Making a loaf of bread, turning a sticky, lumpy mess into
a loaf of real bread, feels different from buying a loaf that someone else
or some mystery machine has made. If you haven't made bread yet, we won't
tell you what that feeling is, or try to describe it.
When you are holding a slice of warm bread in your hand,
one that you made yourself, you'll know that feeling, plus, from that
slice of bread, you will get more energy than you can from any other kind
of food. It can help you lose weight. It can be packed with things that
are good for you, and things that are not so good when you're in the mood
for a break.
Like your fingerprints, the bread you bake will be
completely your own. It will reflect your personality and no one else's
because of the infinite number of variables you affect, either consciously
or unconsciously, as you bake. Whether your hand is light or generous when
measuring and adding ingredients, the length of time you spend kneading,
the aromas in your kitchen, its temperature and the rate the air flows
through it, the color and shape of your bread pans, the size and age of
your oven, even the mood you're in at the time you bake (whatever it is,
making a loaf of bread will probably improve it!), all these and more
imprint your bread so that it can be no one's but yours.
Baking with yeast lets the artist in you come out. It's
somewhere between making mud pies and sculpting, the earthy mixed with the
sublime. Your first loaf may not be beautiful, but baking can succeed on
more than one level. Even if it doesn't look pretty, its smell and taste
alone are enough to transport you.
The Easiest Bread You'll Ever Make
Our basic formula consists of only five ingredients, and
only three of those are critical. This will make the simplest but most
useful dough there is.
The key to being an intuitive baker lies in knowing what
the key ingredients are in whatever you're baking, and the ratio they have
to each other. In yeast baking, there are just the three alluded to above:
the flour, the liquid and the yeast. In most breads you'll use three parts
of flour to one of liquid, by volume, not weight. Our recipe for hearth
bread, which will make 2 loaves, calls for 2 cups of water and three times
that, or 6 cups, of flour. For this much flour and water, we'll use 1
packet, or a scant tablespoon of yeast.
There are only two other ingredients to worry about,
sugar and salt. You can actually make bread without either but we include
them because the sugar gives the yeast an easy first course, and both
bring out flavor. You can adjust either to suit your taste or diet. In
this recipe, a tablespoon of each is a good place to start. So altogether
we have 2 cups of liquid, 6 cups of flour, a tablespoon each of yeast,
sugar and salt. When you've memorized this short list your life as an
intuitive baker will have begun.
The following guidelines will take you through the
process of making a loaf of bread with these five ingredients. Along the
way you'll discover some of the mysteries and magic that yeast
King Arthur Flour's Hearth Bread
Hearth breads were originally baked just where their name
implies, at the hearth. Before the modern stove was invented, if you were
well enough off, you had an oven built into the brick or stone work which
contained the central fireplace or heating system of your house. This way,
all the cooking and baking could be done in the same area and both could
share the same chimney. These baking chambers, which may be familiar to
some as beehive ovens, were used to bake almost everything that couldn't
be cooked in a kettle over coals or an open fire.
If you didn't have a built-in oven, you would have used a
Dutch oven, a portable cast iron kettle with a lid, which stood on legs
right in the coals of the fireplace. To produce an all-around heat, more
coals were shoveled directly on the lid. Dutch ovens are still made today
and are very useful, since they are completely portable.
To preheat a built-in brick oven, a fire was built right
in the oven chamber itself. About two hours later, most of the coals and
ashes were removed and the baking began. A hearth bread was baked directly
on the oven floor and was deposited there and removed with a long wooden
paddle or "peel." The whole baking process was done "by feel" as there
were no thermometers to let you know when the oven was the right
temperature of when the bread was done.
To make a hearth bread with a crackly crust, it was
necessary to expose the dough to steam for 8 or 10 minutes after it went
into the oven. This technique, used today so successfully by the French,
gelatinized the starch on the surface of the dough. As the bread continued
to bake after the steaming period, this gelatinized surface baked into the
characteristic crunchy crust of a hearth bread. In old ovens, steam was
created by wiping the whole interior with a very wet cloth on the end of a
pole, much like a mop. Today, most commercial hearth breads are baking in
ovens that have steam injected into them mechanically at 2 or 3 minute
intervals during this first 8 or 10 minute baking period.
