Artisanal Homemade Bread Made Simple
Confined to our homes during the Covid-19 quarantine, many of us have realized this is an ideal time to start baking our own bread. Fortunately, resources abound for how to make your own yeast, and even your own flour.
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
Photos by ERIC WOLFINGER
On November 8, 2006, Mark Bittman, the New York Times’ well-known food writer, published a story on what seemed to be a revolutionary breakthrough for home bakers — a no-fuss method for making bread that looked, and somewhat tasted, like those crusty, dark loaves you buy from top artisan bakeries. The article immediately gained popularity, spawning a new generation of avid home bakers.
Bread made with commercial yeast — the kind that sold in grocery stores in those thin packets — doesn’t develop the complexity of flavors that true artisan bread contains.
Bittman’s method, eventually called the “No-Knead Bread Recipe,” boiled down to four very simple steps: mix flour, yeast, salt, and water; cover and let it sit overnight; in the morning, dump it on the counter, fold it a couple of times, and shape to look like a loaf; after it rests a few hours, drop it in a heated, covered pot and bake. Voila: surprisingly tasty bread.
For the vast majority of home bakers at the time, this methodology, developed by Jim Lahey of the Sullivan St. Bakery in New York City, was plenty good enough. There were just a few missing steps, however.
First, any bread made with the commercial yeast that Bittman and Lahey recommended — the kind sold in grocery stores in those thin packets — doesn’t develop the complexity of flavors that true artisanal bread contains. The reason is that all commercial rising agents come from one family of yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This yeast is incredibly powerful (its fast and reliable fermentation was the reason it was plucked out and commercialized), but it’s like a one-note piano. To get the full keyboard, bakers need to use a natural, wild sourdough “starter,” which Lahey later turned to as well (more on this in a moment).
Making bread with store-bought flour is like brewing coffee from a month-old can of Yuban. Or worse. “Who would bring his wife roses that are four weeks old?” says a longtime manufacturer of flour mills small enough to be used at home.
Starters begin as a simple combination of flour and water; as the mixture matures, it spawns so many microorganisms that, according to one estimate, a single teaspoon contains 50 million yeasts and 5 billion bacteria. (It’s generally believed that these organisms, which belong to about a dozen different yeast and bacteria families, come from the grain itself, from the air and implements in the baking environment, and even from the bacteria on a baker’s hands.) When this starter is added to more flour and water and given time — ideally 12 hours or more — all those bugs gorge on the dough, pooping and farting, so to speak, as they go. This is essentially what happens in any process of fermentation. And the bugs’ leavings are what give bread — as well as wine, cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, or any other fermented food — its layers of sublime flavors.
Three other critical functions are accomplished by fermenting bread with a natural starter. First, it breaks down gluten and other elements in grain to make the end product digestible. (That’s why many people who believe they can’t tolerate gluten can eat sourdough bread — those with celiac disease being the exception.) Second, it builds a complex surface on the dough, which leads to a gorgeous, scrumptious, caramelized crust. And third, as natural fermentation develops, it laces dough with a variety of acids that preserve bread, keeping it from both molding and quickly going stale. None of this can be achieved in standard, commercially yeasted bread, largely because Saccharomyces cerevisiae bullies the dough into maturity in just a few short hours. No wonder bakers who use sourdough starters take noticeable pride in their labors, and often guard their starters jealously.
All of which raises an obvious, nervous question for many home bakers: If you don’t know someone who maintains a starter (or is generous enough to share some), what do you do? The answer, I’m here to tell you, is almost as easy as Lahey’s no-knead bread. It just takes a bit of time.
Sourdough starters grow very easily, and very happily, all on their own. All they need is a warm environment and regular feedings; within a week or so, you’ll have a lively, odoriferous, bubbling jar of goop ready and eager to launch a loaf of bread. (For specifics, and some intriguing anecdotes dredged from sourdough’s long history, please see our sidebar, “How to Start a Sourdough Starter”.)
In recent years, consumers have become much more discriminating about all kinds of gastronomic indulgences. Produce must be not only organic but also local; meat should be raised as nature intended, on grass in the fields instead of commercially processed grain; coffee must be made from fresh-ground beans; even beer, for the growing fans of IPA brews, should be drunk while the hops are fresh. Flour, however, has been a clear latecomer to this party.
For Wolfgang Mock, who has been manufacturing stone mills small enough for the home since 1978, making bread with store-bought flour is like brewing coffee from a month-old can of Yuban. Or worse. “Who would bring his wife roses that are four weeks old?”
When Mock first started making countertop mills (in a small factory he built, under the brand Mockmill, in a barn that adjoins a 120-year-old farmhouse he lives in just outside Frankfurt, Germany), he had a ready market. Like the U.S., Germany in the late 1970s was on the brink of a turn toward health foods, and grocery stores across Germany were primed for Mock’s mills. “In the mid-1980s, there were 1,500 organic stores across Germany. They sold grain that people could scoop themselves out of large sacks, and they would mill the grain into flour right there, directly for the customer. We sold a mill to every one of those stores.”
By the 1990s, corporate food producers had noticed the rising interest in health food, and they started marketing packaged whole wheat flour to Germany’s organic stores (again, like in the U.S.) Even though whole wheat flour oxidizes and loses potency if not used soon after milling, and slowly turns rancid in the following weeks, no one noticed; or cared. Mock says the organic markets understood that freshly ground flour was better than the packages now lining their shelves, they just couldn’t explain it to customers. (“It was too much time,” he says.) Demand for Mockmills soon dropped.
