’ve never baked bread or anything else before, try this. Heck, try it even if you have baked bread before.

It’s amazing.

 

How to Make Knead-less Bread: The Walk Through

First off, let’s take a look at all of the things you’ll need (or want) to have on hand:

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As you can see, to make the dough you’ll need some all-purpose flour, some yeast, some salt, some olive oil, and some warm water. Equipment wise, you’ll also need a bowl, a covered pot that can go into the oven such as a dutch oven, a spoon for stirring, a plastic bag, and some cook’s parchment paper. (Note: You can do it all without the parchment paper, but it really is an enormous help.)

Start out by combining all the dry ingredients: Three cups of flour, 1/4 teaspoon of yeast, and 1 barely heaping teaspoon of salt. Toss ‘em in the bowl and give a quick stir.

Now, I will let you know right here that some of the recipes I have read for this call for the flour to be sifted, and so to be safe I use the Poor Man’s Sift.

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If you are unfamiliar with the Poor Man’s Sift, it’s done like this:

Overfill a measuring cup with flour. Then, holding it over the flour bag, poke and and/or lightly stir the flour. (My wife is a stirrer; I am a poker. We still somehow are married to one another.) Whichever method you use, you will notice two things happening: The flour will quickly feel less packed as you move the knife, and most of the excess flour will fall away into the bag. (Important note: You do not actually have to do this, but since I did it the first time and it came out perfect…)

Afterwards, pour in one and a half cups of warm water. Stir until the entire mixture is one sticky, gloppy, amorphously-shaped ball of dough. This will take all of 30-60 seconds, and it will look something like this:

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Now drizzle a wee bit of olive oil on the top, and use your hand to lightly spread the oil over the top. I find that this helps make an especially crispy and delicious top crust once it’s baked.

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After you’ve oiled the dough, lightly cover the bowl with a plastic bag. Are you fussing about how it’s covered? Well, knock it off. Just toss something on it to keep the draft out and set it aside, and don’t worry about it. It’s going to be just fine. Trust me.

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Let it sit there for 12-20 hours — and, for the record, I have let my dough sit for 12, 20, and many other numbers in-between, and it’s never affected the outcome one way or another, so don’t worry about where in that range you want to be.

Now go do something else. Read a book. Go out to dinner and a movie. Forget about the bread dough for a while! Go live your life. Seriously, you worry too much. Come back sometime tomorrow.

Hey, is it tomorrow already? Man, time flies!

Let’s take a look at the dough:

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As you can see, it is now more than twice as large as it was the day before. From the TV and movies I watched growing up, I know that a problem they used to have in Japan was when tiny animals were exposed to radiation, they would grow to gigantic sizes and destroy Tokyo over and over again. This is basically what happened to your bread dough overnight, only instead of radiation it was yeast and instead of it destroying Tokyo you’re going to eat it with cheese or butter. Yet another reason why I’m a yeast-over-radiation guy. (Well, that and alcohol.)

Take a sheet of parchment paper and brush olive oil over a bunch of it. Or you can skip the brush, like I do, and just use your hand.

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Take the dough out of the bowl, and place it on the parchment paper. Using your fingertips, push in any straggly bits along the edges under the rest of the dough, so that it’s somewhat ball-shaped — emphasis on ‘somewhat.’

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Using the corners of the parchment paper, pick the dough up and plop it back in the bowl. Cover with the plastic bag again, and set your timer for 90 minutes.

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After 90 minutes, place your pot (with lid) into the over, then turn oven on and pre-heat to 450. Set your timer for a half hour.

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After the half hour (and, rather obviously, using oven mitts), take the pot out. Again, using the corners of the parchment paper, pick up the ball of dough and drop in the very hot pot. Put the cover back on the pot, put the pot in the oven, and set timer for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, remove the pot lid — because we want that bread to be brown and crusty on top.

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Then — and this is important — take a tip from someone who learned this the hard way: Put that pot lid waaaaay back out of the way, and put something like an extra oven mitt on it to remind yourself that it is 450 degrees of freaking galvanized metal and if you accidentally go to reach for it 20 minutes later after you’ve forgotten where it’s been you will be very sorry and need roughly eight ibuprofen tablets and three very large glasses of scotch to save your evening.

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Anywho…

Back to the actual baking: Now that you have removed the lid, set your timer for 15-20 minutes.

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After your timer goes off, remove pot from oven. Use the corners of the parchment paper one more time (thanks, Steamy Kitchen!), and remove the bread. Place somewhere to cool for five or ten.