Here is the Hearth Bread Recipe:
This recipe is a typical one with two rising periods.
We'll give you some alternative methods farther along. This one will take
somewhere between 3 1/2 and 5 hours from start to finish, depending partly
on whether you work quickly or leisurely. But no matter how fast you work,
most of this time it's the yeast, not you, that's busy. Where you put the
dough to rise is the most important factor in determining the time
- 2 cups water
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon or packet active dry yeast
- 6 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- (cornmeal to sprinkle on baking sheet)
There are only two hurdles to get over in putting these
ingredients together and neither is a very big one. The first is
activating or "proofing" the yeast at a temperature that will make it want
to grow. This part of bread baking probably causes the most anxiety. To
alleviate it, just remember that yeast likes and dislikes the same
temperatures you do. Knowing what is comfortable for you means you know
what's comfortable for the yeast.
Activating or Proofing the Yeast: Pour the water, hot from the tap, into a mixing bowl. Add the
sugar and stir until it dissolves. As the water dissolves the sugar and
warms the bowl, it cools somewhat and should be just right for dissolving
and activating the yeast. Somewhere between 95°F and 115°F is fine. With
such a wide temperature range, you know that yeast is really quite
accommodating. Try a few drops of water on your wrist. If it feels warm
and comfortable to you, it will feel the same way to the yeast. Add the
tablespoon or packet of yeast and stir it in.
The temperature has to be 120°F, which feels hot, before
it begins to kill the yeast. It has to get all the way to 140°F before all
the yeast is completely done in. 140°F feels really hot. If you don't want
to trust yourself the first time around, use a candy thermometer to see if
you and the thermometer agree on what is "hot" and what's just
Let the yeast mixture sit for 5 or 6 minutes, 2 to 3 for
it to become thoroughly dissolved and 2 or 3 more for it to begin to grow
and show signs of life. Tiny bubbles should begin to appear on the
surface. Some varieties will cause the whole mixture to expand rather
If none of this happens (which is very unlikely), and
you're sure that the water you used was not too hot, it may be that you
have some "tired" yeast. (This is why activating the yeast is called
proofing. It proves that the yeast is alive and ready to go before you get
too far into a recipe.) If you suspect your yeast might be too old, your
best bet is to get a new batch and start again.
Don't add the salt yet. Yeast doesn't like salt and will
be happier if you add it after you stir in the first cup of flour. The
flour acts as a buffer and prevents the salt from making a direct
"assault" on the newly growing yeast.
The second hurdle in making your dough is not to add too
much flour. This, too, is easily avoided.
Measuring & Adding the Flour: All flour is sifted through many layers of silk screening, (i.e.,
it is "pre-sifted") before it is packaged at the flour mill. During
shipment it settles and becomes compressed. Our mothers and grandmothers
used a flour sifter to return compacted flour to its original light and
airy state. Since sifted flour weighs 4 ounces rather than the 5 or so
ounces a compacted or "scooped" cup of flour weighs, you can see where it
might be easy to inadvertently add more flour than a recipe calls
All King Arthur Flour recipes, unless noted otherwise,
are written for 4 ounce cups of flour, but you don't need a flour sifter
to make sure your cups weigh that much. When you measure flour the
following way, it will weigh 4 ounces a cup, you won't add too much to
your dough and you'll have flour that is already full of lots of little
air pockets, the first step to a light loaf of bread.
- First fluff up the flour in the bag or canister with a
spoon until it's light.
- Then sprinkle it lightly into a dry cup measure (the
kind that measures exactly a cup at the rim).
- Scrape any excess off with the back of a knife.
