I make an average of 2 loaves of bread every week. I alternate between making bread using dry yeast and making bread using a rye starter that I store in my fridge. My bread making schedule has been going on for several years now and there is no turning back. Once you’ve tasted homemade bread, both the bread itself as well as the thrill of making it, you will find yourself hooked. It takes some time to find your groove. Even though I’ve been doing this for a while, I still do not have 100% confidence in how the bread will turn out on a given day, and I am still looking for improvements to be made to my technique. The biggest guessing game is when I’m mixing the water into the flour to make the dough. Did I put in enough water? Was it too much? Next worry is getting the timing of the dough rise right. But these challenges are also what makes bread making so exciting!
With this recipe for dry yeast-risen bread, you should be in good shape to make a reliable homemade bread even with all-purpose flour (versus bread flour). After all, who has bread flour or high gluten flour always on hand? I make so much bread that I’ve given up on buying those (more) expensive bags of bread flour. Instead, I buy a 25 pound bag of regular all-purpose flour from Costco which lasts about a month or two to cover bread making and the other baking that I do. However, I do recommend some special equipment: a 9″ proofing basket and a 4.5 quart enameled cast iron Dutch Oven. You can let the dough rise and bake on a baking sheet instead, but the crust just isn’t the same (see the photo towards the bottom of the entire post after the recipe). I’ve seen photos on the King Arthur website of terrific looking loaves of bread made on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, so I believe it’s possible to make a good-looking bread baked on a baking pan–I just haven’t mastered it yet.
Below is the recipe. After the recipe are step-by-step instructions with photos to help you visualize how this is done. I will also update this post with a video on our new channel once I finish that up!
Before I begin baking for the day, I map out a schedule ahead of time to fit within whatever else I have to do that day. Keep in mind that there are two rises. With the first rise, there is a lot of flexibility – it takes about 3 hours, but the dough can be left for 10 hours or more. But with the second rise and bake, the time is tighter and you don’t really have much flexibility. At minimum, it takes about 6 hours 10 minutes from start to finish, with much of the time being inactive (i.e., 2 rises and then baking). However, I have set things up so that I prepare the dough for the first rise in the morning and complete the second rise and baking after dinner. This way, most of my day is free.
9:15am – Prepare dough (about 20-25 minutes) and set aside for the first rise
7:00pm – Turn out dough, shape, and set aside for second rise
8:00/8:15pm – Preheat oven to 500°F
9:00pm – Bake in Dutch Oven (make sure pot can withstand the high temperature – not all of them do)
9:30pm – Remove lid from Dutch Oven and continue baking
9:37pm – Remove pot from oven and turn out bread onto wire rack to cool (1.5 hours or leave overnight).
Get a large, 4 quart bowl–glass, plastic, or stainless steel. Using a one cup measure, scoop up an overflowing cup of all-purpose flour and put it in the bowl. Add two more generous cups of flour to the bowl for a total of 3 so far. With the same 1 cup measure, scoop up rye or whole wheat flour half way up the cup. Then fill the rest of the measuring cup (but overflowing) with all-purpose flour and add to the bowl for a grand total of 4 overflowing cups of flour. [Alternatively, if you want purely white bread, just scoop up 4 generous cups of flour and place into the bowl.] By the way, for those using metric, one cup measure = about 237 ml. While weighing the flour would be more accurate, why not wing it like great-grandma did . . . .
Add 2 teaspoons of active dry yeast. As you can see below, my “1 tsp” is a rounded teaspoon. If you are using a packet of yeast (e.g., Flieschmann’s), there is no need to measure out 2 teaspoons. Just dump the whole packet of yeast into the bowl. One packet = 1/4 ounce = about 2 1/4 teaspoons.
Mix the yeast in with your hand.
Now comes the tricky part. Adding the water. How much? I’ve found that there are factors that come into play, like the flour you are using and the moisture in the air. On average, I need to add in 2 1/4 cups water. If you are using only white flour, then less water may be needed, by 1/4 cup. My advice is to add one cup of water at a time and mix it in by hand. If you see dry flour that isn’t getting moistened, add in the final 1/4 cup and then mix that in. Assess the consistency of the dough. If you still see unmixed flour, you can’t incorporate it into the dough easily, and if the dough feels too stiff, then mix in another 1/4 cup of water. If now you think the dough is too sticky, meaning you can’t work with it easily because it is sticking to your fingers too much, then mix in some white flour – like 1/4 cup.
