Baking Bread – Part 1

There are some excellent breads available at the local farmers markets near us. We particularly enjoy the multigrain loaf from The Rustic Loaf, which we can get at the Laguna Beach Farmers Market. About nine or ten months ago, I started to wonder whether I could bake equally good bread at home, and do so for less than the $6 per loaf we were paying at the market, and without too much effort. It turned out that the answer was “yes”, but….

It’s going to take me at least three posts to tell my bread baking story. I’ll tell you now that I have been baking all of our bread since June 20 of last year, with varying degrees of success. There have been no total failures, and even the less successful efforts have been eminently edible, if not quite perfectly formed. So, on with the story….

The first thing I wanted to figure out was how professional bakers produce loaves with the amazing crust that I love so much, and whether there is a way for a home baker to do the same. I learned that the secret is steam. Counterintuitively, at least to me, the application of steam during the first part of the bake is what makes the dough form the crust that is typical of rustic or country loaves. Professionals have ovens that can inject steam into the cooking chamber. What’s the home baker to do? This was figured out a long time ago, it seems, in Italy (of course): bake a wet dough at high heat in a dutch oven. Suzanne Dunaway described the method in her 1999 book No Need to Knead: Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes, but the idea really took off after Mark Bittman popularized the method in this November 8, 2006 NY Times video and related Minimalist column, in which he describes baker Jim Lahey’s method for no-knead bread baked in a dutch oven. Obviously, I am a late-comer.

So I read and watched Bittman’s pieces, and I found two other online articles that were particularly instructive, both from Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François. The first was Baking Bread in a Dutch Oven from, their own website; the second was Jeff and Zoë’s recipe featured on the companion website to the NPR show The Splendid Table. Finally, my daughter, hearing of my interest in baking bread, and being an accomplished bread baker herself, sent me a couple of her favorites.

Inspired by what I had found online, I borrowed Jeff Hertzberg’s book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day from the Public library. Starting with Jeff ’s basic recipe I baked a loaf or two. Unfortunately, my first efforts produced nearly perfect loaves: tasty with an amazing crust! (See the photo at the top of this post.) I say “unfortunately” because I then made the erroneous assumption that I could reproduce this fine result at will, and what’s more, move on to whole-grain and other more complicated breads with equal ease and success. Of course, this was not to be the case.

More to come, soon….

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