The Secret to Making Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: Refrigerating Pre-Mixed Homemade Dough
Like most kids, my brother and I loved sweets, so dessert was our favorite time of day. We’d sit in the kitchen, devouring frosted supermarket doughnuts.
"Those are too sweet," my grandmother would say. "Me, I’d rather have a piece of good rye bread, with cheese on it."
Munch, munch, munch. Our mouths were full; we could not respond.
"It’s better than cake," she’d say.
There’s a certain solidarity among kids gorging on sweets, but secretly, I knew she was right. I could finish half a loaf of very fresh, very crisp rye bread by myself, with or without butter (unlike my grandmother, I considered cheese to be a distraction from perfect rye bread). The right stuff came from a little bakery on Horace Harding Boulevard in Queens. The shop itself was nondescript, but the breads were Eastern European masterpieces. The crust of the rye bread was crisp, thin, and caramelized brown. The interior crumb was moist and dense, chewy but never gummy, and bursting with tangy yeast, rye, and wheat flavors. It made great toast, too—and yes, it was better than cake.
The handmade bread was available all over New York City, and it wasn’t a rarefied delicacy. Everyone knew what it was and took it for granted. It was not a stylish addition to affluent lifestyles; it was a simple comfort food brought here by modest immigrants.
I left New York in the late 1980s, and assumed that the corner bread shops would always be there, waiting for me, whenever I came back to visit. But I was wrong. As people lost interest in making a second stop after the supermarket just for bread, the shops gradually faded away. By 1990, the ubiquitous corner shops turning out great eastern, central, and southern European breads with crackling crusts were no longer so ubiquitous.
Great European breads, handmade by artisans, were still available, but they’d become part of the serious (and seriously expensive) food phenomenon that had swept the country. The bread bakery was no longer on every corner—now it was a destination. And nobody’s grandmother would ever have paid six dollars for a loaf of bread.
I’d fly back to New York and wander the streets, bereft (well, not really). "My shop" on Horace Harding Boulevard had changed hands several times by 1990, and the bread, being made only once a day, was dry and didn’t really have a lot of flavor. I even became convinced that we could get better bagels in Minneapolis—and from a chain store. Things were that grim.
So Zoë and I decided to do something about it. Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day is our attempt to help people re-create the great ethnic breads of years past, in their own homes, without investing serious time in the process. Using our straightforward, fast, and easy recipes, anyone will be able to create artisan bread and pastry at home with minimal equipment. Our first problem was: Who has time to make bread every day?
After years of experimentation, it turns out that we do, and with a method as fast as ours, you can, too. We solved the time problem and produced top-quality artisan loaves without a bread machine. We worked out the master recipes during busy years of career transition and starting families (our kids now delight in the pleasures of home-baked bread). Our lightning-fast method lets us find the time to bake great bread every day. We developed this method to recapture the daily artisan bread experience without further crunching our limited time—and it works!
Traditional breads need a lot of attention, especially if you want to use a "starter" for that natural, tangy taste. Starters need to be cared for, with water and flour replenished from time to time. Dough needs to be kneaded until resilient, set to rise, punched down, allowed to rise again. There are boards and pans and utensils galore to be washed, some of which can’t go into the dishwasher. Very few busy people can go through this every day, if ever. Even if your friends are all food fanatics, when was the last time you had homemade bread at a dinner party?
What about bread machines? The machines solve the time problem and turn out uniformly decent loaves, but unfortunately, the crust is soft and dull-flavored, and without tangy flavor in the crumb (unless you use and maintain time-consuming sourdough starter).
So we went to work. Over years, we found how to subtract the various steps that make the classic technique so time-consuming, and identified a few that couldn’t be omitted.
And then, Zoë worked some pastry-chef magic: She figured out that we could use stored dough for desserts as well as for bread, applying the same ideas to sweet breads, rolls, and morning breads. It all came down to one fortuitous discovery:
Pre-mixed, pre-risen, high-moisture dough keeps well in the refrigerator.
This is the linchpin of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. By pre-mixing high-moisture dough (without kneading) and then storing it, daily bread baking becomes an easy activity; the only steps you do every day are shaping and baking. Other books have considered refrigerating dough, but only for a few days. Still others have omitted the kneading step, but none has tested the capacity of wet dough to be long-lived in your refrigerator. As our high-moisture dough ages, it takes on sourdough notes, reminiscent of the great European natural starters. When dough is mixed with adequate water (this dough is wetter than most you may have worked with), it can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks (enriched or heavy doughs can’t go that long but can be frozen instead). And kneading this kind of dough adds little to the overall product; you just don’t have to do it. In fact, overhandling stored dough can limit the volume and rise that you get with our method. That, in a nutshell, is how you make artisan breads with the investment of only five minutes a day of active effort.