Finally, cut that bad boy up and dig in while it’s still toasty warm inside. Don’t skimp! Cut yourself a big, thick slice, and add a bunch of fresh butter! You deserve it! You just make a freaking loaf of fresh bread, for Pete’s sake.

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How to Make Knead-less Bread: The Down & Dirty Recipe

For those that just want the recipe, here ya go:

Ingredients

3 Cups All-purpose flour

1/4 Tsp Yeast

1 Teaspoon Kosher Salt

1 1/2 Cups warm water

Olive Oil for drizzling

 

Directions

  1. Combine all dry ingredients, then stir in water. In less than a minute you will have a pasty dough. Drizzle lightly with olive oil, and use your hand to lightly spread oil over the top. Cover with towel or plastic bag, let sit for 12-20 hours.
  2. Oil a piece of parchment paper, then place dough on paper. Push straggly bits on the edges under the dough, so that you have a kind-of ball of dough. Using the parchment paper corners as handles, put dough back in bowl. Repeat the olive oil drizzle and hand-spread. Re-cover with plastic bag, let sit for 2 hours.
  3. A half hour before the two hours is up, place oven-safe pot and lid in oven and preheat to 450.
  4. After the 2 hours, place parchment paper and dough in pot. Cover, and bake for 30 minutes.
  5. Remove lid, bake for another 15-20 minutes, until the top of the loaf is browned.

Remove pot from oven, and then remove bread from pot. Let sit for 5-10 minutes, then serve.

 

Huzzah!

 

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[Images taken from Tod’s kitchen]

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30 thoughts on “How to Make the Easiest, Cheapest, and Most Delicious Bread You’ve Ever Tasted

    • I have no idea, but I will ask knittingnikik and get back. (Or if zic is reading this, she might know.)

      But I do know that if I wanted to make the dough today but bake on Thursday, for example, that at some point I could put it in the fridge and it would stop the rising process, which would then continue when we took it out at put at room temp. But I’m not sure how long I’d do that (I’ve only done that for a couple of days), and I have zero idea about the freezing.

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      • Putting dough in the fridge doesn’t stop the rising process, it merely slows it down. Takes a one hour job and makes it into an 8 hour job.

        Letting the dough rise until it’s overproofed (as the OP recipe does) is poor form and not likely to get you the best loaf ever.

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    • Yes, you can freeze the dough. But it will kill some of the yeast, too. Doughs made to be frozen generally have more yeast added because of this. Frozen doughs are generally shaped and allowed to rise in the pan they’ll bake in; doing the final rise as they defrost.

      It’ might be better to cook all the dough, and freeze the bread.

      I’d also mention the many, many uses of old bread. It can be made into French toast; stuffing, meatloaf, pulverized for bread crumbs, sliced and toasted until dry for ‘crackers’, tossed with oil & seasoning and toasted until dry for croutons. It’s good for onion soup, ribolita soup.

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      • @burt-likko: http://breadbaking.about.com/od/beginnerbasics/ht/freezedough.htm

        Tod’s recipe is for a slack dough (that means a dough with a high water to flour ratio), and it’s using a yeast life cycle (instead of just active yeast,) so I’m not sure I’d bother to freeze this particular dough.

        The link above is pretty much what I’d do; this would be for a kneaded dough, shaped into a loaf after the 1st rise, baked immediately.) The pan thing; it’s big on holding shape.

        Personally, rather then freezing dough, I’d just freeze the bread.

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  1. Tod, any idea on the importance of temperature during the 12 – 20 hour rise time? I’d love to set this up tonight for baking tomorrow morning, but we keep the house pretty cool (50s F) at night. Will I need to wait on the 20 hrs end of the spectrum?

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    • You can speed up rising time by starting with a bit of extra yeast. A lot of bread recipes assume you’re in a hurry, so they scale the yeast to like a one hour rise time, which works fine but doesn’t result in as much flavour developing.

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    • Even

      For that slow rise, use less yeast; even 1/4 teaspoon; you’ll actually have the yeast go through a reproductive cycle; and there will be more by the time you’re ready to bake.

      Your bread will also have better flavor.

      The problem will be deciding when it’s ready to bake; this will be at the yeasts determination, and you’ll just have to suss it out from the risen condition of the dough.

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    • I don’t know, but I doubt it. I’ve never cooked with sourdough, but my dad did a lot of stuff with it when I was growing up. I remember that there was something called a “start” that you had to make an entire presidential administration prior to actually cooking with it. i also remember it taking forever when he made anything.

      Mind you, a lot of that might be my dad and/or faulty memories, so I don’t know that I’d take my word on it.

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      • That’s not the only way to make sourdough.
        Still, this recipe is asking for an abnormally small amount of yeast (likely because you’re rising it for 20 hours at room temperature, which means you want your yeast to make many many many babies, and not kill itself).

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    • You certainly would have a difficult time making a good poolish with only a quarter tsp yeast. I’d suggest giving it more time to grow (maybe 4 hours) before stirring in the rest of the flour. [This is french-style sourdough, not san franciscan].

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      • I thought the same thing.

        Peter Reinhart’s recipe for pain ancienne uses twice the flour and 1 3/4 tsp of instant yeast. (I do not like the flavor of instant yeast, aka bread-machine yeast, as much as active dry, btw,). But there’s a big difference between simply letting sit overnight and retarding in the refrigerator overnight, too; Reinhart’s recipe would have collapsed already with that much yeast at room temperature. Tod’s is working because he’s giving his yeast ample room to reproduce (at least one, if not two cycles); he’s probably got some good acetobacterium at work, turning the alcohol into vinegar, as well.

        My grandmother used to make a similar bread, but with a piece of yesterday’s dough, about the size of a walnut, as the fermenting agent. She stored it in a jar of flour, kept just for that purpose.

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  2. Okay, now that I’ve finally read through Tod’s recipe; first off, excellent job!

    I have two suggestions for the brave and foolish to try.

    1. replace some of that 3 cups of flour with whole-grain flour. Me, for this recipe, I’d replace a whole cup with spelt; but that’s going to be a heavier bread. Start with 1/2 cup; you’ll still have a light, airy loaf. With this long, slow rise, the yeast will have plenty of time to pre-digest the whole grain flour for you, unlocking all the nutrition bound up in it; instead of having it just serve the role of ‘fiber’ in your diet.

    2. Try folding. Bread still needs gluten to maintain it’s structure; and while it forms naturally with the long rise, there’s nothing here to give it structure. That’s what kneading is supposed to do; but to be honest, most people who think they know how to knead have no clue. But folding? It’s easy, let’s you get into your dough while it’s developing, and builds more gluten structure than the best of kneads. And it’s really simple. Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured board (brush the loose off, you don’t want it stuck in the dough, before you pour the dough out.) Now stretch the dough a bit in opposite directions, east and west, and fold those toward the middle. Repeat, north and south. Put the dough back in it’s rising bowl, folded top down, and ignore it some more. Two folds, a couple hours apart, will greatly enhance the bread’s structure.

    For this type of recipe, I’d probably skip the parchment paper, and instead, rise in a banneton (a basket) or bowl, and pour that directly into the hot pan. I’d also slit the top to prevent ripping; a shears, cutting an X, will give some room for the bread to bloom open as the yeast and steam in the dough give it that final lift to expand, without ripping the forming crust.

    This dough would be fine without the oil; and if you’re oven runs hot, it will burn the crust. (If you don’t know how your oven runs, I recommend finding out — thermometers are a cooks best friend.)

    asked about sourdough; a sourdough is a culture of yeast and bacteria, kept alive from baking to baking. This recipe won’t go there, but it can approximate, particularly because of the long, slow rise time. One easy way to boost that sour flavor is with a powedered buttermilk (about 1/4 cup) or actually using buttermilk instead of water. I’ve also used whey. You can also take some plain yogurt (active culture, not Greek) and drain it in a cheesecloth overnight; you’ll have whey in the bottom, and cream cheese in the top. Use whatever you’ve got there with enough water to make the 1 1/2 cup. Another way to get that sour flavor is to sour the dough with a starter; 1 cup of flour, the 1/4 teaspoon yeast, and a cup of water. Let is sit overnight at room temperature. Next day, add the rest of the water and flour, and proceed; I’d let the long multi-hour rise take place in the refrigerator overnight (and I’d still fold).

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    • I admit it: it’s quite likely that I do not know how to knead. I shall try the folding technique described here as I am anxious that my bread have a nice texture.

      The round bread that is depicted in the OP seems to have suffered a rupture during baking; that’s what cutting a slit in the dough before baking is supposed to prevent, no? Could one do several parallel slits, baugette-style? I think that could not only be functional, but also look nice with toasty golden tips to the edges.

