Monday, March 31, 2008

Rustic Country Bread

I mentioned in previous posts that I recently attended a class taught by the experts at King Arthur Flour on the craft of baking artisan breads. What is an artisan bread? This is a question people often ask me when I tell them about the class, so allow me to field this question.

  1. An artisan bread possesses a very crisp, thick, and hearty crust that is achieved through high heat (500 degrees) and steam.
  2. Artisan breads aren't baked in a pan - generally they're shaped in a variety of shapes like a boule, batard, torpedo, or epi.
  3. Artisan breads achieve their flavors through a series of 3-4 slow rises, so baking artisan bread is very time consuming.
  4. Through a series of slow rises and a high water content, artisan breads produce a crumb that is airy, very porous, and full of lovely holes.
  5. A lot of soul and love goes into a loaf of artisan bread.
I fell in love with artisan breads the first time I visited Wheatfield's Bakery in Lawrence. The crunch of the crust and the chewy, tender crumb of their bread shifted the way I viewed bread. It was an ephipany. Prior to Wheatfield's bread was a supporting character in a dinner production. After Wheatfield's I saw that bread could stand alone in the spotlight. Bread could be the meal.

I set out to learn to bake such bread, and while I've made great progess, I'm still learning.

I first learned to bake a ciabatta, and it took me almost two years to somewhat master it. Now I feel more comfortable as I approach other breads. However, I'm still learning, and I don't always nail a bread on my first attempt. For example, it took me two attempts to feel good about the bread below.

Breads like this aren't for the convenience food or drive-thru window crowd. This bread takes time, energy, and patience. However, the energy put into this bread is well worth it. This bread will make grown men swoon.

Now no one ever told me the secret to artisan bread baking, but ol' muddywaters is going to share that secret with you. Are you ready? Here's the secret to a good artisan bread.

  • Artisan breads should have a high water content. The dough will be wet and difficult to work with at first. Fight the urge to add too much flour. Also, handle your dough with care. Be patient and don't over handle to dough.

If you do these two things, you'll be well on your way to becoming an artisan bread baker.

Rustic Country Bread
A King Arthur Flour Recipe


1 cup cool water

2 cups Unbleached All-Purpose flour

A pinch of active dry or instant yeast


All of the polish

1 cup cool water

1 ½ teaspoons active dry or instant yeast

1 ½ teaspoons salt

3 to 3 ½ cups Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

Combine the polish ingredients and mix until well blended. At this point, it will look like this:

Cover and let rest at room temperature overnight.The polish should be spongy, bubbly, and quite wet.It might look something like this:

At this point, you can begin making the bread or you can place the poolish in the fridge and make the bread 2-3 days later.

In a large bowl, combine the risen polish, water, salt, yeast, and enough flour to make a cohesive soft dough. Knead the dough using your mixer’s dough hook for 7-8 minutes. Allow the dough to rest for a few minutes, covered. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 45 minutes in a warm place, until almost doubled in bulk.

The dough is now ready to fold. To fold dough, lightly dust the dough and work surface with flour. Using a dough scraper, invert the dough onto the work surface. Gently stretch and pat the dough to deflate it, then fold the dough in thirds, like a letter. Turn dough 90 degrees and fold like a letter again. Pick up the folded package of dough, invert it, and gently place it back into the bowl. The dough will be noticeably tighter. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 45 minutes.

Fold the dough again, cover, and let it rise another 45 minutes.

Gently turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a bench knife, divide the dough in half and gently pre-shape in into rounds by drawing the cut edges together so that the smooth outer surface becomes the top of the dough ball, and the other side, with the edges drawn together, becomes the bottom. Cover and let rest on a lightly floured for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven (and baking stone, if you’re suing one) to 500 degrees F. Shape the dough as desired and set on . Cover and let rise in a warm place until dough is not quite doubled in bulk, 40 to 45 minutes.

Just before baking, gently slash the loaves. Slide them onto the baking stone.

***Fill the oven with steam and close the door.

Bake for 5 minutes, reduce the temperature to 475 degrees and bake until done, about 25 minutes (internal temperature should be 205 degrees F.)

Remove the bread and cool on a rack.

***Steam allows dough to rise to its full potential and helps to create a crunch crust. To create a steamy oven at home, try this: Place an empty cast iron skillet in the bottom of your oven to preheat with your baking stone. Just before it’s time to bake, pour ½ cup of water in the skillet.

Above is a bread shape called an epi or a sheaf of wheat. It's an impressive decorative design that is really quite easy to do. I was the kid in elementary school who always used too much glue or wh0 couldn't color inside the lines, but I easily mastered cutting an epi the first time. For directions, visit the following site:

Happy baking,

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