Courtesy Charlie Baggett
Like the basic black dress, this basic white loaf is always appropriate and in favor.
Like the basic black dress, this basic white loaf is always appropriate and in favor. Courtesy Charlie Baggett
While expensive enamel-coated cast-iron Dutch ovens make great bread bakers, there are many more economical containers that work just as well. I've successfully used several anodized aluminum stew and sauce pots; plain cast-iron Dutch ovens and deep-sided skillets and fryers; enamel-coated carbon steel pots; and even a heavy 4-quart stainless steel-clad aluminum saucepan (with a domed oven-safe lid and metal handle). The shape and size of the container will greatly affect how the finished loaf will look, of course, but so long as they are sturdy and have a snug-fitting lid, all sorts of pots will yield the crusty-crackly breads that are otherwise difficult to produce in a home oven.
The pot size, shape and composition will also affect baking time. For example, in a 10- or 11-inch diameter deep-sided skillet or Dutch oven, the dough will spread out and yield a low, gently domed loaf that will bake through in the center sooner than a taller, high-domed loaf produced in a 9-inch diameter pan.
Courtesy Charlie Baggett
All of the ingredients for this simple bread are added at once.
All of the ingredients for this simple bread are added at once. Courtesy Charlie Baggett
Pot boules — round, peasant-style breads that are simply popped into a sturdy, lidded pot and baked — are about the easiest loaves possible, but among the most gratifying. They puff up well, brown beautifully and always come out crusty, due to the moisture trapped inside the pot during the first few minutes in the oven. (In fact, the pot actually serves as a minioven.) As a bonus, the loaves need no hand shaping because the dough just conforms to the container shape as it expands.
Like the basic black dress, this basic white loaf is always appropriate and in favor. The interplay of light mild crumb, crunchy golden crust and deep, sweet yeast taste and aroma (coaxed out by long, slow rising) is downright amazing. In fact, eating this bread is a far more complex and exciting sensory experience than one might expect from the simple ingredients.
Should you ever want a change of pace from the basic loaf, it's an easy matter to add a few accents for a rather different effect. See the rosemary-black olive variation at the end of the recipe.
Makes 1 large loaf, 12 to 14 slices.
4 cups (20 ounces) unbleached all-purpose white flour or white bread flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons table salt
3/4 teaspoon instant, fast-rising or bread-machine yeast
2 cups ice water, plus more if needed
Corn oil, canola oil or other flavorless vegetable oil or oil spray for coating dough
First Rise: In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast. Vigorously stir the water into the bowl, scraping down the sides and mixing until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. If the mixture is too dry to incorporate all the flour, stir in more water, a bit at a time, just enough to blend the ingredients. Don't over-moisten; the dough should be very stiff. If necessary, stir in enough more flour to yield a hard-to-stir dough. Brush or spray the top with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. If desired, for best flavor or for convenience, you can refrigerate the dough for three to 10 hours. Then let rise at cool room temperature for 18 to 24 hours. If convenient, vigorously stir the dough once about halfway through the rise.
Second Rise: Using an oiled rubber spatula, gently lift and fold the dough in toward the center, all the way around, until mostly deflated; don't stir. Brush or spray the surface with oil. Re-cover the bowl with plastic wrap that has been coated with nonstick spray. Let rise using any of these methods: for a 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-hour regular rise, let stand at warm room temperature; for a 1- to 2-hour accelerated rise, let stand in a turned-off microwave along with 1 cup of boiling-hot water; or for an extended rise, refrigerate, covered, for 4 to 24 hours, then set out at room temperature. Continue the rise until the dough doubles from the deflated size; remove the plastic if the dough nears it.
Baking Preliminaries: 20 minutes before baking time, put a rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat to 450 degrees. Heat a 3 1/2- to 4-quart (or larger) heavy metal pot or Dutch oven in the oven until sizzling hot (test with a few drops of water), then remove it, using heavy mitts. Taking care not to deflate the dough (or burn yourself), loosen it from the bowl sides with an oiled rubber spatula and gently invert it into the pot. Don't worry if it's lopsided and ragged-looking; it will even out during baking. Generously spritz or brush the top with water. Immediately top with the lid. Shake the pot back and forth to center the dough.
Baking: Bake on the lower rack for 55 minutes. Remove the lid. Reduce the heat to 425 degrees. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until the top is well browned and a skewer inserted in the thickest part comes out with just a few crumbs on the tip (or until center registers 209 to 212 degrees on an instant-read thermometer). When it seems done, bake 5 minutes longer to ensure the center is baked through. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the loaf to the rack and cool thoroughly.
Serving And Storing: Cut or tear the loaf into portions; it tastes good warm but will cut much better when cool. Cool completely before storing. To maintain the crisp crust, store draped with a clean tea towel or in a heavy paper bag. Or store airtight in a plastic bag or wrapped in foil: The crust will soften, but can be crisped by heating the loaf, uncovered, in a 400 degree oven for a few minutes. The bread will keep at room temperature for three days, and may be frozen, airtight, for up to two months.
VARIATION: Crusty Rosemary And Olive Pot Bread — Stir 1 cup pitted, coarsely chopped kalamata olives (well drained) and 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh (not dried) rosemary needles (discard the stems) into the dough along with the water. Proceed exactly as directed in the original recipe.
Recipe reprinted from Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads by Nancy Baggett. Copyright (c) 2009 Nancy Baggett. Published by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved.