Saturday, June 2, 2012

"No Recipe" Bread

 Bread baking has become a very serious business.  Recently, in Saveur magazine, beautiful artisanal breads were featured on the cover and detailed instructions were written so that we may duplicate these wonders at home.  They all look terrific, and I'm sure it would be fun to spend two days (yes, most of the recipes take two full days) learning and following these methods that should result in just about the best bread you've ever tasted-- it better be for two day's efforts!  Also, if you live near any of the terrific bakeries reviewed in the article, buying and sampling the different breads would also be a lovely experience! 
So, okay, but who really can spend two days making a loaf of bread even if they wanted to?  But, if you've ever made your own bread, you know the fabulous, yeasty aroma that fills your house like nothing else and the feeling of happy satisfaction when you pull your browned beauties from the oven.  That's not even mentioning the rave reviews from your family!  Being thankful for "our daily bread" isn't just a saying!  I know, bread has fallen out of favor in the diets of a lot of people, but as with everything, it's about moderation and balance.  Throwing in some whole grain flours doesn't hurt too in terms of taste and nutrition points!
Here's something different that I've found after many years of experimenting with home bread making.  If you want to turn out really tasty bread that's great for everyday use like toast and sandwiches, the most practical thing to do is make it without a recipe.  That allows you to use what you have (as long as you have yeast, salt, flour and water-- you're in business!), it makes the process go really quick, you don't mess up the kitchen hardly at all, and the actual prep time is very short.  I've used this "no recipe" method many times and it's always resulted in loaves better than I've made with recipes.  I think it's mostly because flour is very different from day to day depending on the humidity.  This "lazy" method is heresy to true bakers, and I've left out a lot of steps that are usually part of bread making, so apologies to them!  But once I heard Julia Child say that it was better to use a frozen pie crust to make a quiche than to not try to make one at all, and I guess this bread method is kind of the same philosophy.  You'll make your own bread a lot more often if it's easy, quick, and still tastes good! 
You need a stand mixer, but if you have a food processor, you can probably use that.  If you don't have either, you can do the whole process by hand, but it would take longer, so I'm not sure you'd gain too much time-wise.  You would still get the yummy reward, however!
This "method" seems like a lot to read, but the actual "doing" doesn't take long at all.  Julia Child also said to go play tennis while you're waiting for bread dough to rise! 
"No Recipe" Bread
Here's what you need:
Equipment-- Stand mixer, rubber spatula or scraper, parchment paper, cookie sheet, baking stone or loaf pans (depending on what shape you make the bread), tea towel
Flour-- White, whole wheat, whatever flour you like, but I always use at least a little white flour to make the dough more pliable and the bread less coarse.  Some flours, like rice flour, don't contain gluten, so they won't work all by themselves unless you use a gluten free bread recipe.
Yeast-- I like to use Fleischmann's Rapid Rise, but any packaged yeast is fine.
Liquid-- Water, milk, buttermilk, etc.; this is where I usually just use whatever I have, but keep in mind that fat is what makes bread soft, rich, and moist.  If you want a drier, peasant-style bread to serve with soups, stews, or pasta, use water. 
Salt-- Kosher or sea salt, necessary in all breads
Sweetener-- sugar, molasses, honey, I've tried all of these and they are all good.  You have to use something though because that's the "food" for the yeast to get going.
Options-- eggs, melted butter, chopped nuts, herbs.  Eggs and melted butter increase the richness of the dough.  They are good additions for homey dinner rolls or for sweet breads.  Chopped nuts are good in savory or sweet breads.  One of my favorite combinations is whole wheat and white flour, walnuts, and molasses.  Herbs are wonderful additions to all types of bread and can be added to sweet or savory ones also.  Add nuts and herbs at the last part of mixing the dough.
Get started!  Here's how I made the bread in the photo, but the fun is in the experimenting.  Unless your bread just plain doesn't rise, there are hardly any complete failures with bread.  Some experiments will taste better than others, but they are almost always edible!  If your bread doesn't rise (usually because the yeast is too old or the liquid was too hot) and you've made a "door stop" (which I have done a few times!), well, bread ingredients are not expensive for the most part, and you'll have more experience! :)
Put the paddle attachment on the stand mixer.  Add one package yeast and about 1/2 cup warm water (Don't bother with a thermometer, sprinkle a drop on the inside of your wrist.  If it feels neither hot nor cold, it's good!  Error on the side of too cold rather than too hot if you're unsure.)  Add some of your chosen sweetener (at least a tablespoon).  I used honey in this bread. Mix well and then go away for 15 minutes. 
When you come back, the surface of the mixture should have lots of bubbles.  If it doesn't, something's wrong (yeast is too old or water was too hot) and you should either start over or find something else to do today). 
Microwave about 1.5 cups of the liquid you are using (I used whole milk this time) until it's just "not cold".  Use the same wrist test mentioned previously.  Pour into the mixing bowl and mix well. 
Now add about a cup of flour and turn the mixer to low.  Keep adding flour until you have a thick batter.  Keep mixing until it looks smooth.  Add at least 1 teaspoon of salt, but sometimes I add up to two teaspoons.  Add more flour (if you're using two kinds, add the other type now) and keep beating until the dough is sticky and looks stretchy.  Switch to the dough hook attachment.  Add whichever flour you want and keep mixing until the dough is smooth looking and comes away cleanly from the sides of the bowl.  Stop every now and then to scrape the sides of the bowl to make sure everything is mixing well.  Be careful to not add too much flour.  Error on the side of too sticky rather than too stiff.  Allow the dough hook to knead the dough for about a minute at this point.  Lift up the dough hook and scrape the dough back into the bowl.  Remove the bowl and cover it with some plastic wrap or waxed paper, then drape a tea towel over it.  Put the dough somewhere warm-ish.  In some weather, if the car is parked in the sun, it's just the right place for the dough to rise!  Otherwise, a room that's at least around 75F is good.  
Go do something for about 1.5 hours. 
When you come back, your bread dough will have risen at least double and it will be very exciting!  Put a little flour on the tea towel that was covering the bowl.  Then put a little sprinkling of flour in the middle of the dough and punch it down right through the middle.  Pull out the dough onto the tea towel and push it around and fold it over a few times, kneading it. 
Now you can shape your loaves however you want.  You can make two balls of dough for round loaves (that's what I did in the photo), or put it into 2 greased loaf pans, make little balls for rolls (put them in a greased 13x9 pan about an inch apart), or whatever.  If you make "free form" loaves, put them on a parchment lined cookie sheet or baking stone.  Cover with the tea towel and place in the warm room again for 30-45 minutes or until the dough is risen to about double.
Preheat the oven to 350F.  You can brush the bread with olive oil or melted butter if you want, but it's not necessary.  Make gashes in the dough with a super sharp knife (slide it lightly across the loaf) if you like that look.  I'm sure it's done for a real reason, but I'm not sure what that is.  Maybe to allow the dough to rise up in the oven more?  Bake for around 30-40 minutes-- it depends what shape you made.  The bread is done when it is nicely brown and smells wonderful.  Also, if you tap it, it sounds hollow.  Cool on a rack.  Try to wait until it's cooled a little before slicing it!  Yay!

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1 comment:

  1. I just read this and it sounds so fun! My homemade bread has never been as light as I'd like it to be. I'm going to try this method! Sounds kind of astsy-craftsy to me, which has great appeal!