Years ago, I think during his early college days, my older brother took up bread making. Every so often when he came home from school for the weekend, he’d stay up into the wee hours of the morning baking loaves of a simple honey wheat bread. I say simple, but the process always seemed pretty involved to me. He had to carefully measure all the ingredients, knead the stuff by hand and follow such detailed instructions. That, and it took so much waiting. As much as I loved the results of all that effort, I had no interest in taking up the craft. For years since then, any time we’re all back home, bread making has been like his great party trick. And it never disappoints.
At some point, this bread making got a little more serious, and my brother transitioned from being a casual bread maker to a real-deal, I-make-bread-every-week-for-my-family kind of baker. We’re talking sandwiches, toast, the works, all on his homemade bread. We chatted about the recipe and the process a bit over the phone (because we are totes cool like that), and after years of yeast-recipe aversion, he finally convinced me to give it a try.
Here’s the crazy thing: It’s not that hard! Okay, the first time felt a bit labor intensive, but I think a lot of bread making is just getting a feel for the process. By the second time, it felt much easier. The third time I hardly looked at the recipe. Now, I can mindlessly get this stuff going while making dinner or picking out bedtime stories.
Each batch makes two loaves, so it’s awesome if we can get two batches done over the weekend. The loaves freeze really well (I just wrap them in a layer of plastic wrap and then foil), so I’ll usually keep one out and stick the rest in the freezer to last us the week. And though I was super reluctant (like years’ worth of reluctant) to make this switch, we’re now going on four months since we last bought bread at the store. And honestly, it’s so much better than grocery store bread. It’s like bakery-on-the-corner bread, but it only costs about $1 a loaf.
If you’re an experienced break maker, I’m sure this one will be a breeze for you. If you’re not so experienced, give it a few tries before throwing in the towel. I’m living proof (ha! Proof! Oh, bread jokes) that impatient people can be bread makers if they just give it time.
Just an overall note: I think using a food scale makes a huge difference in keeping this process as easy and accurate as possible. You can certainly try with the cup-based measurements (and I do stick to regular teaspoon vs. weight measurements for the yeast, honey and salt), but your bread is much more likely to turn out well if you get the measurements exactly right. There are super fancy versions, but you can get a pretty decent food scale for not too much money. I promise it’s a good investment! Oh, and one more note on bread recipes: I recommend giving the recipe a full read-through a few times before starting. Sometimes you have to work quickly, and it’s helpful to know what you’re about to do before you have to do it.
And now, onto the bread making!
- For the sponge:
- • 11 ounces bread flour (I use King Arthur), or 2 cups
- • ¾ teaspoons dry active yeast
- • 2 ½ teaspoons honey
- • 22.4 ounces room temperature water, about 2⅔ liquid cups
- For the flour mixture:
- • 22 ounces bread flour, or 4 cups
- • 1 teaspoon dry active yeast
- • 3 teaspoons salt
- To make the sponge: Put 11 ounces bread flour, ¾ teaspoons yeast, 2 ½ teaspoons honey and 22.4 ounces of water in the bowl of a standing mixer. Whisk it all together for about 2 minutes, until the mixture is very smooth. You’re incorporating air into the mixture while you’re whisking, so keep going for the full 2 minutes. The mixture should end up looking like a thick batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside while you work on the flour mixture.
- To make the flour mixture: Whisk together the 22 ounces of bread flour and 1 teaspoon yeast in a medium bowl. Don’t add the salt yet, but it’s a good idea to set it out on the counter so you don’t forget to add it later (no salt = no bueno). Once the flour mixture is whisked up, gently scoop it on top of the sponge mixture. Cover the sponge completely with the flour mixture, as evenly as possible. Then cover it with plastic wrap, and set it aside to ferment for at least 4 hours. (Here’s a handy tip: You can let this proof overnight if you’d like. Just work up to this step the night before you intend to bake your bread, and leave the covered bowl to ferment until morning. Then you’ll be ready to start kneading when you wake up!)
- To mix the dough: With the dough hook in a standing mixer, mix the sponge/flour mixture on low speed (No. 2 on a KitchenAid) for about a minute, just until it all comes together and forms a rough dough. Cover the bowl again with plastic wrap, and let it rest for 20 minutes.
- Now it’s time to add the salt! Sprinkle the 3 teaspoons of salt over the top of the dough, and set the bowl back in the mixer with the dough hook. Knead the dough on medium speed (No. 4 on a KitchenAid) for about 7 minutes. The dough will be smooth, elastic and a bit sticky (if it’s too sticky, add a little more flour; if it’s not at all sticky, knead in a teensy bit of water, like ½ teaspoon at a time).
- To let it rise: Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled large bowl. Turn the dough around a few times so it’s lightly covered in the oil (I use canola), and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let it rest until the dough has doubled in size, about 1 to 1 ½ hours.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, pat it down just slightly into a rectangular shape, and fold it in thirds like a business letter. Tuck in the ends to round it out, and then return it the bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rest until the dough has doubled in size again, another 1 to 1 ½ hours.
- Now it’s time to put the dough in the loaf pans. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide it in half. A food scale is the best way to do this because you can get pretty exact. I typically end up with two loaves that are 790 to 800 grams each. Take one half of the dough, pat it lightly into a rectangle, and give it another business-letter fold. Tuck the ends, and place the dough into a lightly oiled loaf pan. Repeat with the other half. Cover the loaves with plastic wrap, and let them rest until they double in size, about 1 ½ hours.
- To bake the bread: Place a cast-iron skillet or rimmed baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven, and preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. You want your oven to be super duper hot, so I usually preheat it about an hour before I bake the bread so it’ll retain its heat.
- When your loaves have doubled, the oven is preheated and you’re ready to bake, take a sharp knife, and very lightly make a ¼-inch slash down the middle length of the top of each loaf. Be careful not to cut too deep, or your bread might lose too much air and deflate. Lightly spray the tops of your loaves with water, or you can wet your hands with water and lightly touch the tops of the loaves, just so they’re slightly moistened. Get four or five ice cubes from the freezer, and set them nearby.
- Here’s where you have to work quickly so the oven doesn’t lose too much heat. Place the loaf pans in the oven on the top rack (set in the middle position in the oven), and toss the ice cubes in the cast-iron skillet or baking sheet underneath, and shut the door immediately. Bake for 10 minutes at 475 degrees F. Then lower the temperature to 425 degrees F, and bake for another 18 to 22 minutes, until the bread is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. (The exact time will likely depend on your oven. Twenty minutes is perfect in my oven, and I actually think my brother does 17. So it might take a few tries to find what works best for you.)
- Remove the bread from the loaf pans immediately, and place the loaves on a wire rack. To make an extra great crust on the outside, stick the loaves (removed from their pans) back on the top rack of the oven (now turned off), and leave the door ajar. Let the rest there for about 10 minutes. Then place them back on the wire rack to cool completely. Once the bread is cooled (and you will want to let it cool before slicing in, or you’ll tear it to bits), slice it, eat it, and pat yourself on the back. Now, you’re a bread-maker. And that’s pretty awesome.