Stir your first cup of flour into the yeast mixture and
add the salt Then stir in 4 1/2 cups more flour. When the dough begins to
hold together and pull away from the sides of the bowl, it is ready to
Kneading: This part of bread
making is one of the most pleasurable, especially if you're kneading on a
surface that is a comfortable height for you. Traditional counter height,
36 inches, is fine for someone who is quite tall. If you aren't, it's
important to find a surface low enough so you can use your whole body when
you're kneading, and not just your arms. Table height (29 or 30 inches)
may be much better for you, or somewhere in between. Experiment to find
what is comfortable and effective.
If you ever enjoyed rocking in a rocking chair, or
rocking a baby, this is what kneading can be like, but only if you're
doing it at an optimum height. Find a little music so you and the dough
can have a dance all by yourselves.
Turn your dough out onto your kneading surface which
you've sprinkled lightly with the remaining 1/2 cup of flour. Before you
start, flour your hands well, too. When you first begin, it will be a bit
messy, but don't be faint of heart.
Fold the outside edge of the dough over onto itself
toward you and push the dough away gently with the heels of your hands.
After every push, turn the dough a quarter of the way around and fold it
toward you again. Keep repeating this sequence. You'll find that you'll
begin to rock back and forth and relax as you do it.
As you knead, sprinkle just enough more flour about to
keep the dough from sticking to the board or to you. Depending on the
humidity in the air, this can mean more or less than the original 6
Flour is porous like a sponge. When the air around it is
dry, flour will be dry. When the air is humid, flour will absorb the
moisture in it. Just as a dry sponge can soak up more water than a wet
sponge, so can dry flour. You'll find that during cold, dry months you'll
often need less flour when making a dough, and in hot, humid months, a bit
After you've kneaded for 3 to 4 minutes, let the dough
take a little rest while you clean out and grease the bowl. When you
return to your dough, you'll find that the little rest has changed it. It
will feel more "together" and easier to work.
Continue kneading another 3 to 4 minutes, a few minutes
more if you have time and are enjoying yourself, less if you don't. When
the dough is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticky, it has been kneaded
First Rising: Form the dough
into a nice, round ball and place it in your greased bowl, turning it over
so the top has a thin film of grease on it as well. This helps keep it
soft so that, as the yeast begins to grow and produce carbon dioxide
bubbles, it can expand.
Cover the bowl with a damp towel or a piece of plastic
wrap. It's a good idea to grease the underside of the plastic so that it
won't stick if the dough comes in contact with it.
Put the bowl somewhere cozy to let the yeast grow and
multiply until it has doubled the size of the dough. This will take
anywhere from 1 to 2 hours depending on warmth and humidity. If your
kitchen is warm, that is probably cozy enough. If you have a pilot light
in your oven, put it in there, or on top of your refrigerator, or on a
heating pad, (even on your water bed). Somewhere between 75°F and 85°F is
If you put your dough somewhere cooler, it will still
rise, but more slowly.
You'll find that on rainy or stormy days (great days for
baking anyway), when the barometric pressure is low, your bread will rise
more quickly than it does ordinarily. This is because the dough doesn't
have as much air to "push" against; the air is not as dense or heavy as it
is on clear days. This is the same reason you don't need as much yeast or
baking powder at high altitudes where the air is thinner and
Knocking or Punching Down the Dough: When you can poke
your finger in the dough without it springing back, it has "doubled in
Make a fist and give it a good knock or punch. If anyone
is passing through the room, it doesn't take much to entice them into
assisting with this step. A few punches will knock most of the gas
Turn the dough out onto your lightly floured kneading
surface and knead out any stray bubbles.
Second Rising (optional): A
traditional hearth bread usually has a coarse grain so if that's what
you're aiming for, skip this step. (But it's good to know about for making
rolls and other breads where you want a finer grain.)
By the end of the first rising the dough will contain
almost twice as much yeast as it did when it started. If you wish, or a
change in schedule necessitates it, you can let the dough rise a second
time in the bowl after you've knocked it down. Because there is twice as
much yeast working, the second rising will take about half as much time as
the first. And because each of those little single-celled organisms is
producing its own bubble of carbon dioxide, you'll have twice as many
little carbon dioxide bubbles in the dough. (It's all these extra bubbles
that make the grain finer.)
