The Best Bread Ever? Yeah, Maybe.

This one was intense.

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It is a homemade bread recipe for the slightly deranged. It is a homemade bread recipe that takes 3 days of your time, albeit with long gaps. It is, in a nutshell, the neverending homemade bread recipe.

Ok, maybe this is all a slight exaggeration. But I will warn you once more, you have to be really, really into baking for this one. Your entire weekend will be planned around the fermentation schedule. The whole process might feel a little excessive but the results, however, are magical. To make bread this good, this flavorful, this, well, artisanal tasting might just be worth all the long, patient suffering endured beforehand. It has brought me to the dark side of baking, or at least taken over any weekend when I decide I want a fresh loaf.

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Here is my most important suggestion to anyone that wants to try this recipe for the first time: read the directions first, maybe even twice. It might also help to watch the posted video to get a sense of the steps involved. Trust me, familiarizing yourself with the steps will be useful later. You’ll end up referencing the written recipe many times over, unless you are a pro at memorization.

Anyways. So you’re ready to do this. The only part of the recipe I felt was a little off, timing-wise, was how long the poolish, or yeast starter, took to properly ferment. It says the initial fermentation will take 12-18 hours, which from my experience is too short. In the 3 times I have baked this bread, it has taken 24 hours, 16 hours, and 22 hours respectively. Maybe the process is slowed because of the yeast I’m using combined with the temperature in my kitchen. The poolish is supposed to be ready when a tiny piece floats in a cup of water. The first time I was trying this “float test” the pieces kept sinking, making me think that the yeast was bad and the whole concoction was done for. Not true. Eventually it floated to the top, luckily before I gave up on the entire process. So don’t worry if this first step takes longer than 18 hours.

Another helpful suggestion is to diligently weigh out all the ingredients on a digital scale, including the water and salt. This step makes for more accurate measurements and a properly baked loaf. (apparently some people have questioned the salt content of the recipe overall. I had no problem with the saltiness when using the scale.)  Following the timings and steps for the kneading, mixing, and multiples rises is also a process in itself but all crucial to help you achieve the impressive final result.

The “slap and fold” step is the most hands-on and fun part once you get used to it. A more extreme version of normal kneading, this process is perfect to do with this stretchy, goopy dough. If you look over the written directions and want to cry from confusion, just watch the video linked to above. This step might feel a little messy and weird at first, but you’ll get used to it quickly, and it really goes help to develop the gluten strands.

After all the kneading, slapping, and various rises involved, the dough still always seems pretty soft to me.  The mass will spread out as far as it can after I invert it onto parchment paper in preparation for baking. None of this effects the end result. The loaf perfectly fits into my 5.5 quart Dutch Oven and bakes within the suggested times, usually closer to the low timing while in a 475 degree oven.

Waiting a few hours for the bread to cool is torturous. My last suggestion is to bake it at the very end of the night. Instead of hovering over the bread to cool you can simply wake up to a happy breakfast. The end product is outstanding, robust with an intense crust. Feels fancier than what you thought you could make at home.

Some other notes:

  • I do not have rice flour, so I used the suggested backup of cornstarch/flour. It was fine.
  • I also do not have a razor or lame on hand to slash the dough. A knife was my substitute, which barely works. No effect on the end flavor.
  • My marble slab was the perfect place to work on the “slap and fold” step of the recipe. This accessory along with a bench scraper makes for an easier process.
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Recipe: BA’s Best Bread Recipe

Kitchen Mess: 3 out of 4.

Recommended For: Masochists, Weekend Bakers, Things To Do During A Snowstorm, Bread Obsessives

Not Recommended For: Impatient Bakers, Busy Schedules, The Person Who Would Rather Buy A Loaf At The Bakery Down The Street And Be Done With It

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James Beard Buttermilk Loaf

I’m on a big bread kick right now. Evidence Pic #1:

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Buttermilk Loaf

This homemade bread obsession is mainly because I want to become more scientific about the whole process; to really understand the why and how of the steps involved and to accurately forecast the end results. I’ll post my various observations/recipes over the next month, or until it gets too hot to bake indoors.

Last month I received the classic James Beard bread book as a gift, with the suggestion to start with the Buttermilk bread recipe. Now’s the time to mention that I’ve been conditioned since an early age to dislike white bread. My mom had a strict “No Wonder Bread” policy in the house growing up. What that really means is that we had no factory-made fluffy white bread that could be squished and rolled into a small ball hanging out in the house, ever. It is one of those food rules that I’ve carried into adulthood, despite not always making healthy meal decisions on a daily basis.

Despite my initial trepidation I decided to go with the white bread recipe. Two reasons for this: 1. Buttermilk is always my friend and 2. Any warm bread fresh from the oven is also my friend. Plus it makes sense to go with the first recommendation, right?  Upon opening the physical cookbook (a used copy) I noticed  a handwritten edit to this particular recipe, an edit that was hard to avoid because it was written over the original type in bold pen. The markings on the page called for a 1/2 tablespoon salt instead of, well, something else.  I assumed it was 1 tablespoon because any more than that sounded absurd, and no proper recipe book would have a measurement reading of less than 1/4 tablespoon without switching to teaspoons. This is before I realized that the recipe already has a life of it’s own on the internet and has posted on a lot of recipe sites and blogs. The recipe calls for 1 tablespoon, which many seem to think is excessive.

I went with the edited version of 1/2 tbsp. The recipe is very straightforward if you are used to baking homemade loaves.: proof the yeast, add the ingredients, knead for 10 minutes, let it rise, punch down and shape, rise again, bake, eat.

As you can imagine, this bread is excellent fresh out of the oven. The pillowy softness balanced with the crunchy crust and was perfect with butter and jam. The buttermilk was very apparent and had an excellent tangy flavor when eaten warm. Unfortunately after a day or so it seemed to have lost that special tang, eventually toasting up like basic white bread. (…and making the soft-pillow texture move towards boring bread territory. Dare I even say Wonder Bread territory?)

Because of the quick falloff in quality, I would suggest repurposing the bread leftovers around day 2. Maybe throw stale chunks in a food processor to make bread crumbs, toast squares in the oven to make salad croutons, or soak thick slices in an egg/milk batter to make decadent french toast.

I think my cookbook edit of 1/2 tbsp seems to be appropriate, though I would definitely try 1 tbsp next time to be sure. It might also depend on the type of buttermilk used.

Besides the salt measurement debate, there is another point brought up elsewhere online that I would like to agree with here: the dough in this recipe can easily make 2 loaves instead of 1. The pictures I took here are a perfect illustration of this opinion. The loaf was crazy high – in fact it was almost twice as high as the bread pan. Next time I will maybe try 2 free form loaves and adjust the time as needed.

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This barely fit in one loaf pan.

Recipe Credit: James Beard’s Buttermilk Bread

Kitchen Mess: 2 out of 4. I’d say this is a typical amount of breadmaking mess- ending with 2 bowls, a bread pan (maybe 2?), and a flour-covered spot from kneading. Really the part I hate cleaning the most is the cooling rack.

Recommended For: Buttermilk lovers, anyone in need of both a half loaf of fresh bread and a cup or two of fresh breadcrumbs

Not Recommended For: Anyone who likes to wait a day before eating a slice of bread. (is there anyone out there who does this, really?)