Baking Great Bread at Home

The last couple years I have been learning how to bake bread. I think it’s magical that you can start with such humble ingredients to make something so complex. I have loved baking for as long as I can remember, but I have always focused on sweets. I was comfortable with recipes that start by creaming butter and sugar; but yeast (or worse, levain) intimidated me. 

Recipes like cakes and cookies are reassuring. If you mix ingredients at the right temperature, the correct order and proper ratios, the recipe will turn out. You may have to learn some new techniques along the way for more advanced recipes, like a genoise versus a butter cake. But at the end of the day, techniques can be learned and ingredients will always behave in the same manner.

Yeast is alive. And living things can be unpredictable. Yeast depends on so many more variables. First, there are different types of yeasts for baking: fresh, active dry and instant yeast, that all behave differently. Let alone specific strains of yeast. Temperature has a huge impact as well. So many recipes blindly instruct, “let the dough rise for two hours or until doubled in size.” But if your kitchen is cold, that may actually take three to four hours and if it’s a particularly hot day, only an hour to an hour and a half.

shaping a sourdough boule
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It turns out, working with bread can be as simple or as difficult as you would like it to be. When I finally started researching and practicing, I found answers that challenged my assumptions. There is a type of bread for your ability level and your time commitment. Bread is flexible. Mistakes can also be delicious. 

The first boule of bread I baked in my Dutch oven was a miracle. It was not pretty, but it had a crispy crust and a lush interior. It boosted my confidence and I skipped right ahead to a much more difficult dough with higher hydration which I angrily threw in the trash in frustration. But I stuck with it and practiced with lower hydrations and got accustomed to working with dough. I started making sourdough and my first loaf was barely more domed than a frisbee, but the flavor was incredible.

I am not an expert in bread-baking and I still have much to learn. But like everything, if you’re willing to pay attention, make mistakes and try again, it will pay off. I don’t have a recipe for you, but here is a list of my favorite resources for learning how to bake great bread at home.

freshly baked boule of sourdough
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The New York Times No-Knead Bread

This recipe is so simple and extremely satisfying. While it requires some time, most of it is hands-off. It is a great place to start, as it does not require much technique and it’s very forgiving. This recipe also introduced me to Jim Lahey’s book.

My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method, by Jim Lahey.

This book is a continuation of the New York Times recipe. Jim Lahey, of Sullivan Street Bakery, provides dozens of no-knead recipes that will ease you into the art and science of bread.

Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza, by Ken Forkish.

I spent a lot of time with this book. When you are ready to get a bit more hands on, this is a great book to push you into the methods behind French and Italian breads. Most recipes still use commercial yeast, but you can work your way through different schedules, hydrations and pre-ferments.

Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson.

When you’re ready for serious bread-making at home, this is the guide to use. The first recipe is an entire chapter. Here, you’ll learn how to create and maintain a sourdough starter as well as the full process of making a sourdough loaf. There’s enough detail to learn about how each variable affects the final loaf and how to adjust the method to your taste and time restrictions.

The Perfect Loaf, Maurizio Leo.

This is where I currently bake from. Maurizio has extensive guides and pictures for each step and has answered thousands of questions in the comments. He has everything from a beginner’s guide, to what to do with leftover levain, to high hydration advanced doughs.

slices of sourdough bread
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If you have ever been curious about making great bread at home, now is as good a time as ever to try. You don’t need many ingredients. Just a bit of time, attentiveness, and willingness to make mistakes. But at least these mistakes are edible.

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