I’m a reasonably good cook. And one of the things I always say about cooking is that it’s just … not actually that hard, when it comes right down to it. If you have a recipe and you follow it and you know what things are (you know the difference between tablespoons and teaspoons), you can make a lot of things that are very good, and it’s not that much harder than following the directions to put together an IKEA coffee table. You do what the thing says.
Baking bread is great, because it’s not like that at all. It actually does have that feeling of sorcery, and you really do have to do some of it by feel. I mean, it’s literally affected by the weather. It involves yeast, which is still alive. You can do the same thing on two different days and two different things can happen, and you have to know as many of the things that make those different things happen as you can. When I’ve baked yeast bread in the past, it’s been sandwich-style breads made in loaf pans, mostly, and they’ve been fine. Tasty, even. But I don’t usually bother, because they’re not markedly better than similar stuff I can buy in a store. The margin of error isn’t enormous. The need for instinct is present. You have to do things or add things until something happens that you can only see or feel. No matter how careful you are with the recipe, that recipe may very well tell you, at some moment or other, to kinda feel around and see what you think. Feel “smooth and elastic”? Feel resistance? Seem too sticky? Too dry? Touch it a lot!
I have a cast-iron Lodge Dutch oven now, so I decided to take a crack at something I hadn’t tried: a rustic crusty bread made with just flour, water, salt and yeast. Fittingly, I worked off the basic recipe (called “Saturday White Bread”) in the Ken Forkish book Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals Of Artisan Bread And Pizza. He recommends a method where you mix the flour and water with your hands, and then it sits for a while. And then you add the yeast and salt with your hands, and then it sits for a while. And then you fold it (it’s like a very light knead that takes only a minute or two), and then it sits for a while. And then you fold it again and it sits for a longer while. And then you divide it in two (if you’re turning it into two loaves, as I was) and shape it, and then it sits for a while. And then you bake one loaf at a time in your Dutch oven – first with the lid on, and then with the lid off.
It’s a lot of steps to patiently follow with four ingredients involved, and there aren’t many real signals along the way that you’re doing anything right, except that the dough does eventually – after about the first five hours, using this method – triple like it’s supposed to, so you know the yeast isn’t dead.
When I was folding it early in the rise, the dough felt weird. A little pebbly, like the flour wasn’t as dissolved as it should be, even though I’d done everything as it said I should. It seemed much too wet (it’s a method that uses a wet dough, that part is true). I wasn’t sure what it meant when it talked about pulling on the dough until it had tension, or had resistance – it was sort of yeasty and stretchy, but was I doing it right? Did I fold it enough? Did I fold it too much? There were certainly enough specifications: it said how warm the water should be, and that you should use a thermometer to check, and I did. IT said how warm the dough should turn out once you’ve mixed it, and that you should use a thermometer to check, and I did. But who knows?
By the time I divided it in half and put it to proof in two bowls lined with tea towels, the dough seemed qualitatively different in this really great way. It was kind of soft, and I could see great big bubbles in it as I moved it around as delicately as I could through the process of shaping it into balls. And once it had proofed for a little over an hour, the consistency of it was amazing. It was like something you’d give a person to handle while they were meditating, it was so marvelously puffed and velvety and mysterious. I plunked the first loaf as gently as I could into the super-hot preheated Dutch oven (one of the tasks for dwellers in smallish apartments is to learn to mute the smoke alarm if it goes off every time you open a hot oven as mine does – you will bake this at a raging 475 degrees).
Even though I’d meticulously followed every step as it was outlined, I was surprised somehow at how pretty it looked when I first took the lid off to move to the second part of the baking. And when I took it out after those last 20 minutes, I was shocked at how pretty it looked. It looked like, you know, bread from a bakery.
If I didn’t know I made that, I wouldn’t know I made that. Just like the book suggested, it was as baked as I dared without burning those crispy edges. This particular book recommends not scoring the top neatly so that you get those big natural craggy splits in the top.
I had read in the book, and then forgotten in the meantime, that if you did all this right, when you removed the bread from the oven after 30 minutes with the lid on and 20 minutes with the lid off, as it hit room temperature air and you put it on a rack to cool, the loaf would crackle. When I read it, I thought, “Weeeell, mine probably won’t do that; that sounds like wizardry."
But when I went back out to the kitchen to put the second loaf in once the Dutch oven was re-preheated, I heard this funny little noise. The loaf of bread was crackling away. I leaned down toward it and listened, and I laughed.
There’s only flour, water, yeast and salt in here. Four ingredients total, counting water and salt as ingredients, which you often wouldn’t. I didn’t use a mixer, I didn’t use a food processor, I didn’t use one single tool to touch the dough, ever. Only hands, washed and washed and washed all day. That’s why it feels crazy, and why it feels great: it feels like it’s actually you, making something from nothing because somebody wrote you a note that told you how.
I waited the minimum prescribed half-hour before I cut into it – yes, yes, two or three hours is optimal, but that was not happening. I had skipped dinner so that on this special occasion, I could have bread and butter and a glass of red wine for dinner. And to be honest, it was even better to eat than it was to admire. The crust was almost overdone but not overdone. The inside was nicely substantial but not dense. Smeared with butter, it was good enough, I realized, that if I’d eaten this bread at a restaurant, I’d have said, "This bread is amazing,” and I’d have wanted to go back just for the bread. I’m not used to liking my own cooking that much, and definitely not when it doesn’t involve any ingredients you can’t buy in the worst grocery store you can imagine.
It was, I think, the perfect thing to do when it was six degrees outside.