So I have become somewhat obsessed with bread lately. I chalk it up to my engineering need to understand why just throwing yeast, water, flour, and salt into a bowl doesn't result in the artisan bread you see at the store. So, I am going to try to write down what I have learned and at the end I will give two recipes: one for a fairly flavorful stretchy bread and another for flat bread (pita).

Just a disclaimer: This is the understanding that I have come to and it may in no way represent reality!

Lesson 1: Less is more. The less kneading you do the better. The less yeast you can use, the better.

Why less kneading? Well artesian bread is inhomogenious. You can see it the second you cut it open! Small holes, big holes, medium holes... all kinds of sizes and shapes and this gives the bread a great and somewhat complex texture. What does mixing do? it homogenizes the bread resulting in all holes that are the same size (usually very small). This is why the bread you get from the supermarket looks like a sponge. It is far easier to over mix and ensure every batch is the same on an industrial scale then it is to mix just enough. We shall see later how to get the gluten links that give us stretchy dough without mixing!

Why less yeast? We like the byproducts of yeast growth for flavor but we don't necessarily like the yeast itself. If you can start off with alot less yeast, let it ferment for a while, and then use it in your bread that is better. This is called using a "starter" and there are many different kinds of starters that condition the yeast to produce certain byproducts. For instance a wet starter will produce a different flavor then a dry one and the same goes for hot vs. cold.

Wetter is Better: In general your dough should be wetter then you think.

Alot of people (myself included) when they make a dough like to add flour until the dough forms a nice round ball that they can handle with ease. Sticky dough is just a pain to work with! However sticky dough is moist dough and you are about to throw it into a 425 degree oven. And just like Arizona, that is a dry heat! The amount of water in the dough varies alot for different recipes but in general, wetter is better.

Autolysing, who'd a thought? Add water to flour without salt and yeast and gluten forms in abundance.

Some guy in France developed this so props to them! Basically, if you mix the flour and water and lit it sit without the salt and yeast a tremendous amount of gluten can form. It turns out that both salt and yeast inhibit its formation. Ask me why and I won't be able to tell you. Although, I do know that salt can cause some proteins to "salt out" of solution. In anycase, this gives us a route around the mixing problem. If we autolyse the dough we can get by with less kneading.

Now on to the recipe:

"Somewhat Artisan Bread"


4 c. Flour (I highly recommend "King Arthur's All Purpose Baking Flour")
1 1/2 c. Water (Vary Warm)
Several Pinches of Salt
2 tsp. Yeast

Note: I just got a kitchen scale for Christmas! Stay tuned as I am going to work out the weight proportions of flour and water so that I can do it much more quickly in my food processor.

Ok, take 1/2 c. warm water and mix it with 1/2 c. of flour. This is going to form a kind of pre-ferment. Once they are well mixed together (it will be very soupy) mix in the yeast and let set for 20 min - 30 min. Once that is done take the remaining water and add slightly less then 2 c. of flour to it in a large bowl. Here it is important to not have too firm of dough. If it isn't sticky add alittle more water. If it is to firm then it will make the next part pretty tedious. Let this also sit for 20 min - 30 min. Less if your kitchen is warm and more if you keep your house freezing like I do!

Once the pre-ferment mixture has at least doubled in size we are ready to mix both parts together. This won't be easy as the flour water mixture has become very stretchy. I recommend either getting your hands dirty and squirting the dough between your fingers or using a fork to kind of chop up the dough and quicken the process. If this is too difficult make a mental note to add less flour to the flour water mixture next time. Once the two are mixed you can start adding flour and folding it into the dough. There is no set amount of flour to add, I usually just add alittle at a time until the dough is just not sticky enough that it seems pleasant to work with. Then I stop and put the dough back in the bowl and cover it in plastic wrap.

Wait about an hour.

Sprinkle a little flour on the top of the dough and a little on the table. Turn the dough out on the table and fold it. We are not punching it down because we want to preserve the air in it. Rather at this stage we are trying to massage the dough to encourage gluten formation and to form a skin. This is how we form a skin: massage the dough out flat on the table, fold in in half left to right, massage again, fold top down, massage, fold right to left, massage, fold bottom up. Thats about it. You will notice that the side facing the table never changed. This will eventually be the "skin" of the dough. Place back into the bowl skin side up and recover.

Wait 2-3 more hours depending on how forgetfull you are and how warm your kitchen is. Next we are going to form the dough. Turn it out onto the table like we did before. Cut it into two pieces with a very sharp knife. We want to preserve the skin so for both pieces place the skin side on the table and then very gently fold the dough so that the newly exposed sticky part is back inside the dough and the skin has been stretched to cover the cut. Let this set for about 10 minutes to rest covered in plastic wrap so that we can form it later. After the dough has rested fold it again in half short ways so that now we should have a stumpy rectangle. Gently roll this with the palm of your hands into a longer loaf like shape. Once you are done place on a well corn mealed cookie sheet and recover with plastic wrap.

Wait 30 min - 1 hour depending on temperature of kitchen.

Once the loafs have risen again by about 50% (i.e. we don't want them to double in size just to increase in size by 150%. You can put them in the oven preheated to about 425 F. At this point I usually spray water into the oven with a spray bottle to help humidify the air and prevent a crust that is too dry and thick.

Wait about 30 - 45 min based on the temp of oven and size of loafs.

Once the outside is nice and golden brown you can take out and place on a cooling rack, uncovered! Let cool completely before trying! (Ok, it can still be alittle warm :-) )Remember we made a very moist dough so it needs to cool down and firm up before it can support being cut into by a knife.

Flat bread/ Pita.

Note: This bread is much more forgiving of heavier flours like whole wheat flours. It doesn't change the recipe at all except for you want the dough a little drier then usual after you are done mixing it.

This is done much the same way only after the dough has risen for 2-3 hours we cut the dough into about 8 - 10 pieces. Form each piece into a small ball, again trying to preserve the skin and let rest covered for about 10 minutes. We don't strictly need to do this sense the process of cooking on the skillet takes care of the skin but it helps tremendously in handling the dough. During this time oil a skillet (preferably cast iron) and warm it over medium/low heat. You will have to play with the heat as it is different for each type of burner.

Flatten out a piece of dough using as much flour as necessary to prevent sticking. Once the dough is between a 1/4 and 1/8 inch thick you simply place it on the skillet. Wait about 20 seconds or until you start seeing little lumps appear. Flip it over and do another 20 - 30 seconds on the other side.

If your skillet temperature is too hot then you will have already browned both sides at this point and we still have about a minute of cooking left! If it is too low then the next step, where we cause the pocket of steam to form, wont work. On my electric stove it is about 2.75 on a dial that goes from 1 - 10. If I do 3 it is too hot and 2.5 is too low. Yes, it is that sensitive!!!

After the second side has had its 20 - 30 seconds flip it back over to the original side and press down on the pita with your spatula. We want real good heat transfer to make alot of steam very quickly. After about 10 seconds or even as long as 20 to 30 seconds of this when you pick up the spatula you should start to notice the pita poof up a little. Encourage this by pushing on the bubble and trying to get it to spread.

After the bubble has spread completely I usually flip the pita over again and press down with the pita to brown this side as well. If the bubble doesn't spread completely it isn't a huge loss, just flip it over before it burns. The pita will still taste great!! Each pita does not cook for very long and if you do it right you should barely have enough time to roll out the next one during each 20 - 30 second waiting period.

I have heard of people doing this on a stove with a pizza stone. It is supposedly more reliable and you can do more then one at once but I have never had much luck.