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Bomb-Ass Artisan Bread


There are plenty of things in life that you are forced to pay for, but good artisan bread is not one of them. The ingredients are inexpensive and it doesn't have to take a week to get your dough ready. I'm sharing a step-by-step recipe (with photos) for two hassle-free, non-leavened artisan loaves that come out of the oven just in time for dinner, are perfect for lunch sandwiches the next day, and can even survive to make ridiculously awesome french toast the morning after.
I won't lie, this bread takes a little time--but nothing like week-long starter based breads. If you plan to make this for dinner, you need only do a few simple things the night before.

Step one is to make a poolish. This is typically used in French and Italian baking and only requires flour, water, and a small amount of baker's yeast. Before you go to bed, put one cup of flour, 3/4 of a cup of water, and a pinch of dry yeast into a bowl. Mix it around a bit until it has a thick pancake batter consistency (left photo). Cover the bowl in plastic wrap and leave it to sit overnight. By morning, it will have doubled in size and have a wet sponge look (right photo). This is due to the fermentation of the yeast--it has released gases, which create bubbles. Poolish is good because it's what gives the bread its unique flavor, thanks to the long ferment. If you settle on a simple bread recipe that requires dumping an entire packet of baker's yeast into the mix, you'll end up with a bland bread that tastes worse than the stuff from the store. Don't bother with simple quick rise and bake recipes calling for a package of yeast.

Once your poolish has developed overnight, you are ready to make your dough. Here is everything you will need:

1. Some all purpose white or whole wheat flour. King Aurthur is the best.
2. Some bread flour. This is special because it has more gluten and proteins than other flours. This is what gives artisan bread its chewy texture.
3. Your poolish.
4. Measuring cups, a good wooden spoon, and a large mixing bowl.
5. A few cups of water.
6. A wooden board or clean counter top.
7. Fine sea salt

The first thing to do is place your poolish in the mixing bowl (left photo). It's very tacky, so you'll have to scrape a bit with the spoon to get it all out. Next, you pour your water: 3/4 of a cup if making a regular artisan loaf, 1 and 1/3 of a cup if making a ciabatta loaf. Stir until you have something that resembles very thin pancake batter (right photo).

Next you add your flour. The flour all depends on what bread you want to make. Use the following guidelines:
Wheat Bread: 2 cups of bread flour and 1 cup of whole wheat flour
White Bread: 2 cups of bread flour and 1 cup of all purpose white flour
Ciabatta: 3 cups of bread flour
Next, mix everything with a spoon. It will soon get to a point where it looks like a shredded dough mess and the spoon can do no more (right photo). This is when it's time to cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes. Note: a ciabatta mixture will not look like the regular loaf mixture, it will be much wetter; just cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for a half an hour. This resting period is known as the "autolyse" stage.

After your dough mixture has rested, it's time to knead it. There are two methods depending on whether you are making a regular loaf or a ciabatta loaf:
Regular bread loaf: lightly flour your board or counter top and place the mixture on it (left photo). Add 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons of fine sea salt (use 2 if you like your bread more salty). Start by pushing all the shredded dough pieces together until you get one solid piece. Flatten it down with your hands and then fold it in half (either from the top or bottom). Turn it sideways and repeat. If your dough seems hard, which is common when using wheat flour, make some dimples in the dough with your fingertips (middle photo) and sprinkle some water into the dimples. Continue to knead for 15-20 minutes, until you get a smooth, elastic ball. Place the dough ball in your mixing bowl and cover it with plastic wrap (right photo). Let it rest for 3 hours. This is the "fermenting" stage.
Ciabatta loaf: lightly flour your board/counter top and place the mixture on it. Add 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons of fine sea salt. This is a very wet mixture compared to a regular loaf and it does not require heavy kneading. If you happen to have a bread knife (basically a square, metal spatula without the long handle) or a plastic spatula, use that to simply turn the mixture over and fold it into itself a few times. Do not overwork it. Ciabatta has a special crumb that is yummy because of the big holes--if you mess with the mixture for too long, you'll lose that quality. Just make sure it ends up as one big sticky glob and place it back in the mixing bowl. Cover it with wrap and let it sit to ferment for 3 hours.

