Until recently, I was not a fan of baking my own bread. I tried a few times, even got a super deal on a bread maker, but it still seemed like too much effort for a funny shaped loaf that wasn't as good as what I'd get from Panera or other local bakeries. Why go to so much trouble when it's relatively inexpensive and so much better to just drop into Panera and scoop up a nice crusty loaf of their country white?
But then I was floating around egullet.org one day and browsing through the Dinner thread, which is always a dangerous thing to do if you're even the slightest bit hungry. The Dinner thread is where people post mouthwatering pictures and descriptions of what they had for dinner, either something they made themselves or had at a restaurant.
Of all the delicious meals, one that made me sit up and take notice was a lovely picture of the type of bread I most enjoy. A round, crusty country loaf with a nice crumb and all those nooks and crannies that make for delicious sturdy toast will plenty of melted butter. What intrigued me the most was that this was supposedly a no-knead super easy make it yourself recipe from the folks at Cooks Illustrated. Well, I've had good luck with their recipes, so off I went to explore and try for myself.
The recipe is simple, just 6 ingredients. Though one of them was white vinegar, and all I had was apple cider, and I wasn't sure if I had the right kind of beer. I had Beck's in the fridge so that's what I used and I suspect most any beer will probably be fine. What I like about this recipe is that unlike some recipes that call for a lot of kneading, which makes me nervous given that past attempts failed miserably, this one calls for just a few twists. I figured I could manage that.
So, I mixed up my flour, yeast, salt, water, beer and vinegar, combined it into a messy ball. Covered the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and then left it overnight. About 18 hours later, it had grown a little and had some bubbles, so that was encouraging. I turned it out on to a floured counter and folded it over about a dozen times. That's all the kneading it needs. :) The recipe then called for parchment paper, which I didn't have, so used aluminum foil instead and it worked beautifully. I sprayed cooking spray on the foil, plopped the ball of dough in the middle, sprayed it lightly with the oil, then plopped the foil and ball into a clean mixing bowl, covered it with plastic wrap again and set it aside for 2 hours. But after 2 hours, it looked like it could use a little more time, so I checked back in 2 hours again and it looked ready.
Then I took my 5 quart heavy enameled cast iron soup pot (a little smaller than the 6-8 qt dutch oven the recipe suggested, but it worked fine). First you put the pot in the oven, turn the heat up to 500 and when the oven dings that its' ready, you take the pot out, plop the foil and dough in, sprinkle a bit of flour over the top, and make a slash in the middle with a sharp knife. Then, cover and return to the oven. Reduce heat to 425 and bake, covered for 30 min. Then remove cover and bake another 20-30 minutes, until crust is nicely browned. Remove from oven, place bread on rack to cool (ideally 2 hours), but of course I couldn't wait two minutes. :)
This came out so well, that I've since made a few more times, the latest batch came out of the oven 5 minutes ago. Delish~ The flavor reminds me slightly of sourdough and the texture is divine, nice and crispy on the outside and soft and tender in. It makes the absolute BEST toast, especially when I use my trusty little George Foreman grill which gets it toasty on both sides at once.
Easy Bread, adapted from www.cooksillustrated.com
3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon instant or rapid rise yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons beer (I used Beck's, use your favorite. I want to try Winter Sam's next for the pumpkin spice flavor)
1 tablespoon cider vinegar (or white)
In large mixing bowl, add flour, yeast and salt. Mix well. Then add warm (not hot) water, beer and vinegar. Stir until all just combined into a ball. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for 12-18 hours.
Turn dough out onto floured surface and roll around about a dozen times, folding over and into a smooth ball. Lightly spray either a sheet of aluminum foil or parchment paper with cooking oil, plop the doughball in the middle and lightly spray. Put foil (or paper) and dough into a clean bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 4 hours. (you could do 2, but 4 worked better for me).
Heat oven to 500 and put your heavy cast iron soup pot or dutch oven in with the cover on. Sprinkle top of dough with a bit of flour and using a sharp knife, make a cut down the middle. When the oven dings that it's at 500, take out the pot and plop the foil (or paper) and dough inside. Cover and return to oven, and reduce heat to 425. Bake for 30 min, then remove cover and bake for 20-30 more minutes, until nice and brown.
Let cool on a rack for 2 hours ideally before cutting. (If you can wait that long, I never can.)