Kitchen tools, gourmet foods, baking mixes, and hard-to-find baking ingredients mentioned in this article are available at The Prepared Pantry.
by Dennis Weaver
When we moved from Minnesota to Idaho to start our business, our first focus
was bread mixes. It wasn't just a business decision; it was a passion. We worked
with bread and bread mixes for more than a year. Only then did we start the business.
I suppose the people in our new neighborhood thought we were strange. This family
moves into a quiet, rural neighborhood from some place "back East.” No one seems
to have a job. Apparently they spend most of their time baking.
Often, by the end of the day, we had a pile of freshly baked loaves. We would
load them in the car and go through the neighborhood giving them away. Often they
were crusty breads, sourdoughs, and artisan loaves. The neighbors may have thought
we were strange but they answered their doorbells.
That first winter in Idaho, we developed what is still my favorite sourdough
bread recipe. It's a hard, round loaf with a deep, yeasty sourdough flavor. The
inside is soft and airy but the crust is crackly and chewy. I made it dozens of
times that winter.
"How do you get a crust like that? How do you get that flavor?”
There are three secrets to this bread. Yes, it's more work than throwing ingredients
in your stand-type mixer but this bread will make you a celebrity.
The crust. I remember dining with a friend in a fine Italian
restaurant in Minneapolis. Their crusty bread was outstanding.
"How do they make that crust,” my friend asked.
It's steam. Commercial ovens have steam injectors. They bake the bread in a hot
oven with plenty of steam injected into the oven in the early part of the baking.
You can mimic that process at home with a mister and a pan of hot water in the bottom
of the oven. The recipe will tell you how. But be very careful; steam burns.
The sourdough. When you buy yeast in the store, you are buying
thousands of tiny yeast spores aggregated together into little grains using dextrin
or another additive. But the air is alive with invisible yeast spores. When they
land in your culture of flour and water and if the temperature, moisture, and pH
are right, they begin to grow. The gas they give off leavens your bread. The alcohol
they give off provides a yeasty flavor. Wild yeast tends to give a sharper flavor
than domestic yeast.
Yeast is easy to grow but sometimes tricky to start. In this recipe, we start
the culture with a pinch of yeast and then let the wild yeast take over.
The flavor. The yeast in your dough is alive and growing. Realizing
that and the conditions in which yeast thrives is essential to understanding bread
baking. It takes a warm, wet dough—yeast thrives at about 80 degrees, stops growing
at about 45 degrees, and starts to die at 130 degrees. That's why temperature is
Yeast likes a slightly acidic environment. That's why your grandmother's recipe
may have called for a tablespoon of lemon juice. A good
dough conditioner, among other things, will provide a slightly acidic environment.
As the yeast grows, it produces carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. The gas provides
leavening to raise the bread and create air pockets. The alcohol provides the flavor.
At lower temperatures, the yeast creates less gas but more alcohol—enough to make
dynamic changes in your bread. That's where all the rich yeasty flavors in this
recipe come from—thousands of yeast cells struggling at low temperatures creating
lots of alcohol but little gas.
That first winter, my garage always seemed about 40 degrees and I nearly always
had bread dough in the garage. I could adjust the temperature that I wanted to use
by placing the dough on shelves either up high or down close to the floor or moving
the dough closer to the front or the back of the garage. It seemed that the best
bread came after the dough was refrigerated in the garage for three to five days.
At that point, the bread was full of alcohol. Of course, the alcohol is destroyed
Commercial bakers do the same thing with a retarder—basically a refrigerator
box with a timer and temperature control—which is used to "retard” the growth of
the yeast. If you don't want to use your garage, use your refrigerator.
Easy Sourdough Bread
Sourdough simply uses wild yeast in place of commercial yeast to leaven the bread.
It relies on the wild yeasts that are in the air all around us and cultures those
yeasts in a warm, wet environment created with water, flour, and sometimes other
When creating a sourdough starter, we always felt like we were on an expedition
trying to trap invisible yeastie beasties with our flour and water concoctions.
Because we couldn't see the beasties, we were never sure what we had captured. While
usually successful, we never felt like we were in control. Maybe that is the way
sourdough bread should feel, a symbiosis with nature.
But there is an easier way: use commercial yeast in the starter. I know, that's
heresy to the sourdough bread zealot but we only care about the bread. Using commercial
yeast is easier, it's the alcohol from the long cool fermentation that creates the
sourdough-like flavor, and the wild yeasts will eventually take over the starter
anyway. Because it's easy, it's no big deal if you abandon your starter after a
few weeks; you can readily start another when you're back in the mood or have the
In this recipe for sourdough bread, a small amount of yeast is used in the starter.
As the starter is used and refreshed with new feedings of flour and water, wild
yeasts are introduced and cultivated.
For the starter
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
1/4 teaspoon yeast
1 cup high gluten unbleached flour
For the sponge
1 cup of the starter
3/4 cup warm water
2 cups flour
A sponge is a pre-ferment, a wet mixture of flour and yeast that acts as an incubation
chamber to grow yeast at the desired rate. It is added to the dough.
For the dough
All of the sponge
1 1/2 cups flour (more or less)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons Professional Dough Conditioner
Starter: Mix the starter in a glass or steel bowl, cover with plastic wrap,
and set it aside at room temperature until it is doubled and bubbly (maybe 4 to
For the Sponge: Mix the one cup starter with the flour and water, cover, and
set aside to ferment until it has tripled in volume. At room temperature, it will
take four to eight hours. You can put it in a cool place - about 50 degrees F -
and let it perk all night. (In the winter, your garage may be just right.) You can
also put it in the refrigerator overnight. At temperatures of 40 degrees, the yeast
will be inactive but the friendly bacteria will still be working and enhance the
sour flavor of the bread. If you retard the growth with lower temperatures ("retard”
is the correct term for slowing the growth of the yeast), simply bring the sponge
to room temperature and let it expand to three times its original volume before
For the dough: Mix the salt and conditioner with the flour. Knead the combination
into the sponge by hand until you have smooth, elastic, slightly sticky dough, adding
more flour as needed. Put the dough in an oiled bowl and let it rise again until
doubled (about an hour).