After the dough has doubled, knock it down
Traditional Shaping: Let the
dough rest for several minutes after you've kneaded all the bubbles out.
This will relax the gluten and make it much easier to shape. The
directions may sound complicated, but don't let them intimidate you; the
dough will tell you what to do.
Cut the dough in half to shape it into two loaves, either
French style (long and narrow), Italian style (shorter and more oval), or
round. Tuck the cut edge of each piece into the center of the dough so it
is no longer exposed.
Gently, so you don't break the surface, roll it out with
the flat of your hands like a fat play dough "snake." It may take two or
three relaxing periods (of a few minutes each) and more light sprinklings
of flour to make it the length you want.
Put the smoothest side (which you'll want to make the top
surface of the bread) DOWN on your kneading surface. Make sure it's
lightly floured so it can move without sticking.
To shape the loaf, think about wrapping up something in a
towel, bringing it around whatever you're wrapping and tucking the ends
underneath. Imagine the surface of your dough is the towel. Bring it
around, stretching it gently to expand the (bottom) surface and tuck all
the edges into the center (at the top). Since this will be the bottom of
your loaf, it doesn't matter what it looks like. Turn the loaf over and
tidy it up if necessary.
Place the loaf on a baking sheet that has been sprinkled
generously with cornmeal. Repeat with the second piece of
Final Rising: Cover them both
with a damp towel and let them rise until they have doubled, somewhere
around an hour. Since you don't want to leave a big fingerprint in the
dough when you check it this time, poke it gently on the side.
If the dough doesn't immediately spring back at you, and
your finger has left a slight impression, you can probably assume it is
ready to go in the oven.
Dough can overrise. When it has, it looks billowy, as
though it was pumped full of air. Don't be tempted to let your dough rise
to this point hoping that the baked loaves will be lighter. Overrisen
dough tends to collapse on itself either before or while it's baking. As a
result, the bread will be dense and sour tasting, the opposite of what you
If your dough should overrise after it's shaped, just
knock it down and quickly reshape it (and pretend you meant to have it
rise again all along).
Because King Arthur Flour has a greater tolerance than
other all-purpose flours, it can stand more risings before the gluten
begins to break down. What this really means is that a King Arthur dough
is very accommodating and forgiving and will give you more chances to
Preparing the Oven: Although
it's difficult to recreate the original hearth loaves in our modern ovens,
we can come fairly close.
Every oven is unique, not like any other. Newer ovens are
better insulated and tighter which means less fluctuation in temperature,
though even in the newer ovens temperatures can vary. Check yours with an
oven thermometer for any discrepancies that could account for under- or
overdone bread. Getting to know your oven will keep it from surprising you
and will help you work with it more effectively.
Using Baking Tiles: Although
baking tiles aren't critical to making a successful hearth bread, they can
help approximate a hearth oven. Baking stones or tiles are available at
most kitchen supply or tile stores. Lay them directly on your oven bottom
or, if that's not possible, on the first rack. The tiles will absorb
moisture and release it slowly as well as act as a "heat sink" to even out
any temperature fluctuations. You can leave baking tiles in the oven
permanently. If you want to bake something at the level the tiles are on,
cover them with a large cake rack. This will allow air to circulate
underneath a cake pan or cookie sheet. Just remove the rack when you're
making hearth bread.
Creating Steam: First,
preheat your oven to 475°F about 15 minutes before you want to bake your
bread. To create steam, you have several options.
Water: Place a roasting pan
directly on the oven bottom (on the baking tiles if you have them) or
lower rack and let it preheat with your oven. Just before you're ready
to put your loaves in the oven, pour 2 to 3 cups of water in it. Use
something with a handle long enough to prevent you from getting burned.
Steam is deadly. And keep a pan just for this purpose as this steaming
business won't be kind to a pan you love.
Ice Cubes: Our friend
Rebecca Cunningham (whose fruit tartlets appear in Chapter VII) throws a
tray of ice cubes in the preheated roasting pan. She says it creates a
time-released steam that lasts just about as long as it should (8 to 10
minutes) and creates some pretty dramatic hissing and crackling in the
process. Who said baking can't be exciting?
