Dough Diaries — Loaf One

Notes on learning how to make artisan bread, and lessons from a writer on focus, patience,and perseverance.

Baking is my meditation. It’s the only thing I do that helps me focus on one thing at a time. When I’m in the zone, all my worries and anxieties of the moment float away into a mix of flour, salt, yeast, and water.

Despite growing up in an Italian family, I’m learning how to bake bread. Artisan bread. For now anyway. I’ve made a handful of loaves so far. None of them have turned out quite right. Too soggy. Too doughy. Too dry. Some stuck to the pan. Some stuck to the parchment paper.

Normally I’d be harder on myself by now for not getting it right. I’ve learned from watching the arduous process of Michael Pollan make sourdough bread, or learning about Chef Nancy Silverton pulling all-nighters early on in her career to get a good dough, or stepping into the French bakery down the street from me and seeing beautiful racks of loaves, that baking bread is not easy.

All good things take time.

For me, making bread has a lot to do with finding patience. For my nearly 10-year career, I’ve always worked in manic work environments across corporations and startups. My roles in communications and marketing involved multi-tasking for long-hours without any mental rest. The result of going non-stop? Fatigue, stress, and self-doubt about my career, and what the heck I was doing. I recently had to face a hard truth that contradicted what success looked like in all the jobs I’ve ever worked: I needed to get good at doing one thing really well again. So, I’ve gone back to the basics to re-build my foundation. I’m a freelance writer. I’ve set myself up to write for one publication for now, and in between writing stories, I bake bread once a week.

I started baking at the beginning of March and I make notes on every loaf: how I prep, how the bread turned out, and what I learned, so I can make changes the following week. Plus, I scribble some notes on how I’m feeling about the process.

The Recipe: 5-Minute Artisan Bread Recipe by David Leite

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 cups (24 ounces or 680 grams) lukewarm water (100°F or 38°C), plus more for the broiler tray
  • 1 tablespoon (.35 ounce or 10 grams) granulated yeast (active dry, instant, quick rise, or bread machine is fine)
  • 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons (.6 to .9 ounce or 17 to 25 grams) kosher or other coarse salt, to taste
  • 6 1/2 cups (2 pounds or 910 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, measured by the scoop-and-sweep method
  • Cornmeal, for dusting (optional)

DIRECTIONS

1. Warm the three cups of water just a little so that it feels just slightly warmer than body temperature. That should put it at about 100°F (40°C). In the large bowl of a standing mixer or a 6-quart container with a lid, mix the yeast, warm water, and salt. Don’t worry about getting the yeast to dissolve. Add the flour all at once, then use a spoon or stand mixer to mix until the flour is completely incorporated and you have a blobby dough. (If you’re hand-mixing the dough and it becomes too difficult to incorporate all the flour with the spoon, just use very wet hands to press the mixture together.) Don’t knead the dough! It’s not necessary. You just want the dough to be uniformly wet and loose enough to conform to the shape of its container. All you need to do is be certain that there are no dry patches of flour.

2. Loosely cover the container and let the dough hang out at room temperature until it begins to rise and collapse or at least flatten a little on the top, about 2 hours. Don’t worry about the dough being precisely double or triple its original volume as you would with a traditional bread recipe. Just walk away, go about your business, and come back in 2 hours.

3. After 2 hours, stash the container of dough in the fridge. That’s it. (If your container isn’t vented, you want to ensure the gases can escape by leaving the cover open a crack for the first couple days in the fridge; after that, you can seal it.) You can use the dough anytime after the initial 2-hour rise, although the refrigerated wet dough is less sticky and easier to work with than dough at room temperature, so it’s best to refrigerate the dough overnight before handling it. Once refrigerated, the dough will seem to have shrunk back upon itself as though it will never rise again — that’s normal. Whatever you do, do not punch down this dough. You’re trying to retain as much gas in the dough as possible, and punching it down knocks gas out and results in denser loaves. Just be certain to use the dough at some point within 14 days.

