The cookbook that has changed my life the most is The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum. It’s a heavy, hardcover tome with nearly 650 pages of bread-making techniques and recipes. Twice a week, I pull it off the shelf, set up my KitchenAid mixer, and get to work creating the slow-rise, artisanal loaves with moist, chewy interiors and crispy, crackly crusts that my family eats. Though I’ve been making bread at home for years, it was The Bread Bible that taught me how to take bread-making to another level, to expand beyond the rectangular, sandwich-style pan loaves (which are wonderful in their own way) to free-form, round loaves that beg to be torn and eaten straight from the middle of the dining table.
I’ve always loved eating artisanal breads, but thought they could only be made by professional bakers with specialized equipment. (That was one of the reasons why it was so hard to leave the city for a small town; it’s impossible to buy excellent bread.) So I was delighted to discover that artisanal bread is surprisingly easy to make.
“The world of bread baking has been a secret society for 5000 years. Not any more. [The Bread Bible] explains bread in all its historical, gastronomic, chewy, crusty, glorious detail.” (Bill Yosses, pastry chef, NYC)
It’s so true. After learning a few basic techniques, I’m able to satisfy my craving for fresh, chewy bread whenever I want. In fact, now I’d say that slow-rise, artisanal loaves are easier to make than regular sandwich loaves. All they require is small increments of work separated by long periods of waiting, fermenting, rising; that’s when the magic happens.
The process starts with a sponge, a wet mixture of flour, water, and a tiny bit of yeast, which is insulated by a flour blanket on top. (Other common starters are biga or poolish.) These are left to ferment, which develops richer flavour. The dough is mixed and kneaded as usual, then goes through more risings. It is shaped into boules, rolls, or baguettes – whatever the recipe calls for – and rises some more. Some free-form loaves sit on baking pans, while others rest in round, floured beds. Then the bread is put into a very hot oven, along with a cupful of ice to create instant steam that forms the crispy crust. Afterwards, you can hear the musical crackling of the crust as it cools; I like to think of it as the bread’s song.
If artisanal bread is something you enjoy eating, or if you like a baking challenge, I highly urge you to check out The Bread Bible. It’s well worth picking up a copy if you’re serious about learning how to make excellent bread.