But Mock kept at it—over the years creating everything from stone-milling attachments that can work with a KitchenAid mixer (now selling for about $200) to robust countertop mills (for just under $300) that can run all day, turning out 200 grams of wheat flour every minute. And now, with so many people turning to homemade bread, Mock can barely keep his distributors in stock. (A tip: one of the most popular of those distributors, and a great source for all things bread, is Breadtopia.)
Fortunately, there are plenty of sources for good wheat berries these days. If you’re looking for some interesting heritage wheat, Kansas’ Heartland Mill offers heritage Turkey Red Wheat at such good prices that it’s worth the shipping costs. Heartland also sells other grains, as well as a variety of its own gorgeous flours.
Once you have a good starter and freshly milled flour, how do you turn the combination into real artisan bread? Fortunately, the internet abounds these days with recipes, video tutorials, articles with stern do’s and don’ts — virtually any information you want on bread, sourdough starters, baking gear, and home baking in general. There is so much, in fact, that it’s now difficult to know where to turn.
After writing about bread baking, and practicing it at home for 10 years, I think I can cull the plentitude down to a few of the simplest, or most dependable, suggestions.
Let’s start with the basic recipe for what’s become the godfather of mouth-watering artisan bread: Tartine’s Country Bread, which was developed by Chad Robertson, co-founder of San Francisco’s now legendary Tartine Bakery. Robertson first laid out his process in 2010, in an intimidating, 27-page recipe that ran through most of his first book, “Tartine Bread.” Despite its challenges, the recipe was picked up everywhere and soon became the foundational formula for artisan bakeries across the U.S.
In the years since the book’s publication, Robertson greatly simplified his instructions in various articles (and in a more accessible third book, “Tartine Book No. 3.”) One of the simplest digests can be found on The New York Times’ website, here. Before you dig into it, two words of warning: First, don’t be intimidated by the fact that ingredients are measured in grams rather than cups or tablespoons. If you’re going to make good bread, you have to measure your ingredients by weight. One of the most critical pieces of gear to buy, therefore, is a good food scale, which can be had for as little as $15 to $25.
If you spend an evening putting the dough through a series of folds, you can avoid the old practice of kneading, which loses rather than builds flavor.
Second, don’t be intimidated by the fact that Robertson’s process spans two days. Most of those hours occur when the dough rests — leaving you free to read, talk to people, binge-watch a trashy TV series, drink wine, or cook something else. As you experiment with the recipe, you’ll soon learn there are only a few tricky stages. Most of those difficulties are made much easier by the acquisition of a few basic tools — the first being an odd-looking scraper called a bench knife; others include a cast iron dutch oven, a “combo cooker,” or a good ceramic baking dish with a top.
The other big challenge is learning to handle a much wetter dough than most recipes call for. A high level of hydration is by no means a requirement, of course, but it will get you a lot closer to a creamy loaf with those big, airy, professional-looking holes. For tips on how to handle wet dough without it sticking to your hands, counter, bread baskets, and everything else, plenty of good videos are available on YouTube, such as this one from the San Francisco Baking Institute.
If you want to dig into bread-baking even more deeply, you can spend hours on the detailed recipes and written accounts of a former software engineer in New Mexico named Maurizio Leo, who got seduced by the wonders of Tartine bread and now pours his energies into baking. Maurizio’s doughy exploits are all richly chronicled on his website, The Perfect Loaf. As your technique improves, you might try shifting to a higher percentage of whole wheat, as explained in this recipe from The Perfect Loaf.
When I first started writing about bread (for a profile of Chad Robertson that San Francisco Magazine published in 2010, but unfortunately no longer keeps alive on the web), I couldn’t help wondering why Lahey — the guru of “no-knead bread” — didn’t suggest a few more steps, especially when they can make such a difference in your bread. So I called him.
First, I asked Lahey why he didn’t tell people to use a real, wild starter, instead of the fake, one-stroke engine of store-bought yeast. He told me he had nothing against sourdough starters, he just wanted to get people into the joys of homemade bread the quickest and easiest way possible. Then I asked him why not teach his thousands of fans how to properly develop their bread; that if they spent an evening putting the dough through a series of folds, they could still avoid the old practice of kneading (which loses rather than builds flavor). “Telling people to start manipulating their dough,” he said, “is an open invitation to molest and hump.”
In other words, to Lahey, bread that’s made as it used to be — without artificial, modern crutches — is a delicate creature, and one that can be easily violated, and ruined. It should be noted, however, that years later, Lahey hatched a no-knead recipe with sourdough. So now that we all have so much kitchen time on our hands, and so much knowledge at our fingertips, why not go on that long-neglected quest for the beautiful princess? Judging by my own successes and failures (which continue to take turns in my home oven), if your loaves don’t look like a professional’s, they’re still worth their trouble. Even when ugly, they will give you more flavor, digestibility, and pride than their impatient, commercially yeasted, no-knead cousins ever can. And I assure you, even your failures, in the words of an old friend who is a devoted home baker, “will make good toast.”
I hope you enjoy your new, or improved, culinary adventure. And don’t forget those sourdough-starter tips (and tales).
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