Whether you consider carbs your nemesis or you love a nice, expensive loaf of bread, most of us consider baking our own bread an impossibility. Maybe you buy a $6 loaf from your favorite bakery every week, or always have a $4 baguette around, but you think those bakers are geniuses.
I was in the latter category for a long time. I’d buy fancy bread as well as those fat Kaiser rolls from the bakery. My mother, who was born in Queens, called them “bulkie rolls” for reasons I still don’t understand, but they were pleasantly bulky, and I’d pile turkey and avocado on them and be fine with their mediocrity.
But I live above a pizzeria here in Brooklyn, and my days shimmer with the scents of yeast and salt, dough and tomato sauce. Most days I fairly float upstairs on the aroma, like Pepé Le Pew. I don’t think I’ll tire of it any time soon. At last, I decided to up the ante, and began baking my own bread and making my own pizza dough from scratch.
It was a revelation. I’d thought of myself as an artist, a writer, a neurotic cook. I wasn’t a scientist: I didn’t have time for scales and Silpats and big bags of flour, nor did I want that powder of flour all over my kitchen.
Wrong on all fronts. Scales actually makes baking cleaner. The smell of bread baking is the best. And if you have a Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, you can make bread without kneading in 24 hours using about 5 minutes of hands-on time. Here’s why it’s worth it.
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It makes an amazing hostess gift
If you are a cheapskate or don’t drink wine, making your own gorgeous loaf for about $1.50 beats bringing a $17 bottle of wine. If you don’t want to look like you saved mad money, wrap it in a pretty kitchen towel, or add olives or good soft cheese to the package. People go bananas when you show up with bread, particularly if it’s still a bit warm.
It’s actually so easy and so hands-off
Once you buy a scale, which you should, making the stuff is as easy as adding salt, store-bought yeast, flour, and water to a big bowl. You stir it for 30 seconds, wrap it in plastic wrap, and take it out the next day to rise for two more hours. Pop it in a piping-hot oven for 45 minutes, and boom: fresh bread. There’s a lot of sitting around time, sure, but you can easily start it late at night and have bread for a late supper the next night.
You will use it all week long
As is true of pre-packaged sausages, homemade bread is the ultimate time saver. Cut off a knob and hand it to a child with a slice of cheddar to stave off hangriness. Slice it elegantly, drizzle with olive oil, and broil it for a gorgeous starchy side to serve at supper. Sear those sausages and pile them on bread with mustard and caramelized onions and mushrooms for the simplest German-inspired meal. Dunk it in egg and milk and turn it into the yummiest homemade French toast. Let that last knob of it dry out, then blitz it into homemade bread crumbs for roast chicken legs. Cut out holes and make toads-in-a-hole for brunch. Bread is the ultimate chameleon, and will make cameos wherever you let it.
Even in dessert
If you have eggs and milk and bread, you have the ingredients for bread pudding, the best oh-my-god-guests-are-coming-help-dessert no-recipe concoction of all time. I like to make a bourbon chocolate bread pudding with about half a loaf of no-knead, but I’ve also made a pumpkin-packed one that was quite a success.
It can take you from zero to supper
The most crucial positive about having homemade bread—which you want to store cut-side down on a cutting board or in a Dutch oven, covered—is that when you have it, as long as your cupboard is smartly stocked, you have supper. Think: tuna; grilled cheese; turkey sandwich; toast and soup. Right now, as I’m about to leave for a long weekend, I have a third a loaf of bread, a knob of Parm, butter, an onion, and a cup of pureed tomatoes in the fridge. It’s fine; I’ll make Marcella Hazan’s butter-tomato sauce, and serve pasta covered with Parmesan and with homemade toasts on the side. But I could just as easily make a light bread soup, because I have broth in the freezer.
Homemade bread opens the door to possibility, and—crucially—makes it so you can stay in your pajamas a little longer on weekend mornings.
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Adapted from Jim Lahey,My Bread (W.W. Norton & Company) and Leite’s Culinaria
400 grams (about 3 cups) all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for the work surface
1 gram (about ¼ tsp.) instant yeast
10 grams of salt (about 2½ tsp. salt)
375 ml (about 1½ cups) water
Note: I have successfully substituted 133 grams (1 cup) of this all-purpose flour for whole-wheat flour, but it tends not to yield such a fluffy loaf of bread. Also, don’t forget to check the date on your instant yeast, to be sure yours hasn’t expired. –AVB
- In a large bowl, stir together the flour, yeast, and salt. Add the water and mix with a wooden spoon or your hand until you have a shaggy, sticky dough. This should take roughly 30 seconds. You want it to be really sticky.
- Cover the dough and bowl with a plate, towel, or plastic wrap and set aside to rest at warm room temperature (but not in direct sunlight) for at least 12 hours and preferably about 18 hours, but no more than 23 hours. You’ll know the dough is properly fermented and ready because its surface will be dotted with bubbles and take on a darkened appearance.
- Generously flour your work surface. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to turn the dough onto the surface in one blob. The dough will cling to the bowl in long, thread-like strands and it will be quite loose and sticky. This is exactly what you want. Do not add more flour. Instead use lightly floured hands to gently and quickly lift the edges of the dough in toward the center, effectively folding the dough over onto itself. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round. Don’t knead the dough.
- Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) or Silpat with flour. Place the dough, seam side down, on the towel and dust the surface with a little more flour. Cover the dough with another cotton towel and let it rise for about 2 hours. When it’s ready, the dough will be more than double in size and will hold the impression of your fingertip when you poke it lightly, making an indentation. If the dough readily springs back when you poke it, let it rise for another 15 minutes.
- A half hour before the dough is done with its second rise, preheat the oven to 450°F (232°C). Adjust the oven rack to the lower third position and place a 6- to 8-quart heavy pot and its lid (whether cast iron or enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in the oven as it heats.
- When the dough is done with its second rise, carefully remove the pot from the oven and uncover it. Also uncover the dough. Lift up the dough and quickly but gently turn it over into the pot, seam side up, being very careful not to touch the pot. The blob of dough may look like a mess, but everything is O.K. Cover the pot with its lid and bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove the lid and bake until the loaf is browned to a deep chestnut color, 15 to 30 minutes more. Put the light on in the oven and watch it carefully after 15 minutes. Use your nose to make sure it’s not burning. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a wire rack. Don’t slice or tear into it until it has cooled, which usually takes at least an hour.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.