Bread is magical. Flour, salt, water, and a little yeast. Stir it together, and leave it alone on the counter for a few hours. Throw it in the oven. Boom. One of the most perfect foods that exist billows to life. Ever since my diagnosis, people have constantly asked me what I miss eating the most, and the answer is always bread. Not your supermarket Wonderbread shit. Real bread, with a crust that crackles when you squeeze it, that perfumes the house with yeast while rising, that has a chew and tang when you bite into that perfect golden slice. Gluten free bread can be pretty great, but nothing comes close to a boule of sourdough; a pain de baguette; a floury loaf of ciabatta. One of the gifts that I am grateful for is that my skin doesn’t break out when I handle wheat dough like some Celiac’s. Bread baking for me is such a cathartic, magical experience that I can’t imagine giving it up. It’s why you see so many freaking recipes for wheat bread on my blog, even though I’m a gluten free blogger. Bread calls to me, six years after I had to give it up. And so, I bake. I mix, knead, punch, pummel, and shape. I spray the inside of my oven with cold water for the perfect chewy crust, even though I won’t eat the bread. I practice my decorative slashes with a knife to make a loaf more attractive. I work on my kneading skills, until I can roll perfectly smooth dough balls with just one hand. Bread isn’t just food; it’s a way of life.
Once I master (or come as close to mastering as my Swedish Protestant guilt will let me admit) a bread, I move on to the next one. There’s something I love about rising to meet a challenge. Yeast breads in particular have such a reputation for being finicky and difficult, but they are my favorite type of bread to make, and my favorite doughs to master. When Bon Appetit came out with their “best ever” bread recipe that took 3 days to make, I was intrigued. Fermented doughs are always a bit fiddly, so I love to mess around with them to see if I can make it work. The video immediately made me determined to master this recipe. The dough is incredibly wet and sticky, and requires literal folding and slapping of the dough because it’s too gooey to knead. It took two days to ferment in the fridge.
All the work paid off. This is the best loaf of bread I’ve ever made. The crust is crackly, chewy, and has the telltale little bubbles under the surface. The interior is soft and tangy, with just the right amount of give. The hardest part was waiting for the bread to cool down before tearing into it. If you have patience and a little time, make this bread. It’s the best loaf you’ll ever make.
The Best Bread
Heavily adapted from Bon Appetit
1/8 teaspoon yeast
1 ¼ cup + 2/3 cup flour
1 ¼ cup room temperature water
1 ¼ cup room temperature water
3 ¾ cup + 1 tablespoon flour
Final dough stage
¼ cup + 1 teaspoon room temperature water
2 Tablespoons kosher or sea salt
Combine yeast and room-temperature water in the bowl of a stand mixer. Take the temperature of your kitchen—between 72° and 74° is ideal for fermentation. If your kitchen is running hot, use cool water. If it’s a bit colder, use warm water. Add the flour and mix until no dry spots remain. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until it is mature (surface will be very bubbly), 14–18 hours.
Drop a pinch of the fermented mix into a small bowl of room-temperature water. If it floats, it’s mature, and you’re good to go. If it sinks, wait 30 minutes and test again.
Combine the water into your first ferment dough base with a spatula. Add the flour and mix until no dry spots remain. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let sit 2 hours. (This process, called autolysis, starts to develop the all-important gluten, giving the dough structure and chew.)
Evenly sprinkle salt over dough, then add the water and mix with dough hook on medium-low speed. The dough should start to develop a shape and cling to hook after a minute or two. Increase speed to medium-high and mix until almost all the dough clings to hook and clears the sides of the bowl, 8–12 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit 15 minutes to let dough relax.
Turn out dough on a clean surface. Holding a flexible bench scraper in one hand, quickly lift dough eye-level then slap it down on surface in one swift, deliberate motion. As you propel dough downward, let it fall off the ends of your hands and fold over onto itself; the dough will be sticky, but it will want to stick to itself more than your hands. Start slowly to avoid flying dough bits, then increase the intensity of your motion as the dough starts to firm up. Slap and fold 10–12 minutes, occasionally scraping bits of dough from surface with bench scraper. (If you’re not slightly winded by the time the dough is ready, you’re doing it wrong.) This important step builds gluten and strengthens the dough, which helps give the finished loaf a nice open crumb.
Pinch off a small piece of dough and stretch it between your thumbs and index fingers on both hands. The dough should be able to stretch thin enough to let light through without breaking. If it splits or tears, the gluten is not yet developed enough. Continue slapping and folding another 2 minutes and test again.
Place dough in a large clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap; let sit 30 minutes. Starting from one side, use a bench scraper to lift edge of dough, stretching it up and out of the bowl at least 12″ and shaking back and forth to encourage lengthening, then fold back onto itself. Rotate the bowl 90°. Repeat stretching process 3 more times, rotating the bowl after each turn. Cover and rest another 30 minutes. Repeat process 2 more times, resting dough 30 minutes in between each full turn. (This rebuilds gluten and feeds the yeast during fermentation.) Cover dough with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm spot until nearly doubled in size, 30–60 minutes. Dough should look puffed and bubbly on the surface.
To test if your dough is fermented, poke it with an oiled finger. The dough should spring back slowly but still hold a slight indentation.
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured (use all-purpose) surface and do a final series of 4 folds, bringing edges into the center. Turn dough over, using bench scraper to help you, so seam side is down. Lightly dust with more flour and cover with a kitchen towel. Let rest until dough is puffed and surface is dotted with a few bubbles, 20–50 minutes.
Line a 9″ round colander with a clean kitchen towel and dust towel with an even layer of rice flour.
Uncover dough and dust with a bit more all-purpose flour. Use bench scraper to push edges of dough toward the center to gather into a ball. Cup scraper and free hand around far side of dough and gently pull ball toward you, dragging dough several inches across work surface and rotating slightly. Repeat dragging motion several times, occasionally moving dough back to center of surface. The friction against the surface will help tighten the gluten over the dough, creating a smooth dome. Lightly flour top of dough, turn over with bench scraper, and quickly transfer, seam side up, to prepared colander; cover with plastic. Chill 1–2 days. The longer the bread sits, the more complex the flavor will be, but don’t chill longer or the yeast may die.
Place an oven rack in lower third of oven and set a 3½–5½-qt. Dutch oven in center of rack ( I used my cast iron, enamel coated dutch oven). Preheat your oven to 450°. Let pot preheat at least 40 minutes. (If the handle on the lid is made of plastic, unscrew, remove, and plug hole with a small piece of foil.)
Uncover your dough. Cut a round of parchment paper so it’s slightly larger than dough; place on a large dinner plate, and dust with cornmeal. Remove pot from oven and set on stovetop.
Working on stove next to Dutch oven, flip the dough onto the parchment covered plate. Use a sharp paring knife, razor blade, or brand new box cutter to cut slashes in the dough in a design, cutting ½ inch deep into the dough. Use quick strokes. Working quickly and wearing mitts on both hands, slide dough and parchment into center of pot. Cover pot and bake bread 15 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake, rotating pot halfway through, until crust is very well done—approaching the edge of burnt—30–40 minutes. Carefully transfer bread to a wire rack. When it’s cool enough to handle, remove parchment. Let the bread cool for at least an hour to let the starches set.