Mist: Use a mister to spray
your loaves with water every 2 minutes for the first 8 or 10 minutes of
baking. This is fun too but you tend to lose heat every time you open
your oven. (We have another friend who throws 1/4 cup of water on her
tiles every 2 minutes. This we don't recommend, even though it, too, is
Finishing Touches: Here are
several options for dressing up your bread now that it has risen and is
ready to bake.
Slashing the Top: Just
before you put the loaves in the oven, slash the oval loaves diagonally
three or four times about 1/4 inch deep. To make an attractive pattern
on the top of a round loaf, cut twice one way and twice at right angles
across the first cuts. A good serrated knife does this easily. By making
these cuts, you create places for the bread to expand where you want it
to which can prevent (horrors!) a bread "blowout."
Washing: Each kind of wash
has its own merits. You can use whichever appeals to you.
Water Wash: This helps the
steaming process and makes a crunchier crust. Just before you put your
loaves in the oven, brush the tops with cold water. You can use your
fingertips if you're gentle, a pastry brush, or even a mister which will
spray on an even, fine film of water. Another alternative is a goose
feather brush which will spread water (or any wash) over the surface of
the dough with almost no pressure at all.
- Whole Egg Wash: To make
your loaves "fancy for company," make a wash with a whole egg beaten
with a tablespoon of water. Brush this gently over the exposed surface
of the dough before it goes in the oven. This will give the loaves a
shiny bronzed surface.
- Egg White Wash: This
does essentially the same thing as the whole egg wash but the color is
transparent. With 1 egg white, use 2 teaspoons of water.
- Egg Yolk Wash: This
makes a very golden crust. With 1 egg yolk, use 2 teaspoons of
- Milk Wash: Like egg,
milk makes a bronzed crust, but it will be softer and less
- Butter: A little melted
butter can be brushed on, either before or after baking, for a softer,
richer flavored crust.
Sprinklings: To dress up your
loaves even more, make an egg wash "glue" by beating a whole egg with just
2 teaspoons of water. Brush this over the exposed surface of your dough
and sprinkle on one or more of the following: kosher or coarse sea salt;
one of the herbal salt substitutes or some chopped herbs themselves;
sesame, poppy or sunflower seeds; minced garlic or onion; grated hard
cheese; chopped nuts; or anything that will complement the meal your bread
will be served with.
Baking: This is where the
After your oven is thoroughly preheated, pour 2 or 3 cups
of water (or throw a tray of ice cubes) into the preheated roasting pan.
(Keep your hands well back so you don't get steamed.)
With pot holders, or preferably oven mitts, quickly place
the loaves on a rack above the pan. Bake for 20 minutes. Check the bread
after 15 minutes. If the crust is getting too brown, turn the temperature
down to 450°F and finish baking.
Tap the bottom of a loaf after you take it out of the
oven. If it sounds hollow, it should be done. If it isn't, the moisture in
the interior will deaden the tap sound. If there's any question, put the
bread back into the oven for an extra five minutes.
If you want a softer crust, remove the bread after the 20
minute baking period. As it cools, moisture will evaporate through the
crust and soften it.
To keep the crust crunchy, turn the oven off after the
bread has finished baking and leave the loaves inside with the door closed
for 5 to 10 minutes.
It is in this simplest of breads that the marriage of
wheat flour and yeast becomes sublime. The smell of it as it comes out of
the oven, the first taste before it's even cool, that feeling of complete
satisfaction after eating the first piece, all these combine to put the
world right for at least a little while.
Freezing Dough & Bread:
Bread dough can be frozen prior to baking, either before
or after it has been shaped. Freezing won't kill the yeast, but it does
subdue it somewhat, so double the amount called for in the
Finished breads can be frozen very successfully in heavy,
airtight plastic bags in a non-self-defrosting freezer. If you get them
into the freezer as soon as they are completely cool, they will taste just
as if they had come right out of the oven when they're thawed.