In honor of my trip last week to see Julia Child’s kitchen (now located on the first floor of the Smithsonian American History Museum), I decided to share my all-purpose bread recipe.
You know, making fresh bread isn’t all that hard. It also doesn’t need a lot of ingredients. Once you know how bread actually works, one all-purpose recipe will yield multiple variations.
I made my first loaf of bread in middle school–French bread, for French class extra credit–and that started me on the road to bread-making. Nowadays, if I or someone else in the family has a craving for fresh-out-of-the-oven bread, I don’t even need to refer to the recipe. I just pick up my big bread dough bowl and start measuring ingredients into it.
Classically, French bread needs only four ingredients: Flour, salt, water, and yeast. The method of baking is what gives it the crusty outside and tender inside that it’s known for. Bread needs structure (gluten in wheat flour), leavening to make it rise (yeast), fuel for the yeast if you want it really fluffy (sugar, milk or other glucose), and enough liquid for the flour to stick together.
This general dough and method works really well for all sorts of permutations. I use the basic dough recipe for pizza, buns, calzones, or plain old loaves of white bread, too. Once you master this, you can consider changing up the parts a bit to get different kinds of bread. Like whole wheat? Start with one cup of white flour to get the yeast and gluten happy, then add whole wheat (or rye) flour until the dough comes together. Like fluffier bread? Add a teaspoon of sugar to the yeast-and-water cup. Like things a little more tender? Add fat by subbing in milk for water, or adding a teaspoon of butter or oil.
The more fat and sugar you add to this dough, the more flour it needs to stay together. So just start with this one. Once you get a feel for it, play around.
Basic Bread Dough (White)
1 cup warm water
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 to 2 1/2 cups white flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
In a large mixing bowl, dump the flour and the salt and whisk together. Measure out one cup of warm tap water (if you have decent tap water). The water should be just warmer than skin warm, about 100 degrees. Scatter the yeast over the top of the water and set it aside to “bloom”–about five minutes. When the yeast is obviously dissolved in the water, pour it into the center of the flour in the bowl and whisk until you can’t. Clean the whisk, then dig in with clean hands and mix the dough together. Knead it until the dough is smooth and not sticky. You might need to add flour or discard some, especially if the weather is humid or especially dry.
At this point, you’ve got options.
Weekday Pizza Crust: Coat ball of dough with oil and let rest for 10 minutes while you preheat your oven to 450 degrees and prepare any pizza toppings you’re interested in. Spread out on well-oiled baking sheet to desired thinness (I just pat it out). Top with sauce, cheese and favorite meats and vegetables. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until crust is firm and lightly golden and cheese is melted completely.
Buns for sandwiches: Coat ball of dough in oil and set aside to rise for one hour or so. At one hour, poke the dough with your finger. If it holds the dent, it’s ready. If it just bounces, it needs more rise time. When it’s ready, punch it down. Form into 8-10 balls of dough, and space those out evenly on a baking sheet. Let rise again, 30 to 45 minutes. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes.
Traditional French Bread: Coat ball of dough with oil and set aside to rise as for buns. Punch down when ready. Form into a long, thin cylinder and set on a baking sheet that has been sprinkled with corn meal. (You can buy special French bread forms, too, but this works, too.) Let rise another hour, until nearly double again. Slash the top of the dough with a sharp knife in at least three places. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and set up two racks in your oven. On the bottom rack, place a small baking dish. Add two cups or so of boiling water to that baking dish, then close the oven while it heats. Brush the top of your bread with beaten egg, and when the oven is hot, take out the baking dish with the water and set the bread inside. Watch closely. It will take between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on your oven and your steam bath. The loaf should look golden brown and be very crusty when done. Use your oven light to check on it; do NOT open the door while it’s baking, as that will slow the process and make the bread tough.