Bread-making is magical. There’s something about the entire process which forces me to slow down, plan ahead, do things step-by-step without rushing ahead and see something transform right in front of my eyes.
I love the almost yen-like practice of kneading bread and feeling it change in minutes from a gluey blob stuck to my rings to a silky smooth stretchy ball.
I haven’t always been a bread-maker. For years, we made use of our bread machine – a wedding gift which is still working fine 15 years later. It did the trick but the crust was on the thick side and it only made one shape.
A few years ago, I began to read up on bread-making by hand, and wanted to learn this new skill. After much research, I selected the award-winning book The Bread-Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. I haven’t been disappointed. Every single recipe has worked, and it’s been a wonderful journey learning how to make all sorts of different types of bread.
The book is more than a collection of recipes or story-telling. Reinhart is a master of explaining the art and science of bread-making. He details exactly what the bread should look like, feel like or what the internal temperature should be at every step of the way. There’s never been a moment where I’ve had a question that hasn’t been answered in the book.
The title is apt: I do feel like an apprentice working through the book. I cannot recommend this book highly enough and have given it as a gift and plan to give it to others. The book simply works, no matter your abilities.
When we travel abroad, we’ve taken photos of our favorite recipes from the book as we love them so much – the book itself a little too heavy to bring along!
Of all the recipes, my favorite is his Italian bread loaves. These are incredible to serve up at any meal. They taste great even with plain butter. When we’ve entertained, I’ve even made up to thirty loaves at one time. All his recipe formulae are easily adaptable.
- 2½ cups unbleached bread flour
- ½ teaspoon instant yeast
- ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons to 1 cup water, at room temperature
- 2½ cups unbleached bread flour
- 1⅔ teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ¾ cup to ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons water, lukewarm (90 - 100°F)
- Cornmeal for dusting
- Stir together the flour and yeast in a 4-quart bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). Add ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons of the water, stirring until everything comes together and makes a coarse ball (or mix on low speed for 1 minute with the paddle attachment). Adjust the flour or water, according to need, so that the dough is neither too sticky nor too stiff. (It is better to err on the sticky side, as you can adjust easier during kneading. It is harder to add water once the dough firms up.
- Sprinkle some flour on the counter and transfer the dough to the counter. Knead for 4 to 6 minutes (or mix on medium speed with the dough hook for 4 minutes), or until the dough is soft and pliable, tacky but not sticky. The internal temperature should be 77 to 81°F.
- Lightly oil a bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and ferment at room temperature for 2 to 4 hours, or until it nearly doubles in size.
- Remove the dough from the bowl, knead it lightly to degas, and return it to the bowl, covering the bowl with plastic wrap. Place the bowl in the refrigerator overnight.
- Remove the biga from the refrigerator 1 hour before making the dough. Cut it into about 10 small pieces with a pastry scraper or serrated knife. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let sit for 1 hour to take off the chill.
- Stir together the flour, salt, sugar, yeast, and malt powder in a 4-quart bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). Add the biga pieces, olive oil, and ¾ cup water and stir together (or mix on low speed with the paddle attachment) until a ball forms, adjusting the water or flour according to need. The dough should be slightly sticky and soft, but not batterlike or very sticky. If the dough feels tough and stiff, add more water to soften (it is better to have the dough too soft than too stiff at this point).
- Sprinkle flour on the counter, transfer the dough to the counter, and begin kneading (or mixing on medium speed with the dough hook). Knead (or mix) for about 10 minutes, adding flour as needed, until the dough is tacky, but not sticky, and supple. The dough should register 77 to 81 degrees F. Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
- Ferment at room temperature for approximately 2 hours, or until the dough doubles in size.
- Gently divide the dough into 2 equal pieces of about 18 ounces each.
- Carefully form the pieces into 6-12" long loaves, degassing the dough as little as possible. To make each loaf, gently pat the dough into a rough rectangle. Without degassing the piece of dough, fold the bottom third of dough, letter style, up to the center and press to seal, creasing surface tension on the outer edge. Fold the remaining dough over the top and use the edge of your hand to seal the seam closed and to increase the surface tension all over. Set the loaf aside either for proofing or to rest for further shaping.
- Lightly dust with a sprinkle of flour, cover with a towel or plastic wrap, and let rest for 5 minutes. Then complete the shaping, extending the loaves to about 12 inches in length. Line a sheet pan with baking parchment and dust with semolina flour or cornmeal. Place the loaves on the pan and lightly mist with spray oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap.
- Proof at room temperature for about 1 hour, or until the loaves have grown to about 1½ times their original size.
- Preheat the oven to 500°F, having an empty heavy duty sheet pan or cast-iron fying pan on the top shelf or oven floor. Score the breads with 2 parallel, diagonal slashes or 1 long slash.
- For loaves, generously dust a peel or the back of a sheet pan with semolina flour or cornmeal and very gently transfer the loaves to the peel or pan. Transfer the dough to the baking stone (or bake on the sheet pan). Pour 1 cup hot water into the steam pan and close the door. After 30 seconds, spray the walls of the oven with water the close the door. Repeat once more after another 30 seconds. After the final spray, lower the oven setting to 450°F and bake until done, rotating 180 degrees, if necessary, for even baking. It should take about 20 minutes for loaves. The loaves should be golden brown and register at least 200°F at the center.
- Transfer the loaves to a cooling rack and cool for at least 1 hour before slicing or serving.