At this stage, there is no need to knead the dough a lot. Just mix the water into the flour-yeast mixture and knead a little bit to make sure all the ingredients have been fully incorporated and you’ve got a nice ball of dough. Let it sit at room temperature undisturbed for about 10-20 minutes.
Next, knead in 2 teaspoons salt – I tend to make them rounded teaspoons. Kneading can be frustrating because you’ll find the salt stays in one place when you start to knead it in. Keep at it though for about 5 minutes, most of which you should be kneading on an unfloured counter. You’ll feel the dough to be more elastic than before. Eventually, it will be smooth, all the while being easy to knead. If it’s not very elastic, feels like a brick when kneading, and the dough isn’t sticking to your hands AT ALL, you likely used too little water. You can fix this by kneading in some more water – try 2 tablespoons at a time. Warning: This is a frustrating step initially. The dough will get messy like wet clay. Keep at it because eventually, you will succeed in incorporating the added water and you should find that the dough feels looser. If it feels looser, then when it bakes, it won’t turn out to be hard as a brick.
To recap, after thoroughly kneading, the dough will become smooth and have a nice, soft texture. You will find that it will still be slightly sticky, as you can see in the photo below. If your hand has more dough stuck to it, or if your hands are completely clean after kneading, the proportion of flour to water maybe a little off. Earlier, I described what to do if the dough is too “hard.” Now, let me describe what to do if it’s way too sticky: just knead in some more flour, a scant 1/4 cup at a time. Knead in the flour completely before reassessing whether it was enough to fix the stickiness.
Put the dough ball back into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Leave to rise at room temperature for at least 2.5 to 3 hours. Yeast doesn’t go by a clock, so you need to use your judgment.
With my 4 liter bowl, I’ve learned that once the dough has risen to the top of the bowl or thereabouts, it’s ready to move on to the next step. If I’m not ready to move on to the next step, I leave alone until I am ready, which, as I mentioned before, is after dinner at around 7:00 or 7:30 pm. That’s about 9.5-10 hours after I put the dough out for the first rise!
You can see the air bubbles throughout the dough in the photo below.
Prepare a proofing basket by dusting with corn or rice flour preferably. This flour won’t be absorbed by the dough and therefore, the dough won’t stick to the basket. However, I’ve used regular flour to dust the basket as well. The dough sometimes gets a little stuck to the basket, but it has been doable as long as I dusted it very well. If you don’t have a proofing basket, then dust with flour a board (I’ve used wooden cutting boards before with success), parchment paper, or (if you don’t have parchment paper) directly onto a baking sheet. Set aside.
Scrape the dough out of the bowl and onto an unfloured smooth surface, like your countertop. I have a granite countertop. You need the dough to stick a little bit to the counter top, but not too much so that you can’t work with it. [I have not tried this on a wooden surface to be able to report whether the dough will stick too much to the wood or not.]
You then want to pat down and stretch the dough to form a rectangle, with the narrow side facing you.
Now comes the fun and sticky part. The goal is to form a tight ball. How do you do that? By taking each corner furthest away from you and pulling it to the other side to make a point (fold it like making a paper airplane). Then you sort of roll the ball towards you as you fold the sides in. See the photos below to see what I mean.
Yes, it will be somewhat sticky. But it will pull away from the counter anyway. Feel free to use a dough scraper to make this easier.
Towards the end, you will have a nice ball on one end and a lip of remaining dough (around 2 inches) on the other. Fold that lip of dough up and over the other side of the ball. Keep it tight.
Pick up the ball and place it in the flour proofing basket, seam-side up.
If you don’t have a proofing basket, place the dough ball, seam-side up, onto a floured board or baking sheet if you will be using a Dutch Oven. If placing dough on a floured piece of parchment paper, make sure there is a large margin around the dough ball so that you can lift it by the paper and lower it into the Dutch Oven without burning yourself. In this case, place dough ball onto parchment paper seam-side down. Also place dough seam-side down if you will be doing the second rise + baking on the same baking sheet.
Dust the top with corn, rice, or all-purpose flour.
Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise again. This time, plan on a 1.5 to a 2 hour rise.
