Rustic Bread (and why I love this pot)

This beauty comes from my Americas Test Kitchen book, who adapted it from a recipe of Mark Bittmans, who got the idea  from the Sullivan Street Bakery. This here bread recipe is groundbreaking, at least in my book. The technique is dead simple and you achieve that elusive, perfectly crackling crust. It’s almost not fair that even beginners, with no baking experience can, with this one recipe and the perfect pot, turn out this jaw dropping rustic loaf of bread. There is very little kneading to this. The real secret to this one is the pot I cook it in. See?

You need to  preheat this sucker in a very hot oven. The bread dough, when it is ready, gets carefully maneuvered into this hot pot, the lid popped on and stand back. The close space creates the moistness necessary to give the bread its superb crust, the one thing home bakers have been using all kinds of tricks to try to achieve. This dough actually gives off its own steam! This is almost too easy. No putting boiling water in a pot in the bottom of the oven, or misting the oven walls. (I’ve done it all).

This recipe is the one reason I really wanted this pot. (yes, it’s also great for spaghetti and meatballs, deep-frying or beef stew  …). But I had heard about this recipe and fretted (yes, fretted), that I could not try it because I did not have a good, solid iron or stone pot, with a lid, big enough for the job.

But one day hubby, bless his pea-pickin heart, just came home with this beautiful Kirkland enamel coated iron pot! I guess he heard me mention it once or twice or…And when he saw this (and the price tag) he just knew that it was just the thing to make me the happiest camper. He was so right!

Now I too have found the perfect crust. The search is over and I can rest in peace, more or less.

All you need:

  • 3 cups (15 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus some to work with (or substitute a little white whole wheat)
  • 1/4 tsp. instant or rapid-rise yeast
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt (DON’T forget the salt! You will be very disappointed if you do)
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tsp. (7 ounces) water, room temp.(I suggest bottled)
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (3 ounces) mid-flavored lager
  • 1 Tbsp. distilled white vinegar

Whisk the dry ingredients together.

Add the wet ingredients.

Use a rubber spatula to fold the mixture, scraping up the dry flour from the bottom until it forms a shaggy ball. Shaggy is good. It will be sticky and messy looking. That’s okay.

Cover the ball with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 8-18 HOURS. Just walk away from the dough.

Now, it’s the next day probably. The dough has raised and made little bubble holes on top. You get out a 10-inch or so skillet and line it with a good-sized piece of  parchment paper. (about 12 x 18) Parchment paper is one of my favorite things and saves the day here too. Spray it with vegy oil and set aside.

pour the dough onto a floured work surface. I like my bamboo cutting board or my roll out silicone mat. With lightly floured or better yet, wet hands you will gently knead it about 10-15 times(not minutes). This helps develop a bit more gluten to help her maintain her lovely curvy shape. Gently lift one end of the dough and plop it over itself. Turn it a quarter turn,  lift another wet, sticky side and fold it over itself again. Repeat. Use a scraper or spatula if it sticks too much to the board. After just a few folds you will see a difference in the texture. This is all it needs.

Shape the dough into a ball  by pulling the edges into the middle. You want a taut surface. Put it seam side down in the parchment lined skillet, spray the dough with vegy oil, cover in plastic wrap and let rise at room temp until it is doubled in size and does not really spring back when poked with a finger. (about 2 hours)

30 minutes before baking, adjust an oven rack to the lowest position. Place your 6-8 quart heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, with lid, on the rack. Turn the oven on to 500 degrees. Lightly flour the top of the dough and using a sharp non-serrated knife, make a 6 inch long, 1/2 inch deep slit along the top of the dough. I put the small sharp knife at a 45 degree angle to the bread and make a quick slice. Quick so it does not pull the dough, but cut it. (I remember years ago doing this for the first time with some white bread and my dough collapsed! sniff. It wasn’t supposed to do that. I had let it over raise. Not as likely to happen with this kind of dough).

So, its floured, raised, cut, and ready to go. The oven is hot and so is your pot. Take the hot pot out of the oven. How do you get the dough in there without blistering yourself?  C-A-R-E-F-U-L-L-Y.

Remove the pot from the oven and remove the lid. Pick up the dough (we will name her Nancy)  by the paper she has been raising on! It is like a sling. Holding it by the edges of the paper, lift it, carry it to the pot, lower it into the hot pot. Don’t worry if the parchment hangs over the pots edge, its okay. Put the lid on it and get it back in the oven. The yeasties in Nancy will immediately kick into gear.

After you close the oven door, reduce the oven temp to 425 degrees. Bake, covered for 30 minutes. Remove the lid (again, carefully) and continue to bake uncovered, until the loaf is deep brown and your instant-read thermometer inserted into the center reads 210 degrees. This will take 20-30 minutes longer, after removing the lid. 30 minutes with lid, 20-30 minutes without lid.

Carefully remove Nancy from the pot, transfer her to a wire rack and cool to room temperature, at least 2 hours.

If you listen carefully, lean in a little, you can hear the crust crackle as it cools. Ahh, crust nirvana. The home bakers quest. Forget the holy grail, give me the perfect crust. The insides not bad either. Chewy, tasty. Sigh…okay, I am hungry.

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