Making bread is easy. There, I said it.
I like to cook and have a fair amount of confidence in the kitchen, but I am no Martha Stewart. I haven’t had any formal training. And, unlike Julie Powell, I have no interest in tackling complicated French cuisine, à la Julia Child.
As a girl, I logged hours helping my grandmother in her farm kitchen, where three hot meals a day was the norm. But lest you think we were baking beautiful boules from scratch, the truth is there was almost always an upright stack of Roman Meal bread on the dinner table.
When it comes to baking bread, I am self-taught, which is to say anyone can be. So herewith are five reasons to roll up your sleeves and grab a packet of yeast:
You don’t have to spend all day in the kitchen — really. Like thousands of home cooks around the country, I delved into bread baking with the now famous “No-Knead Bread” recipe published in The New York Times in November 2006. A few weeks after the recipe debuted, my friend Ruth insisted we make the bread during the Thanksgiving weekend our families spent together. Eight loaves and who knows how many sticks of butter later, we were obsessed.
The basic, no-fuss premise is to stir together flour, salt, yeast and water, and let it sit for 12 to 18 hours before baking in a Dutch oven.
The result is a gorgeous, crusty loaf with a delicious, tender crumb.
Jeff Hertzberg, M.D., and Zoë François herald the same concept on a grander scale in their best-selling “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” offering a big-batch method that yields several loaves during the week thanks to a prepared bucket of dough in the fridge. With their strategy, creating a bunch of premixed dough at once means only five minutes of hands-on prep every time you want a fresh loaf.
“We live in a really busy world, and people don’t have all day to bake,” says François. “By simplifying and speeding up the process, we’re actually helping people to get back in their kitchens.”
Even making bread from a traditional knead-rise-punch-andrise- again recipe is not as much of a time suck as people think. “The active portions of the job are not very time consuming,” says Susan G. Purdy, author of “Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes.” “You only have to do something every once in a while. Go walk the dog. And if you need more time, just put the dough in the fridge.”
It’s economical. According to Hertzberg and François, whose follow-up, “Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” was published this fall, it’s possible for the home cook to bake organically for less than 50 cents a loaf. Aspen prices are on steroids but still, a loaf of organic bread purchased locally can easily cost more than a 5-pound sack of organic flour, which yields six to eight loaves.
Your friends and family will think you’re a rock star. A local bachelor I know (and who will remain nameless to protect his street cred) loves the “oohs” and “ahs” he gets when he shows up to a dinner party with a fresh loaf in hand. Chick magnet? Perhaps.
There’s a trend in our valley of home bakers who all got the bug from the NKB recipe. Not only do we share tips, tricks, YouTube links and grain sources, we have friends around the country, as well as in Sweden and Australia, who’ve jumped on the bandwagon. “It always has a transformative effect on anyone who tries it,” says Stacey Craft, a realtor in Basalt, whose husband bakes weekly before he commutes to his job on the East Coast. “I just got an email from some Russian friends in L.A. who say they have perfected it after trying it a few times.” Craft’s husband buys organic flour by the 50-pound bag and grows his own yeast to bake what his seven-yearold calls “Daddy bread.”
It’s another way to connect to your food … and to people. “Bread is an elemental part of our diet,” notes Purdy. “Baking it yourself is part of taking responsibility for what you eat.” And it’s a valuable lesson for the next generation. Hand a youngster a hunk of stretchy dough, and you’ll see firsthand the magic of scratch baking.
“One thing we hear about all of the time is the emotions and memories that are evoked from baking your own bread,” says François. “People recall their grandmas and childhoods while they’re baking bread. That’s very valuable for families.”
It’s a boon for community building as well. Taking its lead from cities like Albany, New York, a grassroots group in Carbondale is actively planning an outdoor communal oven in hopes of bringing together all sorts of people who love to bake and break bread together.
The possibilities are endless. Once you’re comfortable with a basic recipe, you can experiment with different grains and add-ins like raisins, olives or your favorite cheese. Whether you like whole grains or are on a gluten-free diet, tackling pizza dough, pita, English muffins and even soft pretzels is a cakewalk when you are in the know with dough.
Expert tips for better baking
Follow these principals shared by Jeff Hertzberg, M.D., and Zoë François of “Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day” and
Susan G. Purdy of “Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes” and you’ll be on your way to lofty loaves:
• Don’t kill the yeast. Liquid temperature should be lukewarm, not hot. Use an instant-read thermometer the first few times if you need to get the hang of it.
• Resist the urge to add too much flour during the kneading process. In other words, deal with a bit of stickiness so that you don’t dry out the dough.
• Control the rise so as not to exhaust the yeast. If you need to leave dough rising for longer than the recipe requires, cover the bowl of dough with a plate topped with a heavy can or brick. This way, the dough will not be able to over inflate. (Or refrigerate. Then return dough to room temperature before moving to next step.)
• Salt is your friend. At altitude, moisture evaporates quickly which effects flavor. So unless the recipe is written for altitude, add slightly more salt (and spices) than called for to avoid a flat-tasting loaf.
• Use regular active yeast—not “fast acting,” which is far too quick at altitude.
• Steam works wonders for the “oven spring” which is the additional rise achieved once the bread goes into the oven. This is particularly important in our dry climate. Put a pan of hot water in the oven while it’s pre-heating, just below the shelf where you’ll put the bread to bake. (See Hertzberg and François’s book for an alternate method.) —TJ