Bread recipes are given in “baker’s percentages”. Suppose you are making a bread with 500g of flour (enough for two baguettes or one large batard). The quantities are given as percentages of the total flour weight, 500g.

My recipe is based on Peter Reinhart’s pain a l’Ancienne, alias no-knead bread.

  • 100% flour
  • 85% water
  • 2% salt
  • 1.25% yeast (Fleischman’s active dry will do)

So, for that 500g loaf, we’d have: 500g flour, 425ml water, 10g salt, 6g yeast.

Assembling the dough

Mix up the flour, salt, and yeast. Add the cold water, stir to combine with spoon, and let sit 5 to 20 minutes. (This rest is called the “autolyse”, and it gives the water time to distribute throughout the dough.) Mix the dough with the spoon another few minutes. Cover loosely with plastic wrap in the same bowl or a new, oiled bowl.

Rising

You now have a choice: rise and bake immediately, or let it sit for up to 72 hours. (Letting it sit is called “retardation”.) The longer you let the dough sit, the better the flavor. If you are going to rise now, it should take an hour or two, depending on how warm it is. Pulling the dough out of the fridge a few days on, I’d budget two to two-and-a-half hours.

Baking

As the dough is nearing the end of its rise, preheat your oven as high as it will go (500 is a good start). If you have a pan that can tolerate such high heat — solid stainless steel, for example — put it on the floor of the oven. When the oven is good and hot, boil a cupful of water. (I use the microwave.) Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a well-floured board. The dough will be quite sticky; flour will make it easy to handle.

Shaping/forming

When it comes to forming, there are many techniques and shapes. I usually make a simple baguette: turn the dough out onto the flour, then flip it over so that both sides are covered in flour. Pull the thicker parts gently to form a baton. Don’t stretch it too much, as you’ll stretch it somewhat transferring it to the pan. When in doubt, do less: the less you handle the dough, the lighter and airier the final crumb. I tend to do most of the stretching as I transfer to the pan itself.

Scoring

When you’ve formed your loaf, transfer it (with both hands!) to a lightly oiled/Pam-ed sheet pan. Score the top a few times with a sharp knife: three should do for an average-sized baguette. I find that it helps to dip the knife in water and/or flour: this prevents the dough from sticking to the knife. A single, quick cutting motion is more effective than sawing, which will only encourage stickiness. You don’t have to score the bread, but it’s a nice effect and will prevent tears due to oven spring.

The moment of truth

Your loaf is formed on a sheet pan, the oven is hot, and you have a cupful of hot water. Two quick steps:

  1. Put the loaf into the oven and close the door.
  2. Get an oven mitt, move the pan on the floor of the oven to the edge, where you can reach it, and pour the water into the pan, taking care not to spill water on the loaf. Close the door.

The second step is done to generate steam, which will ensure that your loaf will expand in the heat of the oven before the crust sets. You should be careful pouring the water, as the steam will generate immediately, possibly in your face.

After seven minutes, turn the oven down to 450. After five more minutes, rotate the loaf 180 degrees in the oven, to ensure even baking. The bread should be ready in 10 to 15 minutes, maybe longer: it should have a healthy brown color. You can play with these times and temperatures: the main idea is to (a) rotate the bread to account for asymmetry in heating and (b) lower the temperature to prevent scorching.

Resting

Let the bread rest for at least an hour before eating — if you cut into it too soon, it’ll be mushy, not to mention scalding hot.

Adding things to the bread

Chopped olives, leftover beer grist or other cooked grains, rosemary, cheeses. A little goes a long way. Add them towards the end of mixing. Consider that some adjuncts, like cooked grains, will affect the moisture content of your loaf. Others may affect how it performs at high temperatures — cheese, for example, is prone to scorching.

Substituting whole wheat and rye flour works, but I wouldn’t go beyond 30% and 15%, respectively — they contain a lower proportion of gluten-forming proteins, which can lead to slack, flatbread-y loaves.

Making pizza

When I make pizza, I use nearly the same bread recipe as above, with 80% water and a healthy glug or two of olive oil. (You should be fine using the 85%, oil-free dough, too.) Once risen, shape by pulling (not rolling with a pin, which forces out too much CO2). A bit of olive oil, a bit of sauce (see below). Then: a mostly fried egg and ricotta; a few slices of mozzarella and strips of basil; roast chicken and fontina; no sauce, pears, and tallegio; pesto and sauteed mushrooms; whatever it is.

Bake at 500 on sheet pans, until the bottom of the pie starts to brown and the center is crispy, not floppy. Really, bake as hot as you can get it, on a stone if you have one. Timing varies with heat/the weather/the Dow, etc.

Sauce

This is a pretty silly recipe: add herbs, balsamic vinegar, mince or omit the garlic.

  • 1 35oz can whole peeled tomatoes, ideally San Marzano
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 dried chilli (optional)

Remove the tomatoes from their juice, put in a saucepan and break up with your hands. Add two or three crushed and coarsely chopped cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, a teaspoon of salt, and, if you feel like it, a dried chilli. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is gone. Don’t completely dry it out, since it’ll reduce more in the oven.

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