About an hour to an hour and a half later, preheat your oven (time depends on how fast your oven preheats). It’s best if it’s set to 500°F/260°C. But if the baking pan or Dutch Oven you are using cannot withstand that high a temperature, go with the highest the manufacturer says is possible – usually 450°F/232°C. It takes my oven about 1/2 an hour to preheat. I put my empty Dutch Oven (with oven-proof cover) into the oven at this time so that the Dutch Oven is nice and hot when the dough is ready to be baked. It’s like a mini baker’s oven. If you don’t have a Dutch Oven, just preheat the oven without anything in it. Maybe you have a pizza stone, in which case you could heat the pizza stone. I haven’t tried it this way, but I suspect it will work better than a baking sheet. All you have to worry about is how to transfer the dough onto the pizza stone without the dough deflating!
So when is the dough ready? When it rises fully. Yes, that’s it. You have to use your judgment. This is another pitfall in bread baking – misjudging when the dough is ready to bake. You’ll see it basically rise until nearly “double in bulk” as the old recipe books say. You can test the dough by poking it with your finger. If it doesn’t bounce back, but instead stays indented, it should be ready to go. I’ve found that the dough is usually ready to bake just short of a two-hour rise. Beware that if you let it rise too much, the bread will deflate when you transfer it into the pot or will rise and fall while baking. The baked bread’s texture (crumb) may be dense and that’s not ideal.
Below is a photo of my fully risen dough that is ready to bake. Notice that it has spread out a bit. I expect this to happen if the dough is a bit stickier than usual. Stickier dough usually leads to a pretty good crumb, so it’s not a bad thing, but it takes some experience to handle. If your dough is way too sticky, not only will it stick to the proofing basket and won’t come out, but you are teetering on disaster because the dough may fall to the point of no return when it hits the pot. It may also stick to the pot when baking, making it tough to take out later.
When both the dough and oven are ready, use oven mitts to take the super hot Dutch Oven out of the oven. Carefully take the cover off without burning yourself. Slowly turn the dough out into the pot (without burning yourself). You need to judge the angle correctly or the dough ball will end up half in the pot and half outside the pot. If the dough was rising on parchment paper, then it’s easy. Just lift the dough up with the parchment paper and carefully lower both paper and dough into the pot (without burning yourself).
If you are using a baking sheet to bake the bread, below is a photo of fully risen dough.
Next, you want to cut slits into the top with a sharp knife or razor blade so that steam can escape while the bread is baking. You can decide not to make cuts. The steam will still escape from the bread, but in an uncontrolled way. The top crust may then get cracks in random places–but it still should be OK. I usually cut 2 to 3 slits across the top or an X. It’s hard to say how deep – maybe a 1/4 inch.
Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes (if the oven is 500°F/260°C) or 43 minutes (if oven is 450°F/232°C). If you are baking on a baking sheet (or baking stone), spritz the oven with cold water to create steam and bake for 35 minutes (if the oven is 500°F/260°C) or 40 minutes (if oven is 450°F/232°C), or until medium brown on top. When done baking, remove the pot/pan from the oven and let the bread cool on a wire rack. You can test the bread’s doneness by knocking on the bottom (like knocking on a door) with your hand. It should have a hollow sound. I advise against cutting into the dough until it is at room temperature. The center of the bread might still be raw! Also, it’s hard to cut into. While warm bread is very tempting and smells divine, they say not to cut or break off a piece of it for a variety of reasons, including inferior taste and ruining the texture of the bread (it will be gummy when fresh and then dry when cool). See this article from Food 52 for more detailed information on this issue.
Below is a loaf of bread that was baked on a baking sheet (left) and a loaf of bread that was proofed in a proofing basket and baked in my Dutch Oven (right). As you can see, I haven’t mastered the baking sheet version yet! The bread still tasted great. One of the biggest differences was the crust – the crust was thicker than the crust from the bread baked in a Dutch Oven. The loaves weighed about 2 1/2 pounds/>1 kg.
Here is the crumb on the bread from the Dutch Oven.
Since the holes in this bread are not super large (like you might see in bread served at an Italian restaurant), I find that this bread meets our needs for everyday sandwich bread. The loaf is pretty big. As a result, to serve, we cut the loaf in half, place the cut half down on the board (crust-side up), and then cut the number of slices that we need. We also are bread freezing fanatics. If freezing (which is usually all the time), we cut the half in half again, wrap each quarter in a paper towel to absorb moisture and prevent ice crystals from forming on the bread while in the freezer, and freeze in a 1 gallon Ziploc freezer bag. To defrost, we pop a quarter loaf in our microwave for about 40-45 seconds until it is almost defrosted but not all the way. We find that the bread is easier to slice into that way.
While the instructions above are long, the process is really not too bad. Try it a couple of times and you will get the hang of it!