I have always romanticized the idea of having freshly baked bread around all the time. During days of pandemic solitude last year, I took this seriously. I had a multi-grain recipe that I really enjoyed, but it needed to rise for 12 hours so while it was great during my WFH days, it didn’t translate to post-quarantine life.
Last Christmas, my sister and I, both teachers and both in our 30s chose to spend the entirety of the Christmas break at my parent’s house in quarantine with them. We cooked and baked and shared meals and drank wine for two weeks straight and it was wonderful! While quarantining brought the hardships of not seeing extended family and friends or partaking in other holiday traditions, we were so lucky to be able to have that quality time with the four of us.
Because I had been teaching in a hybrid format and in front of students, we chose to be masked when we were in shared spaces together for the first week of break, especially in the kitchen. Thinking back to that time and all of the decision fatigue, trying to stay on top of news and case numbers, calculating risk factors, etc there was a constant, low-level stress that we all felt. Kneading bread was a helpful form of therapy.
We needed an easier bread.
My mom is a fantastic baker (the best, I would argue) but bread making was never her thing. So while I was home, I got to share my tips and tricks for baking a fast, easy peasant loaf with her.
The key to this one is the rising time and the oven temp. If you let it rise for a shorter time (45 minutes to 1 hour) and bake it at a higher temp (500) it will be crustier. But if you let it rise a bit longer (2 hours) and bake it at a more normal bread-baking temp (400) it will be a little fluffier.
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups warm water not over 110°F
5 ½ to 6 cups All-Purpose Flour
Flour for dusting
Start by mixing the yeast and two cups of warm water in a large ceramic or glass bowl. (Stainless steel holds temperatures in different ways.) Some people add the salt in this step, but others say that adding the salt here alters the reaction of the yeast. So I always wait and let the yeast bloom and dissolve then add the salt with the sugar and flour in the next step.
In a different bowl, whisk the sugar, salt and flour together. I usually add the 5 ½ cups and hold the extra ½ cup based on the texture.
Add the flour mixture into the yeast mixture in smaller portions (about 1 - 1 ½ cups at a time). Mix well. It is going to be sticky in the beginning and then as you get to the last cup or so, it’s going to seem like the last bits of flour have nowhere to go. Keep stirring. This is the point that I ditch the spatula and begin to knead it together. I cheat and do this in the bowl for a bit before dumping it onto a lightly floured surface to knead it the rest of the way.
Knead it until it is a unified lump of smooth dough.
Important techniques here to get the bread that you want:
Clean the bowl and wipe a small amount of oil all over the inside of the bowl.
Return the dough ball to the oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap (or if your kitchen is already warm, a damp tea towel tightly wrapped around the bowl will work well). You want to create a space for the yeast to make the flour rise. If you have proofing tricks, use them here! I saw some about proofing in an instant pot the other day that I haven’t tried, but seemed interesting!
Rise time for a crustier bread: 45 mins
Rise time for a softer crust: 1 ½ - 2 Hour
For a super crusty, crustier crust: Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. Put a few cups of water into a shallow pan on the bottom rack of the oven. Transfer your dough to a deep pot. I like to use a ceramic or cast iron dutch oven. Sometimes I will use parchment paper as well. If you’d like to use an egg wash do so here, or just spritz with water. With the lid off, bake the bread for 30 minutes, the steam from the water below will cause the bread to form a thicker crust. Put the lid on for the last 15 minutes of the baking time. You can also free-form this loaf by shaping it and letting it rest in that shape for a few minutes on a piece of parchment on a baking sheet before putting it in the oven.
If it rises for 2 hours, you can still use the same methods as above, but lower your temp to 400 degrees.