Fresh bread straight out of the oven. The exterior is perfectly golden brown and crusty, breaking in cracks in all the right places, while the delectable interior is perfectly fluffy, moist, and steaming with perfection. Your house smells like an old world bakery, and all inhabitants are salivating in anticipation.
There is simply nothing better than fresh, warm bread smothered in good butter. A family friend of ours frequently brings her legendary rustic bread to parties and get-togethers. I finally begged for the recipe but was disheartened to learn that the trick to this amazing loaf was to cook it in a cast iron Dutch oven, which I did not have. A stroke of luck fell upon me when she gifted us with a Dutch oven as a house warming gift; I ecstatic and eager to get to baking!
My first attempt at this simple yet mouthwatering recipe was a complete flop. The recipe is so simple, with only 4 ingredients, I was absolutely ashamed that I had botched such an easy baking endeavor! I quickly found the folly in my ways: you cannot use cake flour for bread. I had run out of your standard run-of-the-mill baking flour and had substituted the difference with some cake flour I had on hand. The next day I gave the recipe a second attempt and the outcome was heavenly. It was slightly different than my friend’s bread, and I wasn’t certain what had changed as I followed her recipe exactly.
My husband was nonetheless a huge fan of my bread making skills and immediately requested a weekly loaf. Every week I made some minor tweaks to the recipe in an attempt to make my bread taste exactly like hers. My loaf always ended up being a tad more dense and dry than hers; not unappetizingly dry and heavy, just different. I have been modifying this recipe for the past 6 months or so and am happy to say that I have finally reached perfection!
Rustic (and dangerous) Country Bread
4 ½ cups of flour
2 ½ cups of warm water
1 ½ tsp active dry yeast
2 tsp salt
A 5-6 quart Dutch oven
This is the end-result recipe that I have come up with over the course of many trial and errors. Depending on your location (weather, humidity, altitude, etc.) and your oven, you will likely have to make your own tweaks and modifications to reach sublime perfection.
Dough preparation is painfully easy. Mix the salt and flour in a bowl. Mix the yeast with a few warm tablespoons of your measured water for about 5-10 minutes, then add the water and yeast mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix and let sit in a warm area for about 12 hours or overnight.
I noticed a huge difference when I let the yeast dissolve in some water prior to mixing with the dry ingredients. I had previously just been mixing the dry yeast with the flour then added the water. It still rose just fine, and the bread was delicious, but the most noticeable difference was in the “fluffiness” of the bread as well as the moisture. The bread had more holes and was much less dense and had a more moist texture. Exactly the result I had been searching for!
After the dough has risen, lightly knead it on a floured surface and fold the sides of the dough into a ball. Place the dough smooth side down into the Dutch oven. This is another area that I have tweaked over time. The original recipe called for cornmeal to be scattered in the Dutch oven. I have done this a number of times but found that I prefer no cornmeal as it tends to make the bottom crust of the bread a bit darker. Now, I typically lightly spray the inside of the Dutch oven with some cooking spray, but this is unnecessary as the bread never sticks to the Dutch oven and always slides right out.
For optimal fluffiness, let the dough sit in the Dutch oven for about 30 minutes prior to placing it in the oven. The extra time allows it to rise a bit more, making for a less dense loaf.
Bake the bread in a 450 degree oven for 30 minutes with the lid on. Bake for another 20 minutes with the lid off.
You will likely need to play around with your oven a bit. The original recipe calls for a temperature of 450, but if your oven runs hot, you may need to bake it at 430. Additionally, you will need to see where your bread bakes the best in the oven. I had to move around the racks in my oven so the bread was slightly above centered to ensure that the crust bakes evenly rather than having a very dark and hard bottom crust.
After a few modifications on your own, you will eventually discover your perfect rustic bread. I love knowing exactly what goes into the bread and that my family is eating a healthy and delicious staple.