      And I just went out over my lunch break today and bought a fresh roll of parchment, specifically to make this bread!

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      • Yes, that’s exactly what the slits are designed to do. Believe it or not, this is the one bread-baking skill I feel far from having mastered, too. Everything else, I feel I’ve got good understanding of, good feel of, can do. But short of having a bakery where I’d get to slit a 100 loaves in quick order, I feel a lack here.

        You can slit the dough however you want; but since it’s going to be in a very, very hot, pre-heated Dutch oven, I’d recommend using sharp kitchen shears and roughing it.

        The folding is the most awesome bread-baking secret ever.

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      • Burt, and everyone else:
        You can use a pastry sheet (that’s a big plastic thing that will take up your whole counter) or you can use a silpat (also good for cookies, or tons of other “I’m putting this in the oven” tricks). Both of which are reusable.

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    • I will be trying both the folding and the whole-graining of this loaf in the coming days. I hear you about the parchment… and, it’s the best thing we’ve found to enable transfer of this wet wet dough out of the second-rise location and into the preheated dutch oven. Our other methods, including this adaptation of Jim Lahey’s original recipe

      http://edibleberkshires.com/recipes/sides/no-knead-no-fuss-incredible-artisanal-bread/

      which called for a second rise on floured dish towels (!), all left us with much dough sadly wasted on hands/counters/other non-loaf-of-bread places.

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      • A a basket, either a banneton or wicker, for the rise. Your dough’s got too much water in it for linen. I’d just rise in the basket (heavily floured), and than pour the dough into the dutch oven, and as I said elsewhere, I’d use sharp kitchen shears because of the hot pan. If you’re concerned about sticking, cut a circle of parchment the size of the bottom of your pan, and put it in just before you add the dough.

        I don’t use a dutch oven for breaking, though I’ve been meaning to try it; I’ve got a good pizza stone, so tend to do a final proofing on parchment paper on rimless cookie sheet, and I just slip the parchment onto the pizza stone. I’ll put a cast-iron pan on the bottom of the oven as it heats (a good, long heat, at least 30 min.) When I’m ready to put the bread it, I slit it deeply at a 45-degree angle (tomato knife is my weapon of choice, don’t hesitate or you’ll deflate your bread,) about an inch deep; ice in the frying pan, and parchment slid off the baking sheet and onto the pizza stone. This allows me to bake two or more loaves at the same time.

        Of all things to try, however, I’d recommend the powdered buttermilk. It’s pretty awesome for enhancing the flavor and keeping qualities.

        And for a dough not kneaded, I’d perhaps consider adding 1/2 teaspoon of lecithan, which will help maintain the structure; with lecithan, more than that is not better.

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      • Also, with such a slow rise, this is not necessary, but: particularly with whole grains, an autolyse soak is good. I typically replace 1/3 the white flour (by weight) with whole grain. Add 2/3 the water, 1/4 teasp. yeast, and let soak 4 or more hours to fully hydrate the whole grain bread. Finish as established, rest of the water, the salt (additional yeast if you’re doing a quicker rise.

        The other trick is kneading as one would for a ciabatta; in a deep bread bowl with wet hands.

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  3. Random observations. I followed the recipe as given, and the loaf looked very much like the picture. Things I’ll do differently the next time… Even though not marked as fast-rising, my yeast is clearly faster than Tod’s; 12 hours on the counter was too much. Either less time, or start in the refrigerator. I’ll probably fold it per zic. Crust is a little thick and crispy for my wife’s taste, so adjustments for that.

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    • I put a link to folding on Kim’s pizza crust post. I highly recommend the book it comes from, too. If I were to give anyone who was interested in learning about bread baking a book, it would be either Flour, Yeast, Water, Salt by Ken Forkish or The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. I’d go for Forkish’s book for someone who liked to improvise, Reinhat’s book for someone who likes precision, and both for someone who’s a total geek about learning things.

      The crust, given the high moisture content of the dough, will happen. To soften it nicely, brush the bread with butter while it’s still warm, but not out-of-the-oven hot.

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  4. With four loaves under my belt already, I’ve graduated from a Dutch oven to bread pans, and from AP flour to bread flour. I’m wanting more salt in the dough, foil to cover the first half of the bake (no burned hands on pot tops, !), and I’m using a nonstick spray on the parchment rather than a second splash of olive oil. The bread lasts about three days before going stale, and turns in to very nice French toast when it does.

    I shall never be hungry again.

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