Here is what the dough looks like after the fermentation stage (left photo). The dough in the white bowl is ciabatta and the dough in the green bowl is the regular wheat artisan loaf--notice how big and puffy they both look. This is because of the fermentation that took place. Here's what to do next:
Regular artisan loaf: carefully place the dough on a clean surface. Gently fold it over and push down on it to get some of the air out. Pick it up with both hands and start to shape it into a ball. Do this by stretching the sides and tucking the bottom up into the ball; turn it sideways and do the same thing. Repeat the process until you have a nice smooth ball with no tears in the top surface. Place it in upside down in a clean bowl lined with a linen or tea towel that has been floured, and cover it with a clean tea towel. Let it rise for about an hour and a half.
Ciabatta: place the dough on a piece of parchment paper. Make it into an oblong shape. Use the tips of to your fingers to make dimples all over the dough's surface. Leave it to rest for an hour and a half (right photo).

If you're making ciabatta, the next thing to do is bake it. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. If you have a pizza stone, place it in the oven (second to top rack) during the preheating; if you don't have a pizza stone, place a cookie sheet in the oven instead. Once the oven is ready, take the bread WITH the parchment paper and place it onto the stone/cookie sheet. Let it bake for 10 minutes. Flip the loaf over and peel the parchment paper off. Turn the loaf right side up again and lightly brush it with olive oil. Bake until golden brown (left photo), or until it has reached an internal temperature of 200 degrees F (which takes about 15-20 minutes more). Put the finished ciabatta on a cooling rack and let it cool for at least 30 minutes. When you eat the bread, remember don't cut it! Tear it instead; this creates a maximum surface area for your taste buds to come into contact with, meaning more flavor. When you rip into it, you should see plenty of nice big holes in the crumb (right photo). Only cut the bread with a knife if you intend to slice it up for sandwiches.

If you're making the regular artisan loaf, you are ready to bake once your dough has rested for an hour and a half under the kitchen towel. It should look something like this when you are ready to bake (left photo). Preheat your oven and pizza stone/cookie sheet (this time on the middle rack) to 425 F. At this time, you also need to put a rimmed cookie sheet at the very bottom of your oven; this will aid in creating steam, which we will get to a bit later. If you are fortunate enough to have a wooden pizza peel, this is perfect for prepping the bread for the oven; but if you do not have a peel you can use a cookie sheet that has been turned upside down. Spread a light coating of semolina on the wooden peel or upside down cookie sheet. If you do not have any semolina, use corn meal. If you don't have any corn meal, use flour. Carefully turn your dough ball over onto the semolina coated surface (right photo). Now you are ready to score the dough.

Scoring dough can be tricky, but it's a necessary step, as it allows the bread to properly expand while baking. The best thing to use is thin, curved fish-boning knife. If you don't have one, a clean box-cutter or razor blade will work--just be careful! Hold your blade/knife at an angle and drag it across the dough's surface (left photo). You're not really cutting in to the dough, you are slicing across it. Make two horizontal slashes and then two vertical slashes. It should now look like a tic-tack-toe board (right photo).

Once your oven is ready and the scoring is finished, it's time to bake. Remember that rimmed cookie sheet you placed at the bottom of your oven? Now you're going to carefully pour some water into it (left photo). This creates a large amount of steam that will make the dough "spring" (it will pop up and look nice and fat). The trick is quickly pouring in enough water to create steam and then quickly getting the dough onto the stone/baking sheet and closing the door before you lose all the steam (right photo). If you have a mate around, ask him/her to pour the water while you get ready to slide the dough in. The semolina on the peel/upside down cookie sheet is what helps the dough slide into the oven quickly and neatly. Bake for 40 minutes, until it achieves a dark, rustic look and has an internal temperature of 200 degrees F.

This is the finished product. Allow it to cool on a wire rack for at least an hour before eating. Again, if you just want to eat it with dinner, tear is instead of using a knife. But cutting will probably be necessary if making sandwiches or french toast. Remember, if you decide to make a wheat loaf, it's going to have a density that white loaves don't have. If you prefer soft bread, make a ciabatta or regular white loaf.

If you're thinking, "Jesus, this is just way too much work...", take a moment to consider all the benefits. Homemade bread is cheaper than store bought and it tastes much better. You also get the satisfaction that comes with being connected to the food that you put into your body. It's not the most convenient process and you wouldn't want to do it everyday, but it's certainly simple enough to do over the weekend or a on day-off. Most of the time spent making it involves letting the poolish and dough sit around, so it doesn't mean your entire day is wasted.

Baking bread is something I've enjoyed since I started in 2007. My dad and I make bread together on a regular basis, and everything I know about bread I learned from him. We do this, as well as many other forms of food creation, because it brings happiness to our lives. I urge people to not be intimidated and jump right into making  poolish-based breads. Enjoy the recipe, and enjoy the experience.
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