I still feel like a pretender … a novice who has learned a thing or two, but with a long way to go to being a baker of any standing. But I’ve been baking regularly for eight years. I’ve been on the baker’s path, finding my own way. I can say a few things.
Here is my advice to those who want to bake their own bread: Go the library, or your local bookstore and pick up My Bread by the legendary New York baker, Jim Lahey.
The no-knead leap
He’s the one who made the “No-Knead” recipe famous.
Follow the basic recipe for bread at the beginning of the book, and right away, you’ll have bread that is an order of magnitude better than anything you’ll find at the grocery store.
It takes longer to make one of these loaves than you might hope — almost 20 hours start to finish. But that involves only 20 minutes of hands-on time. The rest of the time, the bread ferments on its own and bakes in the oven on its own.
Pull it out of your dutch oven 1 or casserole pot, and you’ll have a beautiful loaf of great tasting, crusty bread. Your family and friends will think you’re a genius! The loaf will disappear in an instant down the throats of salivating table guests. You can start another one right away.
Suddenly you’re a bread genius
If you’re looking for a positive bread-making experience, no-knead is the way to go. If you follow the instructions carefully, it’s fail-safe! And delicious! Believe me!
The Lahey method, though, uses commercial yeast. It isn’t sourdough, strictly speaking, but the long proofing time allows for some dough fermentation, which accounts for the close-to-sourdough flavour.
My Bread offers other recipes to keep you interested. All use the same method. You can make whole wheat and rye loaves, olive, cheese, and pancetta breads. You can delve into ciabatta and stirato (Italian baguette). Other parts of the book offer suggestions for sandwich fillings and oven pan pizza.
Maybe that will be all you need to satisfy your bread baking itch!
But with all that success, you may begin to hear the siren sound of sourdough calling. Maybe you’ll hear it in your dreams, maybe when you’re mixing the 27th loaf of no-knead whole wheat bread.
“How much better can sourdough taste?” you’ll wonder.
Siren sound of Sourdough: the Tartine Country Loaf
Time to move on to Chad Robertson! Lahey may be legend, Chad is a baker celebrity. Some think he’s a genius, others are not so generous. But he’s carried many aspiring bakers into the sourdough realm, myself included.
Start with Tartine Bread. I’ve mentioned it here before. It contains the legendary 24-page recipe for his Basic Country Bread. Thirty-four pages, if you include the in-depth descriptions of each stage.
Those 34 pages haunted me before I even tried baking a loaf. I dreamed about it, I thought it was too difficult. But I craved the taste of Robertson’s ideal bread:
The loaf would be baked dark, and the substantial, blistered crust would hold some give while containing a voluptuous, wildly open crumb with the sweet character of natural fermentation and a subtle, balanced acidity. The bread would be a joy to eat and would keep well for a week.Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread, 2010, page 8
I was swept along by this fantasy. It was easy to go along with Robertson. But there were hurdles.
There was the matter of the sourdough starter, the culture of microorganisms — wild yeasts and bacteria present in the flour, air and the baker’s hands — that is used to leaven and flavour the bread. It could take up to a week to get it properly bubbling. It took me several tries.
Where “No-Knead” bread took less than 24 hours to produce a finished loaf, I was well into a week before I could even start mixing dough.
Driven by obsesssion
I read the formula and description at least 30 times before I tried a bake. My first attempt was a great success! The crumb was open and pearl hued. The loaf had big oven spring, though that first crust was not quite “baked dark” enough, in my estimation. A minor imperfection, though. I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Subsequent bakes were not so satisfying. And thus began my real learning. Endless reading, note-taking, Facebook and Instagram bread baking feeds, multiple bakes, different methods. I reached out to a prominent bread blogger, Francis Olive 2 the author of Girl Meets Rye and its earlier incarnation, Tartine Bread Experiment. She was similarly captivated by Chad Robertson and Tartine Bread, at least in the beginning.
She helped me on several fronts, but her great achievement was giving me confidence that my baking knowledge and technique was just fine!
The journey is long …
Everyone has their own bread journey. Some may not be as tortured or long-winded as mine.
Many books additional to the ones mentioned here were helpful along the way:
- Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman – the most substantive and authoritative on baking techniques
- Tartine No. 3 by Chad Robertson – great exploration of alternative grains, seeds and other breads
- The Sourdough School by Vanessa Kimbell – different take on sourdough as health health alternative
- Dough by Richard Bertinet – yeasted breads and great explorations of techniques
- From the Wood-Fired Oven by Richard Miscovich
- The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart – collection of different different breads and traditions
- The Bread Builders by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott – profiles of bakers, bakeries and wood-fired ovens.
- The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book by Laurel Robertson – old school … great section on Desem Bread.
- The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown – old school … early adopter of pre-fermented doughs.
Driven by an obsession, these were the voices that made me believe I could make bread. There was much dough, many mistakes. And I was also driven by self-criticism, such that many of my triumphs were recognized as flawed successes.
I heard myself saying to some, “The best bread you can eat is a loaf made by yourself.” I encourage you to make your own bread so that you can enjoy not just the flavour, but the fact that you made it yourself.
No-knead and many home-baked breads can be baked in these vessels↩
I visited her in Los Angeles two years ago. While she is still an avid baker, she has become a fashion designer, of rust-dyed aprons and textiles and francisolive handmade, a line of beautiful clothing items based on unique textiles, handmade↩