Where There Are No Good Bakeries (Or, “when the crusty bread is too pricey.”)

Where There Are No Good Bakeries (Or, “when the crusty bread is too pricey.”) July 11, 2013

As much as I believe that learning to cook and bake well can be more fun and more rewarding than you might have expected, I am a big fan of outsourcing some of those responsibilities. I love buying bread from good bakeries, the kind of bread that actually gets hard after a day or two.

But for one thing: that kind of bread is often pretty expensive.

And for another: good bakeries don’t exist everywhere. And there aren’t any here.

So I’ve been tweaking a recipe and technique for making a crusty bread (I usually shape them as baguettes) that’s really quite good. Granted, it takes time, but if you have more time than money and love crusty bread, this is the recipe for you.

And I’m going to share it.

5 ingredients: honey, salt, yeast, and flour
5 ingredients: honey, salt, yeast, flour, and water.

1. mix 1 and 1/2 cups of flour with 1 and 1/2 teaspoons instant dry yeast:

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.54.18 AM2. mix 2 teaspoons of honey with 1 and 1/2 cups lukewarm (115 degrees F) water and pour over flour/yeast:

you are making what is known as the 'sponge.'
you are making what is known as the ‘sponge.’

3. mix until it resembles a lumpy batter, cover with a cloth, and allow to sit until it is foamy and at least doubled in volume:

It should look like this.
It should look like this.

4. stir it down again, cover, and repeat twice–it should be just a half-hour or so between stirrings. THEN, add 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt, and another 1 and 1/2 cups flour, and stir until mixture forms a ball.

You can use your Kitchen-Aid or food processor equipped with the dough hook (or dough blade)–or even your bread machine–to do much of the kneading, if that is odious to you. I have none of these things here in Malawi, so I do it by hand. But my neighbors grind their flour by hand, so I’m not about to complain.

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.55.48 AM5. once you have a dough ball that coheres (you may need to sprinkle on a little flour here and there to keep it from sticking) cut it in two equal halves and knead each half separately by hand until the outside of the ball feels satiny smooth. This is best accomplished by flattening-folding-turning, then flattening-folding-turning again and again, rolling it back into a ball between each flattening-folding-turning.

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.56.11 AM6. Once both dough-balls are satiny smooth, place them in a bowl and cover with a cloth. Allow to double in size, then flatten-fold-turn-roll-into-balls again, cover, and allow to double once more.

Finally, you are ready to gently roll each ball into a long snake–as long as your baking pan can accommodate. Dip your hands in flour and dust your work surface if there’s sticking, but don’t go overboard with the flour–it can make the resulting bread too dense.

At this point, turn your oven to its hottest setting (about 500F is good) and place a baking stone or a regular ol’ baking sheet in there to preheat as well.

7. Flatten the snake of dough and fold it in half, roll it smooth again, and repeat several times:

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.56.33 AMScreen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.57.02 AM

8. roll out the snakes nice and smooth once more, and score them diagonally with a very sharp knife–about a 1/4 inch slash:

you can also use one of those old fashioned straight razor blades--they're the best for this.
you can also use one of those old fashioned straight razor blades–they’re the best for this.

9. cover loaves with a cloth and allow to rise perhaps 20 minutes–not much more.

Carefully remove your pre-heated pan or stone from the hot oven and very lightly grease with oil (grapeseed or corn is best for this purpose) and gently and carefully place the loaves on the pan. Wet your hands and run them over the loaves, coating each with a bit of water. THIS IS IMPORTANT as it’s what will help give them that super-crisp crusty bread crust!

Allow to bake for 20 minutes before rotating the pan. Continue to bake, and when they are starting to look quite golden (after about 10-15 minutes), use tongs or mitts to remove them from the pan and place them upside down on the oven rack. Using a pastry brush, brush the partially baked loaves all over with water once more–again, to maximize the crustiness.

10. loaves are done when they are nicely browned and when they sound very hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.58.01 AMAnd voilà. It’s best on the same day, and store it in a breadbox or paper bag to help preserve crustiness. You can also re-crisp it by placing it in a very hot preheated oven for 2 or 3 minutes.

You can use the same recipe (and much the same technique) to turn this into pizza dough, or even small crusty rolls. The keys are:

1. The “sponge”: half the flour, all the water/honey, all the yeast, risen up and stirred down at least twice. NO SALT YET! This develops the flavor.

2. The no oil nature of this recipe. Oil the pan ONLY. No oil in the dough.

3. The brushing of the water. It creates the steam that professional bakers use to achieve maximum crustiness.

4. The super-hot oven.

I don’t think this recipe is for you lucky duck New Yorkers and San Franciscans and other urban dwellers who can just pop around to the boulangerie to grab a perfect baguette or bâtard, but if you’re like me and can’t do that–or, like many of us–can’t afford a $4 loaf of bread, this yields a mighty satisfying substitute.

Also, if I may be permitted a little bookish rant: Michael Pollan makes baking good bread sound WAY TOO HARD in his new book, Cooked. And it’s not. It’s just. Not.

What are some things YOU’VE learned to make because you could afford to buy them–or because they weren’t available where you were?

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