A Good Crusty Loaf: Chapter 1


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A good crust, a chewy dense crumb, large irregular air pockets; nutritious, wholesome bread.

Good bread is a revelation.  Industrialized plastic bread is a disappointment.  The key to good bread is time.   When bread is made well and allowed to undergo a slow rise, amazing transformations occur.  Through fermentation a complex ecosystem emerges unlocking nutrients and enzymes.  The dry dustiness of wheat flour metamorph0sizes into what many cultures have referred to for thousands of years as the staff of life.  Michael Pollan writes extensively about the transformation of flour and water to bread, particularly sour dough made from wild yeasts.

I rarely buy bread.  I make it at home following the extremely straight forward and ingenious method below.  It contains only three ingredients in addition to cold tap water.   Our bread starts with really good, locally grown and recently milled flour.  We maintain a stock of white, spelt, rye, wholewheat and 7 grain flour.  We keep our flour in the freezer, to preserve it, and buy it in small quantities.  Good flour is important to achieving flavourful and nutritious bread.  We do not buy popular brands of flour that have been bleached and fortified.

I make one large loaf (equalling 2 average size loaves) of bread every other week.  I cut it into quarters and freeze most of it to be brought out later as needed.  My standard method is below.  A variation on this method (lentil buns) follows.  In future posts I will describe a number of other variations on this standard loaf.

The loaf below is not technically a sourdough as it does rely on commercial yeast.  A better bread results from cultivating wild yeast, but the bread recipe that follows is very accessible and anyone can achieve a good loaf by following this process.


Whole Grain Loaf

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This is based on Jim Lahey’s very popular slow-rise, no-knead method.  Lahey says “Good bread should be a masterpiece of contrast, crackling as you bite through the browned, malty-smelling crust, then deeply satisfying as you get to the meaty, chewy crumb with its distinct wheaten, slightly acidic taste.  And that’s precisely the sort of loaf you’ll produce at home with my method”. The dough rises for 18-24 hours at room temperature.  While not specifically a fermented sour dough, it comes very close. The slow rise, and more than usual amount of water, enable gluten to establish.  Complex flavour also results from fermentation.  The flavour profile is most evident when you line it up against bread that was allowed to complete its first rise with excessive amounts of yeast in only a few hours.  That type of bread, smelling as good as it does straight from the oven, does not have the complexity of flavour that a slow risen bread has, and often tastes yeasty.  The trick enabling a long slow rise is a tiny amount of yeast.  The other trick is to bake bread in a heavy iron pot.  The lid is clamped on for the first half of the baking to assist the bread to get a good lift in the oven.  The lid is removed for the second half of the baking time to encourage a good golden crust.

  • 3 cups good quality unbleached white flour
  • 3 cups whole grain wheat, spelt, or 7 grain flour (Of course for a white loaf use 3 additional cups of unbleached white flour)
  • 1/4 tsp yeast
  • 2 teaspoons grey sea salt
  • Approximately 3 cups of cold water

First rise:

Mix the flours, yeast, and salt.  Work in the water until a wet dough forms.  Too much water reduces the structure of the crumb.  Too dry a batter and it won’t rise properly.  The idea is that you want more water than the average loaf of bread so that as it bakes in an iron pot with the lid on, the steam rises the bread with a good thrust and enables a good crust to form.

Let the dough rise in a bowl covered with a tea towel and plate on the counter for 18-24 hours until the dough more than doubles in size and bubbles from on the surface.  The surface should also be darkening.  The bubble and colour change are a sign of early fermentation.

Second Rise:

Knock the air out of the bread by folding and stirring for about a minute.  Cover and let rise up to 2 hours.

Pre-heat your oven to 450F.  As you turn on the oven place a heavy iron pot with a lid inside.  When you are ready to bake, remove the pot and oil it.  Tip the loaf into the pot.  This will be a messy affair it will fall into the pot with a splat.  Sprinkle with flour and cut an inch deep strip or cross to aid rising.

Place the lid on and bake for 25 minutes.  Remove the lid and bake an additional 20 minutes until the curst is nicely browned.

Tip the loaf, which should be whistling and singing as it comes out of the oven, out of the pot and onto a cooling rack.  Don’t cut into the loaf until fully cooled if you can summon the patience.


Lentil Buns

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I occasionally buy lentil buns at our local organic store, which are produced by an artisanal baker from a nearby city.  They are very good, but I wanted to find a way to produce them at home using the Lahey slow rise method.

Adding cooked pulses to a bread dough adds a new flavour dimension to the dough and increases the nutritional quality of the bread.  It is a great strategy to add interest to bread. See my Chickpea Flatbread, which also relies on the slow rise method.

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  • Prepare a whole grain dough according to the recipe above
  • One hour before you are ready to beat down the dough for its second rise, boil 2 cups of Puy lentils in 4 cups of water until soft (20 – 30 minutes)
  •  Run the lentils under a cold tap to cool.  Mix in two tablespoons of honey.  Add the lentils to the bread dough  when you beat it down for the second rise.   Ensure the lentils are well incorporated.  After the dough completes its second rise, tip half of the dough onto a well-floured work surface and shape into buns.  Place on a floured baking tray, or drop into a well oiled muffin tin.  (The muffin tin method makes this easy work, as the buns are difficult to shape due to the high water content in the dough).   Repeat with the second half of the dough.  The buns are slightly difficult to shape so it is important to keep your hands, and the work surface, well-floured
  • Bake 20-25 minutes in a 375F oven until nicely browned

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For me, a good life is measured by the quality of simple things. A loaf  country-style whole-grain bread ranks high among the most satisfying ways to engage in the production, rather than the purchase, of one of life’s basic needs.  Stay tuned for other variations on this slow-rise bread.

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