A little over ten years ago today, I enrolled in home economics as a school elective. To say I was excited would be an understatement, and I showed up for my first day of class eager to learn anything and everything I could about sewing, cooking, cleaning, and—most important to me—baking. The pace was slow; by the middle of the semester, we had barely made a batch of cookies! I finally got up the courage to ask the teacher when we’d learn to make, say, a simple loaf of bread. My courage was rewarded with a “Hah!” worthy of The Simpsons’ Edna Krabapple. Deflated and embarrassed, I gave up on baking and spent the rest of the course sewing stuffed animals, taking breaks to thread my classmates’ needles.
It wasn’t until my husband and I were poor college students that I even thought about baking my own bread again. I bought flour in 25 pound sacks and dove in headfirst. Six months later, I had my own recipes for everything from sandwich bread to challah to naan to the sort of crusty bread that bakeries sell for $5 a loaf. Today, I’m no longer forced to make all of my own bread, but I still make a majority of it. But, why? Isn’t baking bread a tedious, time consuming gamble?
No way! Don’t believe the evil industrial bread empire’s propaganda! Not only is it easy, it is also amazingly delicious, more filling than air-puffed store bread, and super frugal; as a bonus, kneading by hand is a great form of stress relief! (And if you’re not stressed, you can use a stand mixer instead.) Best of all, you probably already have all five of the ingredients in your cabinets—and you don’t even need a bread machine.
So, what do you say, Home Eccers? How about we whip up a batch of bread before we continue with our sewing lessons? (Here’s the part where I assume that you’re all donning your aprons in excitement.) As long as you give the dough plenty of time to rise, this bread is downright impossible to mess up. So, even if you’ve had not-so-good luck with bread in the past, just humor me and give this recipe a shot. Your bellies (and your families) will thank you!
Easy Italian Bread
Notes: this recipe assumes you have a stand mixer. If you’re baking by hand, do your mixing in a very large bowl using a sturdy wooden spoon until the dough comes together (as seen in step 3 below). Add flour ½ cup at a time, and when you can no longer stir the dough, turn it out onto a floured counter. Knead, using the heels of your hands, until it looks and feels like the dough described in step 6, or anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. Once the dough is ready to rise (as evidenced by the “poke test” described in step 5) you can continue to follow the recipe below.
- 1 ½ cups warm water
- 1 teaspoon white sugar
- 2 teaspoons (or 1 packet) yeast
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- About 3 cups of good all purpose flour
Step 1: In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 1 ½ cups of water, 2 teaspoons of yeast, and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Allow the yeast to sit until frothy or “proofed” (as shown).
Step 2: Using the dough hook as a spoon, stir 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and 1 cup of flour into the proofed yeast. Continue to stir until you can no longer see any dry flour. Attach the dough hook to the mixer’s head.
Step 3: Add 1 cup of flour to the soggy doughy mess. Lock the mixer head and turn your mixer on to its lowest speed. Let the dough mix until all of the flour is integrated (you may need to hold your mixer’s head down if it tries to “walk” off the counter).
Step 4: Turn off the mixer and poke the dough. Chances are it will stick to your finger. Don’t worry; it’s supposed to do that! If your dough is very wet, add an additional cup of flour. If the dough is only slightly sticky, but isn’t wet, add an additional half cup of flour. Lock the machine, turn it on to the lowest speed, and let it mix in the additional flour until the dough forms a ball and cleans the sides of the bowl.
Step 5: Turn off the mixer and poke the dough (again). Does your finger leave an indentation that slowly goes away? If it doesn’t, allow the dough to mix for an additional 2 minutes to further develop the gluten; repeat the test. Once your dough is properly springy, give yourself a pat on the back because the hard part is over. Congratulations!
Step 6: Oil a large bowl. Quickly knead your dough into a ball on a very lightly floured countertop. Place the ball of dough into the bowl and roll it around to coat the surface of the dough with oil. Top the bowl with a greased lid (if it has one) or plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise at room temperature until it has doubled. It took my dough about 90 minutes at a room temperature of 67 degrees
Step 7: Uncover the dough. Punch the dough down with your fist, folding the sides of the dough over as needed to form another ball. Recover the bowl and allow the dough to double again. For me, the second rise took 2 hours at 67 degrees.
Step 8: Uncover the dough and punch it down (last time, I swear). Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and form it into an elongated ball (think an American football only less pointy). Transfer the ball to a large parchment- or silicone mat-lined baking sheet.
Using a paring knife or sharp kitchen shears, cut a quarter inch deep slash down the middle of the dough to give it room to rise. Dust the dough with flour. Dampen a large lint free towel or napkin and cover the pan and dough. Let the dough rest for 30 minutes while you preheat the oven to 450.
Step 9: Once the oven has heated and the dough has rested, remove the towel from the unbaked loaf. If the flour has magically disappeared, as it tends to do, sprinkle the loaf with a bit more flour. Bake your bread on the middle rack of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes (checking through the oven window every minute after 15 minutes) or until the bread is golden brown, sounds hollow when you rap it with your knuckles, and smells like bread. (Skip that second test if you don’t have fireproof hands like me.)
Using a dry lint free towel or napkin, transfer the bread from the pan to a cooling rack. Allow the bread to cool to room temperature until slicing—or just tear off hunks like a caveperson and enjoy it warm. If anyone dares give you guff, tell them that Michele says you deserve to eat because… you just baked bread!