4. When you want to bake a loaf of artisan bread, dust a pizza peel or a baking sheet turned upside down with cornmeal or line it with parchment paper. Grab a hunk of the dough and use a serrated knife or scissors to cut off a 1-pound piece of dough. Hold the dough in your hands and, if necessary, add just enough flour so the dough doesn’t stick to your hands.

What you’re trying to do is surround the surface of the dough with flour so that it can be handled. You are not trying to incorporate more flour into the dough, so for the love of all things good, resist the temptation to get rid of all the dough’s inherent and lovely stickiness by working the flour into the dough.)

Gently stretch the surface of the dough, tucking the ends underneath the ball and rotating it a quarter turn as you go. Most of the dusting flour will fall off, and that’s okay, because as we just said, it’s not intended to be incorporated into the dough. The bottom of the ball of dough may appear to be a collection of bunched ends, but it will flatten out and adhere during resting and baking. Your round loaf of bread should be smooth and cohesive, and the entire shaping process should take no more than 20 to 40 seconds — don’t work the dough any longer or your loaves may be dense. Place the shaped ball of dough on the prepared pizza peel and let it rest for about 40 minutes. It doesn’t need to be covered. You may not see much rise during this period, but don’t fret. It will rise much more during baking.

5. Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C) for at least 20 to 30 minutes. Preheat a baking stone on a middle rack for at least 20 to 30 minutes. Place an empty metal broiler tray on any rack that won’t interfere with the rising bread. (Do not use a glass pan as it could shatter.)

6. Dust the top of the raised loaf generously with flour and, using a serrated bread knife, slash a 1/2-inch-deep cross or tic-tac-toe pattern in the top. There’s no need to dust the flour off the loaf.

7. Place the far edge of the peel or the upside-down baking sheet in the oven on the baking stone a few inches beyond where you want the bread to land. Give the peel or baking sheet a couple quick back-and-forth jiggles and then abruptly pull it out from under the loaf. The loaf should land on the baking stone with very little drama. Quickly but carefully pour about 1 cup hot water into the broiler tray and immediately shut the oven door to trap the steam. Bake the bread for a total of 20 to 35 minutes, until the crust is richly browned and firm to the touch. (Don’t worry. Because the dough is so wet, there’s very little risk of it becoming dry despite how dark the crust may become.) And crazily enough, a perfectly baked loaf will audibly crackle, or “sing,” when initially exposed to room temperature. Let the loaf cool completely, preferably on a wire rack for the best flavor, texture, and slicing. The crust may initially soften but will firm when cooled.

The Results

Loaf No. 1

Prep:

  • Refrigerated overnight
  • Rose 2–3 hours
  • Medium-size loaf
  • Top of dough is a bit crusty (olive oil from batch making — something I added myself for no reason)
  • Placed in top rack of the oven
  • Added less than 1 cup of water for steam
  • Used parchment paper to line baking sheet
  • Baked for 33 minutes at 225 degrees

Outcome:

  • Nice colour
  • Super crusty top (too much)
  • Parchment stuck to bottom of the bread
  • A bit heavy
  • Doughy middle

Lessons:

  1. Don’t stray from the recipe. I added olive oil because I’ve done that with other bread recipes. But this batch is refrigerated so olive oil made a crust and didn’t make sense for this recipe.
  2. Use a good amount of oil or butter on the parchment paper. If you don’t have cornmeal handy then either fats will work, just use enough of it.

Personal notes:

My major feeling is that I need to stick to this process. How can I best set myself up to see bread making through, and give a process that dates back to the beginning of time, the attention it needs? Normally I start new hobbies, new jobs, new somethings, and I get really excited and then drop them when I get to the middle, the neutral, the in-between where excitement lacks and you need perseverance and passion to keep going.

Also, my ego is saying, I want instant gratification! I don’t want to wait for the dough to rise in the fridge over two to three days. That seems like so much work. Will I be patient enough to see this through? Also, I just want to eat bread, and not buy the grocery store kind with a paragraph-long ingredient list or the $8-a-loaf artisan bread from the fancy bread shop around the corner.