First, get your hands on a copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and open it up to the Master Recipe (nothing by flour, salt, yeast & water, FYI). They'll have it at the library if you want to give it a test drive. But you'll want to buy it, I'm sure. Well -- I'm pretty sure. Maybe you're not as hard-core as me about your crusty breads.
As I've mentioned before I am in love, love, love with Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Aside from the week we were gone for vacation, I can only think of a few days here & there when we didn't have dough ready & waiting in the fridge because I use it for everything: fresh, hot loaves to eat with dinner, pizza dough and pita bread are a few of the ways I've put the Master Recipe to use. And since we rarely (OK never) seem to polish off the entire loaf in one sitting I've started cubing up the leftover bread, tossing it in a zip-top bag and putting it in the freezer to use later. They make AMAZING croutons for soups & salads -- all you have to do is let them defrost for about 15 minutes then toss them in a saute pan with 2-3 tablespoons of butter & olive oil. Brown them on each side, toss with S&P and some garlic powder and Oh. My. Word. Sara and I could eat those by themselves for dinner & be perfectly happy. Or use them to whip up Ina's Panzanella and holy cow. That is some GOOD stuff.
But I digress. The reason for my ramble today is to provide photographic evidence of how easy it is to make, shape, and bake off a loaf of totally delicious (and really inexpensive) hot, fresh, homemade bread. This won't be a sandwich loaf with a soft crust & squishy crumb but a peasant-style bread with a crispy crust & chewy interior. It's awesome -- trust me.
Here's all you do:
This photo is from the first batch I ever made and since I had bread flour on hand that day I used it. Ever since then I've just used good old A-P and it's fantastic. (Maybe better? Hard to say.)
Toss all the ingredients into a mixer and stir until it's just combined using the dough hook. Or, you can just mix it all in the storage container you're going to use. I'm too lazy to mix that hard so it's the KitchenAid for me.
Remember, you're not kneading - just mixing.
Dump the dough into your storage container. Mine is a 6qt plastic food storage bucket that I picked up locally at Zesco. (It looks pretty much exactly like the one from King Arthur Flour that they suggest in the book; they've since switched to this Cambro set from Amazon. But hey, it gave me an excuse to go to Zesco and that's always alright with me.)
Set the lid on top but don't seal it up. Let the dough rise til it doubles in size or flattens out on top, then put it in the fridge. Keep the lid set loosely on top.
That's it, friends! You've got dough ready & waiting for you any time over the next two weeks. And the longer it sits in the fridge the more sourdoughy it will taste.
When you're ready to bake, pull off a piece of dough about the size of a grapefruit and form into a round loaf. (Instructions on flouring the loaf are in the book so I won't go into details here but it's not rocket science, people. If I can do this, after 20 years of failed yeast bread attempts, anyone can do this.) Let it rest for about 20 minutes or so, then preheat your oven.
Just before you put it in the oven find yourself a good, sharp knife. I use our, um, BREAD knife. Wusthof, FTW!
You're going to make some 1/2 inch slashes in the top of the loaf. This will pretty it up (and do some other important baking-related stuff, I'm sure).
Now you're ready to bake. You'll notice I've let the dough rest on a cornmeal-dusted pizza peel. OK, it's not a pizza peel. It's a really lovely cutting board we got as a wedding gift. But I'm cheap & it works just like a peel so there it is.
Anyway, it's time to slide the dough into the oven and onto the preheated baking stone. Yeah, a baking stone. You know you've got one somewhere. And if you don't you can find one pretty inexpensively online. If you're dying to try this but don't want to find/purchase a stone, that's fine! Your bottom crust may not be as crispy as it gets on a stone but it will still work if you use a regular baking sheet.
As soon as you get the dough on the stone pour about a cup of water into an empty sheet pan set in the oven. This will make steam and that's what's going to give you this:
A gorgeous, crispy (but not tough!) crust.
As you can see Sara was ready to pounce on this beauty right after it came out of the over but it needs to sit for a bit before you slice into it. In full disclosure, we can never wait as long as they suggest. Because fresh, warm bread slathered with butter? Yeah... we're all over that at our house.
If you haven't already you should absolutely give this method a try. It's so simple, so inexpensive (after those 2 or 3 initial purchases) and SOOOO good. You'll love it!