I’m new to the whole breadmaking thing, but near as I can tell, the last couple years have featured a big uptick in the market for books about making “artisan” bread at home.
What is “artisan bread?”
Artisan bread is exactly what its name suggests: bread that is crafted, rather than mass produced. Baked in small batches rather than on a vast assembly line, artisan bread differs from prepackaged supermarket loaves in a number of ways. Special attention to ingredients, process, and a return to the fundamentals of the age-old bread-making tradition set artisan bread apart from soft, preservative-laden commercial breads.
Anyway, my exposure started with a gift from my now sister-in-law’s boyfriend and discussions with my now father-in-law. That was back around Christmastime 2008. We had this little wedding thing in the Spring that replaced a lot of kitchen time with planning time, then it was summer and who wants to heat up a kitchen in summer? In late 2009, I made an attempt to build a sourdough starter from the recipe in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Likely more to my lack of skill than anything else, it failed, never rising. I didn’t know if it was the cool temperature in the house, or what it was, but I just couldn’t get that dough to rise at room temperature. The frustrating thing at that point was just how much flour had been pumped into that starter.
Discouraged, I gave up on the artisan bread idea for a bit and then noticed bread books popping up on my sister’s birthday wishlists. A few birthday gifts later, along with some newer artisan book browsing at the in-laws over Thanksgiving and I was motivated to try again. The big change? It looks like the thought process around making artisan breads at home has evolved quite a bit during the last 2-3 years.
In books alone, I’ve been exposed to:
Equipped with a simpler recipe, I was re-energized to make some homemade loaves. As one final preparation step, I bought a 6-qt Camwear Food Storage container to hold the dough in the refrigerator. Then it was time to whip up some dough, which was crazy simple. Some yeast, some hot water, a little salt, and some flour. That’s it. And it looked like this:
No way was that going to result in multiple loaves said the cynic who failed to make a sourdough starter. However, after two hours of rise time and a night in the refrigerator, it looked like this (which is actually a little bit down from its peak height while on the counter):
Goodness. Now I understand the “don’t store dough in a mason jar because it could explode” warning.
It was then time to bake the first loaf. I went with the Boule style to start, since it seemed pretty easy. Make a ball and plop it down on a corn mealed pizza peel. Which, thanks to my brother-in-law, I have the top-rated (by Cooks Illustrated) and fairly magical Super Peel (picture below, holding said Boule dough).
A hot oven filled with some quick broiler pan steam and 40 minutes or so of baking time later, and the finished product came out looking like this:
That really does look like “real” bread, doesn’t it? I was so excited by the result, and the awesome house-filling smell that I ignored the advice to let it completely cool and cut off two warm pieces, one for me, and one for my still-in-bed wife. It was really really delicious (although still a little moist in the middle due to that whole cooling-advice-ignoring thing). That loaf was gone in two days.
Next up, I made the batard shape:
It was also quite tasty. My goals going forward? A more uniform width and some more attractive cuts across the top. That one also got eaten quickly, so with the final amount of dough in the refrigerator, I decided to try the sandwich loaf version:
It’s not as big as one would really want for sandwiches, and again, but it did introduce me to the different requirements of using a bread pan. I ate some of this this morning.
With the emptied container, I took the book’s assurances that not cleaning it is a good idea (helping the sourdough-ish process along) and made a whole new batch in the same container. That’s in the refrigerator now awaiting some baking time. What loaves will come out of that one? I’m thinking another boule if we’re just eating it for a meal or two, a couple of baguette shaped loaves if we serve lasagna for our friends next week, and/or some fresh pizza dough.
If you’ve been intrigued by this artisan concept like I was, but you’ve been skeptical (really? 5 minutes a day?), I can assure you that this is one of the simplest things I’ve ever baked. Honestly, it might even be easier than a packaged brownie mix. My suggested starting point is the Hertzberg/Francois book: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking