Tutotial: Hearty Rustic-Style Bread

Please read through all the instructions before starting!

It has taken me well over 6 months to finally find a bread recipe that we not only love the taste of, but that is easy to make and uses only the simplest of ingredients. For batch after batch I experimented; but the bread was either too dense, or didn't rise, or I had to use more ingredients than would be cost effective. Finally though, I read past the pages of "quick bread" recipes in the Joy of Cooking, until I found the chapter on making breads using sponges or starters. 

Though these breads use only the most basic of ingredients (only flour, water, salt, and only occasionally yeast), they are rather time-intensive. The starters themselves can take anywhere from 6 hours to 6 days, and once you add the starter to the dough, that can take another day in of itself just to rise.

But believe me, the effort is well worth it.

Mix together 1/2 tsp yeast with 1/2 cup room temperature water, and let sit for about 5-10 minutes until the yeast is dissolved. Add 3/4 cup flour and mix together with a wooden spoon - do not use metal!) until it forms elastic strands that pull away from the sides of the bowl. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let sit until it has tripled in volume; about 6 hours or so. I have also let the starter rise for two days: it will deflate, and you must add more flour and let it sit for a couple hours until it foams up again. But doing this I found gave the bread even greater flavour and texture.

Once the starter is ready, mix in 2 more cups of luke-warm water. Mix thoroughly, and it is at this point that I add 1 tbsp of salt. Once the water, salt, and started are combined, begin to add the flour. The recipe calls for white flour, but you could add up to 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, but bear in mind that the consistency of the dough will change, and it may be necessary to add a bit more water. The recipe calls for a total of 4 cups of flour; but add only the first two cups in all at once, and continue to mix in the bowl.

Once the first two cups of flour are combined, start adding the rest of the flour, half a cup at a time, until the dough is too stiff to work with in the bowl. Transfer to a lightly floured surface, and begin to knead the dough until the flour is absorbed (be prepared - your hands are going to get messy!). Again, add some more flour, half a cup at a time, and knead the dough each time until the flour is fully absorbed and the dough is sticky again.

Note: the recipe calls for 4 cups of flour. However, due to a variety of reasons, this may be too much/not enough flour. This is when bread making starts become more an art than science - with each batch you'll begin to see what the desired dough consistency is by touch, and stop measuring the flour out altogether! A good guide to go by is that you want the final dough still very soft and pliable, but you do not want it to stick to your hands when all the dough is absorbed. In the end, it should take well over 10 minutes of kneading/adding flour to achieve this.

When kneading is done, form a ball and covering lightly with olive oil, put it back in the bowl. Cover with a clean cloth, and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for 3-6 hours, until doubles in size.

Note: You need to keep checking the dough periodically - you want it to rise until it is doubled, but you do not want the dough to rise so much that it begins to deflate (which will make for hard bread). If need be, it is better to err on the side of under-risen that over-risen.

Divide the dough into two pieces, and quickly knead each piece into a ball or oval, always turning under the same side each time. The top will become nice and smooth, with the sides all turned under. Don't forget to save a fist-sized piece of dough to serve as your starter for next time! Score the top of the bread several times with a sharp knife; that will prevent the bread crust from splitting when it is baked. Let the bread rise for another 2-4 hours, until doubled in size (remember the above note!), then bake at 350 F for about 30 minutes; or until the crust is a golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. I also have baked the bread with a pan of water in the oven, but did not really notice a difference when I didn't use one. The recipe however, does call for it.

The piece of dough that was saved can be frozen for several months. I just save it until the next week when I need to make the next batch of bread. When you want to activate it, simply let it thaw, place in a bowl, and add the same amounts of water and flour as the first time you made the starter. It will take longer to rise at first (and will each successive time to use the next piece of dough as starter), until after several batches you may need to add a little more yeast. I find every three batches I have to add another 1/2 tsp yeast. Each batch will also have more and more of a rich taste (though not as strong as sourdough bread). Experiment, and let me know if you have any further questions!
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