Friday, September 14, 2012

Real Crusty Bread

Although I'm a decent home baker, I've always had one particular problem in making bread:  the crust.  To me, that's the essence of fantastic bread--that crispy, chewy, heavenly crust hiding a tender, soft, hole-y interior.  I'd gotten the interior down, more or less, and mastered the art of salting bread properly.  But I could never manage to get the crust right. I've tried high temps, low temps, starting high and going low, starting low and going high, misting the bread at the last 10 minutes, misting the bread in the beginning--no dice.

I'm not ashamed to say that I picked up the trick of making a crusty bread from watching MasterChef:  ice cubes in the bottom of a very hot oven (well, on a baking sheet--don't want to break the oven, after all).  But baking is a fickle science--oven temperatures are rarely exact, and the conditions in your little home oven, unless you happen to have a professional oven, can hardly hope to duplicate those in a professional oven.  White flour in the US is different from that in Europe--in the US, it's mostly hard wheat, while European flours are a mix of soft and hard.  This affects the gluten development, and you have to pay attention to the texture of the dough to make sure it's not overkneaded.

Kneading is another thing that I've re-learned:  it's not a constant working of the dough for 5-10 minutes at the beginning, it's stretching the dough five or six times, and then letting it rest for about 20 minutes before punching it down and stretching it again.  Done 3 or 4 times over the course of an hour, and it yields a soft, malleable dough.  The second proofing involves no punching down, but instead a gentle shaping of the loaf and then setting it down on the baking sheet.  .

One thing I haven't procured yet is a baking stone--a pizza stone will do, although I've aso learned that a terra cotta saucer, something you put under a terra cotta flower pot, will do the trick just as well (in the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child recommends a red tile).  This needs to sit in a hot oven (250° C, 450° F) for at least an hour to heat thoroughly.  The proofed bread goes onto the hot tile, giving you that lovely bottom crust (which I haven't quite achieved yet).

You can find the basic directions that I used in the recipe here.  I made this loaf with white flour--it was an accompaniment to a soup, so I didn't want too many flavors duking it out.  And yes, it was every bit as glorious as it looks.  


  1. I had a good Swiss recipe from some folks who put me up at their farm for a summer when I was 17. The recipe had about 5 ingredients: yeast and warm water, salt, flour, a touch of sugar, milk/water (I can't remember which now). It made a lump of fabulously crusted spongy bread. I graduated on to the Beard on Bread book experimenting with a lot of varieties (and hoping that I'd never grow to the actual size of James Beard in the process). But I don't think I found a recipe that I liked better than the farm original.

  2. That sounds like an interesting recipe; I'm a bit wary of spongy breads since they can't be handled like normal bread dough (brioche comes after macarons on my list of baked goods to conquer) and for some reason my yeasty-beasties never seem to behave like they should when I try it out.

    I've made this basic recipe a few times, now (just flour, water, salt, and my levain, which I keep on standby in the fridge and let it grow for most of the day when I'm making it--it beats remembering to buy yeast). It's great as an accompaniment for stews, but I doubt it'd behave nicely as a sandwich bread.