By Jessica Roy Warm, fresh, homemade bread is one of life’s little luxuries. The rich yeasty aroma floating through the house as a golden brown loaf bakes, stirs up an internal urgency: “Is it ready yet?”
Not for the impatient, baking bread is a simple, yet all day process. It is my fervent believe that the time invested in handcrafting a loaf from scratch is an essential ingredient directly related to how good it tastes. At least, that’s what I tell myself while I’m doing it.
There are many myths about the mysterious world of baking, but there is one way to dispel them all — by breaking it down to understand how and why the process works. To bake a simple loaf of crusty white bread, all it takes is 6 ingredients, a Dutch oven (a heavy enameled cast iron pot with tight fitting lid), and 4-5 hours of rest time with minimal actual work done by you. Of course, it helps if you have an electric mixer with a dough hook attachment to do the manual labor.
To achieve a perfect, crisp, crunchy crust, steam is key. Professional bakers around the world have been doing this for ages using commercial steam injection ovens, or various vessels to harness steam’s power. At home, baking in a Dutch oven provides a sealed environment trapping steam around the loaf, breaking down starch in the flour which then hardens as it heats.
By keeping the ingredients simple, the interior of this crusty white bread will remain soft and light as opposed to firm and chewy. Ample proofing time in a friendly environment (about 70-80 degrees) allows the dough to rise and rest, and for the gluten to develop into tender protein chains.
The size and shape of the loaf or loaves is up to you, and also depends on the shape of the Dutch oven. I used a 7-quart oval for this loaf, as I wanted an oblong shape rather than round. You can split the dough into a few smaller loaves or even large rolls, and reduce the uncovered cooking time accordingly.
A couple of technical things to note before you get baking: Some Dutch ovens come with a hard plastic knob on the lid rather than a metal one, and therefore suggest the maximum cooking temperature as 450 degrees F. If this is the case, simply remove the plastic knob, and place the screw back into the hole from the top of the lid while you bake. Also, I’m calling to preheat your pot in a 500 degree F oven prior to baking. While many Dutch ovens will be just fine to do this, I’m adding a small amount of water to the pan to help carry some of the heat, as well as create a little bit of steam inside the pan prior to adding the bread.
Homemade Crusty White Bread
4 cups flour, more as needed for dusting
Half of a 1/4 oz. packet active dry yeast (about 1 1/8 tsp.)
1 1/2 cups warm water (100-110 degrees F)
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. Kosher salt, more for topping
Olive oil, as desired
Add yeast and sugar into the warm water to bloom for 3-5 minutes, until foamy on top.
Combine the flour and salt to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment. Pour in the yeast water, and turn the mixer on to medium speed. Mix for 8-10 minutes until dough is smooth and stretchy. Test by stretching a piece. If the dough easily stretches until you can see through it, the dough is ready. If it breaks or tears easily, keep mixing for a few more minutes.
Shape the dough into a ball, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Trace a circle onto the plastic wrap outlining the shape of the dough ball. Proof (let sit) the dough for 3-4 hours at room temperature, until the dough has doubled in size.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, and knead 4 or 5 times to redistribute the yeast. Shape into a tight dough ball, and place onto a large piece of parchment paper. Cover with a damp towel, and allow to rise for 45-60 minutes more.
Meanwhile, pour about 1/2 inch of water into the Dutch oven pot, and cover with the lid. Place the Dutch oven pot with the water in it into the oven. Preheat the oven with the pot in it to 500 degrees F. Let the pot heat up for about 15-20 minutes. When you’re ready to bake the bread, pour out the water.
Brush surface of dough ball with olive oil. Sprinkle as desired with kosher salt. Lightly score the top of the dough with a sharp knife and dust lightly with flour if desired.
Pick up the bread by lifting the parchment paper, and drop it into the preheated pot, paper and all. Cover the pot with the lid, and place into the oven to bake for 20 minutes at 500 degrees F.
After 20 minutes, reduce the oven heat to 450 degrees, and remove the lid. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden. Remove from oven, peel off the parchment paper and allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing. Serve each slice with a pat of butter.
Jessica Roy is a specialty chef and caterer, food writer and chef instructor, and owner of Shiso Kitchen in Somerville,