Bread is beautiful. It is so simple, yet incredibly complex. Four ingredients can come together in a thousand different ways. Making bread is every bit science as it is art.
For me, bread started it all. So it is only fitting that it is also the start of this blog.
If you would have asked me ten years ago how to bake bread I would have little knowledge to offer. I was a college student with a small budget, limited time, and a definitive lack of culinary prowess. I shopped the clearance shelves at the grocery store and concocted weird recipes to satiate my basic nutritional needs. This included day-old bread from the bakery. Less than 24 hours out of the oven a gorgeous crusty baguette or a soft seeded loaf would be cast aside and slapped with a discount sticker (the dunce hat of the bakery world).
I considered myself a rescuer of all things gluten and found ways to turn even the gnarliest looking loaf into something delicious (French Toast, bread pudding, breakfast casserole, croutons…you get the idea). Heck, I considered it a challenge. And I LOVE a good challenge.
I met my (future) husband, Dan, in 2008. There’s a long story about an epic snowstorm, a Mustang, and the Super Bowl, but I’ll spare you those details. Eventually we moved in together when we were both graduate students. Grad school meant working long hours for very little money – supposedly for the love of science (at least that’s what we told ourselves). It didn’t take him long to discover my love of a good deal and a good challenge. So he dared me to make bread.
As in, that stuff that makes the grocery store smell so good. The magical loaves that I could only assume were formed by the hands of baking elves and other wizardy.
He wants me to become a wizard.
“Ok, Carolyn, you can do this.” I told myself with clueless optimism. It was time for research.
I started where I always do: Google. What did people do before the Goog? “Go the library, duh” says my librarian mother (“Touche, mom”). Quickly I was down the rabbit hole reading about yeast strains, baker’s math, and sourdough starters dating to the mid-1500s. I was in over my head.
But then I came across an article by Ken Forkish. I had no idea who he was at the time and it would be several years before he would publish my favorite book on breadmaking. His writing spoke to me. He explained everything simply, elegantly, and enthusiastically. He explained that bread is only as intimidating as you make it. Humans have been doing this for hundreds of years – you can too. Cheers, Ken.
From Frisbees to Boules
My first attempt at bread was one for the record books. Dan and I still joke about that hard, flat disc. It went into the oven with such potential and love behind it, only to come out as a laughable, flavorless Frisbee.
In hindsight, I did everything right and, at the same time, I did everything wrong.
I am a scientist at my core. I measured everything…twice. I read the directions…thrice. I double-checked my work, appropriately distinguished between volume and weight, adjusted bake time to account for our oven’s uneven heating, and computed Vegas odds of success vs failure.
So how could I have possibly screwed this up?
Well, I wrongly assumed that baking bread was simply science.
Silly psychologist, bread is also an artform.
I failed to acknowledge the presence of the Bread Gods. The ones who whisper in your ear when the dough is perfectly kneaded, the ones who guide your hands to form a flawless round, the ones who watch over your bread in the oven when you walk away to practice tricks with your dog. I did not yet appreciate the zen of bread.
Over months I made loaves that were variations of terrible: flat, “ballooning,” overbaked, underbaked, overworked, full of holes, you name it.
Forgot the salt? Yep. Killed the yeast? Of course. Burned the crust? Let’s just say more than once.
There were a lot of bad batches (translation: a lot of homemade croutons!)
But I got there.
And it was a damn good challenge.
During this venture I learned a lot of things about baking, but also about myself. Regarding the latter, I’m annoyingly perfectionistic. I hate screwing up but I can adapt quickly and problem-solve in a heartbeat. I’m not patient (surprise!). Baking relaxes me. Oh and I really, really, really, love sourdough (the tangier, puckerier, sourer…yep, I’m making up words…the better).
I now make bread several times per month with old and new recipes. I’ve developed friendships of recipe exchanges with fellow breadbakers. I even attended a three-day conference about breadbaking (more on that later – it was incredible!). I love the versatility of four ingredients – the science and the art coming together – and the end result of a crusty, golden boule. It’s truly a love story without the bizarre photos of Fabio. Plus nothing beats the smell of fresh bread in the oven! Mmmmmm…
Learning to make bread teaches patience, vigilance, and humility. It’s a lesson in failure, resilience, and self-examination. I challenge you to try it. Like me, you may fail the first time. When/if you do, dust yourself off (literally and figuratively) and do it again.
You’ll love the smell of victory from the oven.
Simple French Boule
I can’t promise that this recipe is fool-proof, but I can assure you it’s the easiest place to start. Boule is French for ‘ball’ and reflects the shape of the dough as a round loaf. Recipe yields 2 small rounds.
- 3 cups lukewarm water (100 degrees F)
- 1.5 Tablespoons active dry yeast (not rapid rise)
- 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (you may need a bit more/less depending on wetness of dough)
- 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
- Whisk together water and yeast. Let sit on counter for 15-20 minutes until bubbly.
- In another bowl, whisk 3.5 cups of flour with salt. Add water gradually and combine with a robust mixing spoon until dough is thick and difficult to stir.
- Turn out onto a floured board. Knead for about five minutes, adding a bit of flour as you go (up to 4 cups total). Don’t know how to knead? No fear – go here. To avoid Frisbee bread, knead the dough until it can stand on its own without morphing into a flat blob on the counter (these are technical terms, by the way). It should spring back slowly when you press gently with your finger.
- Place into a greased bowl, cover loosely with plastic wrap or light towel, and let rise in a warm place until doubled (about 30-45 minutes).
- Shape into a boule. It’s simpler than it sounds. There is an excellent video tutorial here. Cover lightly with plastic wrap or light towel while the oven heats up.
- Preheat oven to 450° F. If you want to get fancy, use a really sharp knife and cut a few lines in the bread about 1/2 inch deep.
- Bake for 40-50 minutes and crust is golden brown. If crust starts getting too brown before time, tent with tin foil. Allow to cool completely before cutting into the bread. For nerds out there, the internal temperature of the bread should be at least 180° F.
- Fun tip: If you want that bakery-style crispy crust with chewy crumb, place a 9×13″ pan in the oven when you preheat the oven (I usually put it on the rack below the bread). Right after you put the dough in, throw a cup of water into the pan and quickly close the oven door. The steam will help create that delicious, crackly crust!