A one-or two-week supply of dough is made in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Measuring and mixing the dough takes less than 15 minutes. Kneading, as we’ve said, is not necessary. Every day cut off a hunk of dough from the storage container and briefly shape it without kneading. Allow it to rest briefly on the counter and then toss it in the oven. We don’t count the rest time (20 minutes or more depending on the recipe) or baking time (usually about 30 minutes) in our five-minute-a-day calculation since you can be doing something else while that’s happening. If you bake after dinner, the bread will stay fresh for use the next day (higher-moisture breads stay fresh longer), but the method is so convenient that you probably will find you can cut off some dough and bake a loaf every morning, before your day starts. If you want to have one thing you do every day that is simply perfect, this is it!
Wetter is better:The wetter dough, as you’ll see, is fairly slack, and offers less resistance to yeast’s expanding carbon dioxide bubbles. So, despite not being replenished with fresh flour and water like a proper sourdough starter, there is still adequate rise on the counter and in the oven.
Using high-moisture, pre-mixed, pre-risen dough makes most of the difficult, time-consuming, and demanding steps in traditional bread baking completely superfluous:
1. You don’t need to make fresh dough every day to have fresh bread every day: Stored dough makes wonderful fresh loaves. Only the shaping and baking steps are done daily, the rest has been done in advance.
2. You don’t need a "sponge" or "starter": Traditional sourdough recipes require that you keep flour-water mixtures bubbling along in your refrigerator, with careful attention and replenishment. By storing the dough over two weeks, a subtle sourdough character gradually develops in our breads without needing to maintain sponges or starters in the refrigerator. With our dough-storage approach, your first loaf is not exactly the same as the last. It will become more complex in flavor as the dough ages.
3. It doesn’t matter how you mix the dry and wet ingredients together: So long as the mixture is uniform, without any dry lumps of flour, it makes no difference whether you use a spoon, a high-capacity food processor, or a heavy-duty stand mixer. Choose based on your own convenience.
What We Don’t Have to Do: Steps from Traditional Artisan Baking That We Omitted
1. Mix a new batch of dough every time we want to make bread
2. "Proof" yeast
3. Knead dough
4. Cover formed loaves
5. Rest and rise the loaves in a draft-free location—it doesn’t matter!
6. Fuss over doubling or tripling of dough volume
7. Punch down and re-rise
8. Poke rising loaves to be sure they’ve "proofed" by leaving indentations
Now you know why it only takes 5 minutes a day, not including resting and baking time.
4. You don’t need to "proof" yeast: Traditional recipes specify that yeast be dissolved in water (often with a little sugar) and allowed to sit for five minutes to prove that bubbles can form and the yeast is alive. But modern yeast simply doesn’t fail if used before its expiration date and the baker remembers to use lukewarm, not hot water. The high-water content in our doughs further ensures that the yeast will fully hydrate and activate without a proofing step. Further storage gives it plenty of time to fully ferment the dough—our approach doesn’t need the head start.
5. It isn’t kneaded: The dough can be mixed and stored in the same resealable plastic container. No wooden board is required. There should be only one vessel to wash, plus a spoon (or a mixer). You’ll never tell the difference between breads made with kneaded and unkneaded high-moisture dough, so long as you mix to a basically uniform consistency. In our method, a very quick "cloaking and shaping" step substitutes for kneading (see Chapter 5, Step 5, page 28).
Start a morning batch before work, bake the first loaf before dinner: Here’s a convenient way to get fresh bread on the table for dinner. Mix up a full batch of dough before breakfast and store it in the refrigerator. The lukewarm water you used to mix the dough will provide enough heat to allow the yeast to do its thing over the eight hours till you’re home. When you walk in the door, cloak and shape the loaf and give it a quick rest, then bake as usual. Small loaves, and especially flatbreads, can be on the table in 40 minutes or less.
6. High-moisture stored dough can’t over-rise accidentally:Remember that you’re storing it long-term anyway. You’ll see a brisk initial rise at room temperature over two hours; then the risen dough is refrigerated for use over the next week or two. But rising longer won’t be harmful; there’s lots of leeway in the initial rise time.
Given these simple principles, anyone can make artisan bread at home. We’ll talk about what you’ll need in Chapters 2 (Ingredients) and 3 (Equipment). You don’t need a professional baker’s kitchen. In Chapter 4, you’ll learn the tips and techniques that we’ve taken years to accumulate. Then, in Chapter 5, we’ll lay out the basics of our method, applying them to ordinary white dough and several delicious bread variations. Chapter 5’s master recipe is the model for the rest of our recipes. We suggest you read it first and bake some of its breads before trying anything else. You won’t regret it.
Excerpted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François.
Copyright 2007 by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François.
Published in November 2007 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.