My wife and I love bread, but I don’t like baking it. Or, rather, it wasn’t baking bread that I disliked. It was all the blasted time baking bread requires. At least, all the blasted time I thought baking requires. Now I know better. Now I bake bread multiple times a week, and I love it more than ever.
Fresh bread? Let’s think about this.
Here was our problem: We love bread, but we really didn’t like the options to get it — except for one:
- Buy off-the-shelf sliced bread. Cost varies, but so does flavor, freshness, texture and ingredients. We also don’t eat many sandwiches, and it takes forever for us to go through a loaf.
- Buy expensive bread. Tasty and fresh, especially given the quality of local bakeries. However, paying $2-$6 squillion dollars a loaf just isn’t sustainable for us. Besides, with only two in our household, there was a good chance we’d wind up with a stale loaf. I’m all for repurposing stale bread into croutons and French toast and what-not — but not when we’re also paying today’s prices at local bakeries.
- Clear our schedules and bake. While cheaper from a budget standpoint, the time investment for traditional bread recipes was a big pain, and it does not fit in at all with our lives.
- Find a way to bake bread that didn’t involve half our checking account and all our spare time.
As it turned out, option 4 could actually be done.
Why traditional bread-baking gets on my nerves
I work full-time, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., 5 days a week. Do I really want to get home and spend the next 3-5 hours kneading, waiting, and baking? Great — there’s nothing like fresh bread… that’s ready to eat by the time we go to bed. Oh.
Forget that. I already have a job — if I’d wanted to be a baker, I would’ve bloody well become one.
My wife and I looked into various bread-baking recipes and methods (except a bread machine — we weren’t interested in getting one). We tried traditional bread-baking, but to no avail. The timing was a nightmare, and the results, while tasty, were simply not worth all the work and cleanup.
We found, and enjoyed, no-knead, wet-dough methods, such as the famed No-Knead Bread. However, the 14-20 hour rise times required more advanced thinking than really worked for us. I’m happy to plan a vacation, website content, a backyard overhaul or even a week’s meals, but my brain lacks capacity to have to plan whether or not to bake bread. (I can see it now: Google Calendar… Quick Event Add… Today, mix bread. Tomorrow, bake bread. Eat bread… when?)
We needed a way to bake bread that would….
- Minimize time and labor — no waiting around forever while dough rose. No kneading. No heaps of equipment to clean up for something that would start going stale in a matter of hours.
- Be inexpensive. The bulk sections of Kiva and Winco (local natural foods store and regional chain uber-discount supermarket, respectively) are some of our favorite places to shop. Flours, salt, yeast, and other bread adjuncts (such as wheat germ, poppy seeds, etc.) are dirt cheap when bought in bulk. (And by bulk, I don’t mean Costco/Sam’s Club-style half-ton bags. I mean, if you want to buy a tablespoon of wheat germ, you pour a tablespoon of wheat germ into a bag, tie it up, and pay for it.)
- Be made with good ingredients. It severely chafes my palate that while bread is considered a staple of our diet, there’s this idea that having good bread — made with real ingredients that don’t require a degree in Latin or chemistry — should require a second mortgage at the checkout line. We wanted to use a range of flours and adjuncts that would give us variety and quality, for a good price.
Here’s what we figured out.
We heard about and checked out a copy of Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day from the Eugene Library. After trying their large-batch, no-knead, minimal-time recipes, we were completely hooked and promptly bought our own copy. For over a year we’ve used this book for all our bread-baking, and have been overjoyed at the results.
Pardon me while I cut a slab of fresh Italian Semolina Bread (yup, that’s the one pictured above). Hmmm, that reminds me, this batch is getting low — I think we’ll mix up some rye dough this time.
The bread recipes in Artisan Bread fit our requirements perfectly:
- It’s simple. A basic batch has 4 ingredients: flour, salt, water and yeast. You can keep it as simple as that, or gussy things up as you see fit. The dough is wet, and does not require kneading. Instead, you mix up a batch let it rise/ignore it for 2 hours. After that, you can either slice off a hunk of dough for baking, or refrigerate the dough for up to 2 weeks.
- It’s cheap. Even when we use wheat flours, rye flours, or various brans, seeds and herbs — even when you factor in the electricity to run our oven — each loaf costs us pennies.
- It’s impressive. We keep the batch of dough in a plastic container about the size of a shoebox. A batch of dough for a typical loaf is approximately fist-sized to grapefruit-sized. There are few better ways to knock someone’s socks off than with fresh-baked bread that looks and tastes bakery-quality.
- It’s quick. Mixing up the dough takes about 5 minutes, and all we need to clean up are a couple of measuring cups and spoons. If you want to wash the container between batches you can, but you don’t have to — instead you can scrape bits of leftover dough and incorporate them into the new batch (it improves the bread’s flavor and complexity, over time gaining sourdough-ish notes). When baking, from slicing the dough to table-ready is about 2 hours — most of which involves no effort or attention. For us, that means I can get home from work, take a hunk of dough out of the fridge, walk the dog, relax, do some chores or assignments, and still have a fresh loaf of bread ready in time for dinner.
- It’s tasty. Seriously tasty. We vary grains and seeds and what-not, and have cranked out everything from a wheat-and-rye “peasant bread” (the first photo in this post), to the Italian semolina bread pictured throughout the rest of this post. The crust crackles, the crumb is soft and springy, and the taste is heady and delicious.
- It’s fun. I truly heart baking bread now. Is there any scent in a home as warm and welcoming as that of fresh bread in the oven? Okay, chocolate chip cookies, fair enough. But otherwise, bread wins. I enjoy how quickly I can get a loaf going, while continuing with the rest of my day. I like knowing exactly what goes into the loaf. And I love the way a loaf of fresh, home-baked bread makes my wife and our friends smile.
I heart bread
Now we have fresh bread whenever we want it, plus we always have something we can take to potlucks with friends. Thanks to having a way to make bread quickly and inexpensively, I love bread more than ever, right down to the baking. Heck, I don’t even mind doing the dishes after — I’ve got the time.
More on baking bread (and how you can heart bread too)