The perfect loaf of bread (part 1)

For many years, I’ve baked bread at home- and every loaf tasted like it was made at home (except for one miracle loaf.)  That’s not to say that my home baked bread wasn’t tasty, but it had that familiar dense, slightly dry and crumbly interior with a tough crust and really strong, yeasty flavor.  No matter what recipe I followed it always came out the same.  I stopped making bread regularly because I thought I just wasn’t good at it- that is, until I figured out the secret.

Let me start by saying that the secret doesn’t involve any special ingredients.  In fact, the best loaf I’ve made had nothing but ordinary flour, water, salt and yeast.  There is also NO one secret recipe.  The secret is all in the technique and can be used to make any number of different types of bread.

I first have to give credit to this bread recipe I came across.  I think it was on a Martha Stewart TV show or web site.  This recipe is responsible for my one miracle loaf that actually tasted like amazing bakery bread.  The recipe is incredibly complicated and takes a long time, but did yield incredible results.  It was so complicated that, in fact, I only made one loaf.  At the time, I didn’t realize why this recipe worked so well, but I do now.

I next credit Jim Varasano for writing the best page on homemade NY-style pizza.  The first “lightbulb” went on when I read this on his page:

There are about a hundred books and internet recipes that claim to give an authentic or secret pizza dough recipe. Oddly, while many claim to be secret or special, they are practically all the same. Here it is in summary. If you see this recipe, run screaming:

Sprinkle a yeast packet into warm water between 105-115 F and put in a teaspoon of sugar to feed it. Wait for it to foam up or  ‘proof’. Add all your flour to a Kitchen Aid heavy duty mixer, then add the yeast and salt. Now mix until it pulls away from the side of the bowl. Coat with oil and leave in a warm place until it doubles in bulk, about 1-2 hours. Punch down, spread on a peel with some cornmeal to keep it from sticking and put it on the magical pizza stone that will make this taste just like Sally’s in your 500F oven.

I assure you, this will not make anything like a real pizza. It’s weird – even chefs whose other recipes all come out pretty good, like Emeril, simply pass around more or less this same terrible recipe.

I instantly realized that this was also true of bread recipes- they’re all the same!  Now Jim goes on to break down every possible detail of dough making and ingredient selection.  He definitely has mastered the art of pizza making!  I knew making good bread couldn’t be this complicated but I could see his results were impressive.  His recipe was completely different from the recipe in the link above but there were some similarities in the techniques.

Soon after I discovered Jim’s pizza page, my sister sent me a link to this NY Times article on Jim Lahey and the Sullivan St Bakery.  Now this is one recipe I followed to the letter.  Their technique is amazingly simple AND yields incredible results!  Check out this video:

Now I was really starting to see a pattern in these recipes.  Have you figured out what it is?

Stay tuned for the next episode where I’m going to itemize these secrets to bread baking and show you how to apply them to any bread recipe.

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