In this unique time spent mostly at home, lucky ones among us have had the chance to dust off our cookbooks and bake our own challah and desserts. With many of us ordering our basics online, why not experiment with some gourmet sourdough-style breads? Apologies to those who may remember a version of this article I wrote in 2017, which was basically the last time I made artisan breads. If you have a friend with sourdough starter, great, you can use that as a starter, but here’s a way to make great-tasting “daily bread” on your own.
There’s a bread concept of a master boule; it’s not really part of the American cooking lexicon. I hadn’t heard about it either, until it completely blew my mind and changed the course of my life about 15 years ago. I might be overstating and/or overselling this recipe quite a bit, but it is generally a really fun way to make and have fresh bread on a regular basis, and, especially if you keep at it over a period of time, it creates a sourdough starter that really tastes great. After you understand and have been working with the recipe for days or weeks, it takes five or so minutes a day, but at the beginning it takes quite a bit longer to work out all the kinks and make sure you have all the materials. It might be a good idea to consider this a “long-term craft project” rather than a regular bread recipe.
Back in 2007, when I had a bunch of time (before I had kids), I read a book published by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois called “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking” (https://www.amazon.com/Artisan-Bread-Five-Minutes-Revolutionizes/dp/0312362919).
This recipe borrows their basic master boule recipe. To start your initial bread project, you need to make an investment that takes more than five minutes, including in acquiring ingredients and equipment, but I had fun with it. Mainly, find a good plastic container that can hold at least six to eight cups of flour, with room for it to rise and turn into dough, that can fit in the refrigerator. It’s also great if you have a pizza or bread-baking stone.
I got the Oneida pizza stone, which was selling in 2007 at Bed, Bath and Beyond for $19.99.
The other things one needs are generally widely available: flour, water and a broiler pan to create steam during baking. You also need some yeast, cornmeal and if possible, ideally a pizza peel (the wooden item seen often in pizza stores, to place pizza and take it out of ovens).
The very basic master boule recipe is as follows: 3 cups of warm water, 1½ packets of yeast, 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 6½ cups of flour. Dissolve the yeast and salt in the water, then add the flour, mix and let sit for 3-6 hours, then either bake immediately or store in the fridge overnight. The goal is not to wash the container and to immediately place the same amounts of flour, water, salt and yeast in the container again right after you have made the first bread, and place the mixture back in the fridge to rise again overnight. That’s right, one is supposed to do this every time you make the bread. At some point, if your starter really turns into sourdough, that is, it turns too liquidy and smells very yeasty, you’ve created a starter and can discard half of it and stop adding yeast to your mixture. I am not sure when it gets to that point, but keeping some out on the counter overnight might get your starter there faster.
The first time one makes the dough is usually the most tasteless or plain, as the idea is that adding to this dough each day is creating a 21st-century, refrigerated version of sourdough. For the first batch (call this your day one batch), the baker is encouraged to add herbs, spices, sugar or salt (pick one, either sugar or salt!) to a bowl after taking out the dough, to make either a sweet fall-flavors bread, like with cinnamon, pumpkin pie spices (nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon) and some sugar, or a savory bread, like with rosemary and sea salt.
The baking instructions are as follows:
1. Place the breadstone in the oven and preheat to 450°F.
2. Place a broiler pan in there too, so it will be ready to take the water to create steam.
3. Shape a grapefruit-sized ball of dough out of the refrigerated mixture (after adding any flavorings), and place it, with cornmeal underneath, on a cutting board or plate to come to room temperature. This takes about 40 minutes. Not five minutes, 40 minutes.
4. Place the dough on the breadstone in the oven. If you have a pizza peel use that.
5. Add a cup or two of hot water to the broiler pan and try to very quickly close the oven door to trap the steam.
6. Lower heat to 425°F and bake for 30-40 minutes.
7. If you take it out of the oven and it doesn’t make a hollow knocking noise when you rap it with your knuckles, reduce the temperature to 300°F and leave it in the oven an additional 10 minutes.
Repeat this recipe daily, or whenever you wish, with the dough you have in the fridge, creating as many flavors and varieties as you like. The dough can also be used for focaccia breads, challah and other types of breads just by adding flavorings and shaping the bread differently. Bon Appetit!
By Elizabeth Kratz