Thursday, October 28, 2010

THE Simplest Recipe for Artisan Bread

Who doesn't like eating fresh, hot from oven bread ? But most people find the entire process of baking bread very intimidating. First you have to use the right ingredients, get the proportions just exact, then knead the dough to a perfect consistency, let it rise and proof for just the right duration and then bake it at exactly for so long at an exact temperature. The amount of parameters that you have to think about make buying a digital camera seem like a child's play.

What's so special about this recipe ?
I have a very simple recipe, based on ideas from a few books and it will give you a very good artisan bread. It won't win you any prizes in bread baking competitions, but what makes it great is

1. It's very forgiving, you don't need to be super-perfect in order to get it right.
2. It uses the minimum possible ingredients, and can be very healthy if you use 100% whole wheat flour.
3. It provides ample scope for your creativity to do variations on the same theme to get very different breads. More on that later.
4. It's very flexible and can be adjusted to meet your schedule. I will cover that later, for now, let's keep things simple.
5. And it's tested. I have used it many times. I have told others about it and they have had great success with it.

The ingredients :
Generally, bread recipes call for 3 cups of flour. For the first time, use the following measures, and if you want a 3 cup bread, just double everything.

- 1 1/2 (One and one half) cup of flour. You can use bread flour, all purpose flour or 100% whole wheat flour. Whole wheat bread will be denser and heavier, as is to be expected.
- 2/3 cup water - but if you are using 100% whole wheat flour you will need 3/4 cups of water. Don't worry about the temperature of the water, just use regular water.
- 3/4 tsp table salt
- 3/4 tsp yeast (active dry or instant yeast)

Nothing else, this is as pure as bread can be (except of course breads using starters that catch air-borne yeast). Neither sugar nor fat of any kind is needed.

The first thing to note here is, the amount of water is way higher than recipes that require kneading. That's right, there is no kneading in this recipe, in fact so much water makes kneading impossible. We are relying on higher hydration to do the work for us. Apart from eliminating the kneading, high level of hydration will also give us soft, open crumb with big holes - typical of what is often called as an "artisan" bread.
In a large glass bowl (don't use plastic/metal) stir together flour, salt and yeast.

 Add all the water to it.

Using a big spoon, keep stirring the dough for a couple of minutes. You won't be able to do that with your hands. The dough will be very sticky. As you begin, it may feel too wet or too dry, but don't worry. Just work the sides of the bowl to keep the dough in one lump. All you are trying to do is to eliminate any dry spots. It won't take more than 2-3 minutes. That's it. The dough will look like a very sticky lump.

Cover it, and keep it away from sunlight for about 4 hours. Don't worry about the exact duration. The rising won't be done in less than 3 hours, and won't need more than 5 hours. Use the following photos as a guide to decide when it's time to bake.

Halfway during the rising, it will look something like this.
When the dough starts looking bubbly like this, it's ready for baking. By this time, the dough would have tripled in size, if not more.

Liberally sprinkle a cookie sheet with flour. You can use a foil to line the sheet, I prefer parchment paper.

Now, very gently pour the dough - which will look like a thick batter - on to the sheet. Just remember to not force the dough, or you will punch it down. We want to protect the air bubbles as much as possible. Tilt the bowl, and let gravity do the work for you. If you have to, just nudge it around edges. But do NOT scoop it out. Do NOT press it. Sprinkle it with flour.

Once it's on the sheet, let it be. Don't try to shape it. Our bread is very similar to ciabatta - which literally means "carpet slipper" in Italian. The only drawback of higher levels of hydration is difficulty in shaping. I would recommend that you don't try to shape it at all. Don't even score it. If you are trying out for the first time, you will almost surely punch it down while doing so. Just keep it simple, avoid the work and as a bonus, you will get a nice bread !

This may look flat - but trust me, you will get a nice oven spring once the dough is in the oven. For first few minutes, the warmth of oven and high water content will send the yeast into a frenzy and before it gives up it's life as the temperature of dough goes over 200, it would have secured you a very airy crumb.

Pre-heat the oven at 425 F. Ovens are different. But you cannot bake it below 400 and anything over 450 is too high. If you have to adjust later based on the result, be within that range.

Put the sheet in oven and bake for about 22 minutes. Again, it won't be done in 20 minutes, and over 25 minutes, it will be almost over baked. Whole wheat may take 25 minutes, but not more.

During baking, the bread will rise and spread. It won't be a super-tall loaf. It needs room to increase its size sideways, so don't bake it like a cake in a pan to give it shape - this needs to be a free standing loaf.

Once it's baked, remove it from oven and let it cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes. It's tempting to just cut it and eat it, but you have to let the steam, that's trapped inside, complete its job.

Use a sharp serrated knife and try not to squeeze the bread while cutting. Best time to cut is when you are ready to eat. This bread will stay for a couple of days, but it will start to dry out once cut - remember there is no oil to keep it soft.

This bread is perfect with an Italian menu and for many Indian dishes like "Paav-bhaji" and "Usal Paav" etc. It will be fresh, homemade, without any chemicals/preservatives and healthy. And very simple to prepare.

If you have any questions or need to make some changes or need variations, let me know.

UPDATE : See the troubleshooting guide for more help if you need any.


  1. Excellent documentation

    Great work Abhay !!

    - Ashok

  2. Mmmmmm.... Need to visit you guys to taste it ;)


  3. Wow, very detailed recipe! Loved few ingredients factor. I'll definitely give it a try.

    Keep baking!

  4. UPDATE : Posted a troubleshooting guide at

  5. I've been using this recipe for a while but I've found that I like having the bread with a bit more salt! Also, 2 cups AP flour and 1 cup bread flour to give it a little more crumble!

  6. I made this today for the first time. It turned out great! Thanks for the recipe and the instructions.

    I usually have whey lying around, so I substituted whey for the water. The next time, I think I'll use 50:50 whey and water because the dough ended up somewhat drier than yours. I had to add a couple tablespoons water to get the dough into a ball at all. Or perhaps I should have used 3/4 cup whey rather than 2/3.


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