Form the loaves: Though you can make this bread in pans, it works best as a
large, freestanding round or oval loaf or two smaller loaves. Place a clean cotton
cloth in a bowl or basket in which to hold the loaf. Lightly dust the interior of
the bowl with flour. Place each formed loaf upside down in a bowl on top of the
dusted flour. Cover the loaves with plastic and let them rise again until doubled.
This rising will probably take less than an hour.
Bakers note: Notice that the salt is not added until the last stage. Salt in
the sponge would inhibit yeast growth.
Bakers note: You want a light dusting of flour on the cloth to be transferred
to the bread, not a heavy caking. Softly sifting flour from a strainer or with a
flour shaker is the easiest way to achieve an even coating. You can find both a
small strainer and a flour shaker in our kitchen tool section.
If you choose to bake the bread in pans, omit this step. Instead, let the dough
rise in a greased bowl covered with plastic until doubled. Form the loaves for pans,
place the loaves in greased pans, and let rise until well-expanded and puffy. Bake
at 350 degrees until done (about 30 minutes).
To bake crusty bread
To form the thick, chewy crust that is typical of artisan breads, follow these
instructions: Place a large, shallow, metal pan in the oven on the lowest shelf.
You will pour hot water in this pan to create steam in the oven. (High heat is hard
on pans so don't use one of your better pans and don't use a glass or ceramic pan
which might shatter.) An old sheet pan is ideal. Fill a spray bottle with water.
You will use this to spray water into the oven to create even more steam.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. When the oven is hot and the bread is fully
risen and is soft and puffy--being very careful not to burn yourself with the rising
steam and with a mitted hand—turn your head away and pour two or three cups of very
hot water in the pan in the oven. Quickly close the oven door to capture the steam.
With spray bottle in hand, open the door and quickly spray the oven walls to create
more steam and close the door. The oven is now ready for the loaves.
Work quickly to get the bread in the oven before the steam subsides. Gently invert
the loaf or loaves onto a slightly greased non-insulated baking sheet on which a
little cornmeal has been dusted. With your sharpest knife, quickly make two or three
slashes 1/4-inch deep across the top of each loaf. This will vent the steam in the
bread and allow the bread to expand properly. Immediately, put the bread in the
steamy oven. After a few moments, open the door and spray the walls again to recharge
the steam. Do this twice more during the first fifteen minutes of baking. This steamy
environment will create the chewy crust prized in artisan breads.
Let the bread bake at 425 degrees for fifteen minutes in the hot steamy oven
then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake for a total of 35 to 40 minutes.
Check on the bread ten minutes before the baking should be complete. If the top
is browning too quickly, tent the loaf with aluminum foil for the remainder of the
baking to keep it from burning. The bread is done when the crust turns a dark golden
brown and the internal temperature reaches 210 degrees. It is important that the
bread is well-baked to drive moisture from the loaf. If the bread is under baked,
the excess moisture will migrate to the crust and you will no longer have the dry
chewy crust of a great artisan loaf.
This sourdough bread is to die for. The prolonged rising gives the yeast plenty
of time to convert the starch to sugars and the friendly bacteria a chance to impart
their nut-like flavors.
Storing your crusty bread
Unused crusty bread should be stored in a paper bag at room temperature. If the
bread is stored in a plastic bag, the crust will become soft.
Recommended Equipment and Ingredient Choices
Great bread requires good bread flour. All-purpose flour will not do. We've tried
dozens of bread flours and there really is quite a difference. Find one that you
love and stick with it. It should be unbleached.
We use General Mills Harvest King Flour almost exclusively for bread. Do a little research
online and you'll find a nearly cult-like following. It's a wonderful commercial
bread flour made to a very tight spec. But alas, it can be very hard to find. (We
can sell you a 50 pound bag but the cost of shipping is a little painful.) Occasionally,
you can find it in the grocery stores. General Mills Better-for-Bread Flour is purportedly
the same thing if you can find that.
Once a bag of flour is opened, it will dry out if not covered. Consider pouring
it into a bin with a cover for storage. We sell large, heavy plastic bags that are food grade and big enough for 50 pound bags.
We place opened bags of flour in these bags and close them with a twist tie. We
also place our bread dough in these bags to let it rise without drying out. The
bags act as a little greenhouse to create a warm, moist environment.
take much in equipment. My equipment is battered and bruised and I love it. You
will need a good baker's thermometer so that you can tell what's going on with your dough
and test doneness. I have a battered, rusted baking sheet about an inch deep that
I use as a steaming pan in the bottom of the oven. Don't use one of your good nonstick
sheets. You'll need a spray mister like the one you may use when ironing clothes.
I have a couple old, dark pizza pans that I bake most of my artisan bread on. Don't
use a silver pan; it reflects heat. A perforated pizza pan is perfect.
For dusting your pans, use a coarse corn meal.
As you work with your dough, you'll find that you reach for a flour shaker over
and over. A bench scraper is handy.
Dennis Weaver is the founder of
The Prepared Pantry, a full line kitchen store in Rigby, Idaho. The Prepared
Pantry sells kitchen tools, gourmet foods, and baking ingredients including hundreds of hard-to-find ingredients.