I got into baking bread a couple years ago as a way to deal with a dark, stressful time in my life, not in anticipation of total social collapse. And yet, these days I’m finding that it’s a skill I’m glad I learned. Even if the store runs out of bread or I’m scared to go, I can still feed my family–and make the house smell great at the same time. Plus maybe it’s just me, but I find that at a time like this, baking bread is really comforting, and not just because of the kneading and the smells. There’s something so amazing about participating in this tradition that has sustained mankind for a bajillion years. So hey, if like me you’re stuck at home with your family, your toilet paper rations, and a vague feeling of impending doom, why not learn to bake bread? It’s really not that hard, despite what you might have heard, and you can make it with only four simple, cheap ingredients: flour, tap water, salt, and yeast.
Yeah, I know–yeast. I’ve heard from more than a few friends that they find any recipe involving yeast super intimidating. And I remember feeling this way myself at one point, but I’m here to ease your fears: I’ve found none of the stereotypes about yeast to be true. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t react badly with a metal bowl or spoon, like recipes often tell you. Using it doesn’t require any special skills or arcane knowledge. Sure, it’s alive, which I guess does kind of make it inherently mysterious and cool, but really it’s just a leavening agent, meaning it makes your breadstuffs poofy instead of flat. If you’ve ever baked anything with baking soda, baking powder, or even eggs in it, then you’ve already used a leavening agent. I think what makes yeast intimidating for some people is that you have to wait a little while for it to do its job. But right now, if you’re like me, you’ve got plenty of time to wait. And judging by the looks of the baking isle at the grocery store, some of you have been seriously hoarding some flour! So if you need ideas for what to do with it, here: let me introduce you to the simplest bread recipe I know.
Full disclosure: this is NOT a recipe I am claiming to have created–it’s the famous No-Knead Bread recipe from the New York Times that everyone was freaking out about a few years ago. I did make a few tweaks to it, and those are included below. I should also add that I’ve experimented with adding stuff like minced garlic, chopped up sun-dried tomatoes (because I like the 90’s, I guess), or rosemary to the dough, and that’s always worked great. Lately I’ve been thinking a lavender and lemon zest loaf might be fun, but I’m not about to make a special trip to the store to get lemons right now, and my lavender isn’t blooming yet, so that will have to wait. Anyway, the recipe.
3 cups white flour*
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 5/8 cups slightly warmer than lukewarm tap water**
*I just use Gold Medal bleached white flour, nothing fancy. I don’t use bread flour. You can of course try whatever you want. I recommend using just plain white flour the first time, just to get the hang of the recipe, and then if you want to experiment with different kinds of flour, go for it. I have tried half/all whole wheat flour, with good, if dryer/denser results.
**I don’t even have a 1/8 cup measuring cup, and I broke my pyrex years ago and never bothered to get a new one because sometimes I’m aggressively lazy about certain really specific things, so measuring this out is a chore for me. After going to painstaking lengths to measure it a few times, I discovered that if I fill up one of my tall drinking glasses almost all of the way to the top, it’s about 1 5/8 cups. So now I just do that instead of measuring it. The bread comes out beautifully even when I’m not exact about this measurement. I do realize this runs contrary to all baking advice.
Large mixing bowl
- The night before you want to bake the bread, put the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl (glass or metal, doesn’t matter) and mix it up. Active dry yeast has to be dissolved in water before you use it or it won’t work, so put the water in a glass or small bowl and then sprinkle the yeast on top. Wait a minute, then stir to dissolve. Pour the yeasty water into the flour and salt and mix it up with a spoon. The dough will be wet, shaggy, and sticky. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature (the exact temperature doesn’t seem to matter with this recipe, so if you like a cold house like I do, don’t worry about it) overnight, 12-18 hours.
- The next day, after the dough has rested, get a piece of parchment paper, flour it heavily, and dump the dough out onto it. (The dough will be runny and gooey and hard to handle–don’t worry, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.) Don’t throw away that plastic wrap you just took off the bowl yet! Sprinkle a little bit of flour on the top of the dough, flour your hands, and turn the dough over on itself a couple times. Sprinkle a little more flour on the dough, cover it loosely with plastic wrap, and let it rest for 15 minutes.
- Flour your hands and pick up the dough. Working quickly, roll the edges under to produce sort of a round loaf shape on the top. It doesn’t matter if it’s pretty on the bottom. If you find this step difficult because of the consistency of the dough, make sure the outside of the dough has a light dusting of flour on it. It makes it easier to handle. Then put the loaf back down on the parchment and cover with a dish towel. Let it rise for 2 about hours.
- 1/2 hour to an hour before you’re going to bake the bread, put the dutch oven in the oven and preheat to 450 degrees. Then when it’s time to bake, take the dutch oven out of the oven and put it on the counter. Pick up the dough by the four corners of the parchment and lower it gently into the dutch oven. Put the lid on, and bake for 30 minutes. Then take the lid off and bake for an additional 10-20 minutes. Remove the bread from the dutch oven by grasping the sides of the parchment, and cool on a wire rack. Go outside real quick, and then come back into your house and notice how amazing it smells. Marvel at the magic of that weird goop you made yesterday having slowly transformed into this beautiful, fragrant loaf. Wait at least an hour before cutting. The bread will keep wrapped in plastic (like Laura Palmer) for about a week on the counter.