Pros: Amazing bread; very detailed instructions; incredibly easy
Cons: Doesn’t work as well with whole grains
Rating: 5 out of 5
One of the book blogs I frequent, Books and Cooks, touches on two of my favorite topics—obviously, books and cooking. Not that long ago its author, Tara, mentioned a book that sounded fascinating and delicious: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. Sure, the title sounds slightly gimmicky, but I’m always looking for excuses to cook and, in particular, bake bread, and anything that makes it even easier to bake lovely, crusty artisan loaves around my busy schedule is a win. So, I set about acquiring a review copy.
In an odd coincidence of timing, just before the book arrived (along with another that I’ll be reviewing shortly), my husband and I were asked by a friend if we would mind baking bread for about 20 people for a Twelfth Night feast. Mind?! Ha! We were giddy. It seemed the perfect opportunity to put our two new books to the test.
The concept around which Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day revolves is that with the right method, you can make quick, easy bread that mimics the fancy, crusty loaves you find in restaurants and bakeries. There’s no kneading involved—yes, you read that right, but I’ll repeat just in case you think you were hallucinating: no kneading. The fanciest piece of equipment you might need is a baking stone for optimal results, but even that you can do without.* There’s no proofing of yeast, no multiple long rise times on baking day. You use very few dishes, so there isn’t much to clean.
The secret? A wet dough that ages over time in the refrigerator. One batch makes a handful of loaves, and will last happily for more than a week, so you can just lop some off and make bread whenever you want during that time. All you’ll need is a little time for the bread to rest and bake, and you have lovely homemade bread whenever you want it. If that isn’t enough, as the dough ages it takes on a sourdough characteristic, giving it additional flavor. You can even make new batches of dough in the same container without cleaning it out first—this will produce an even stronger sourdough flavor over time.
Our first difficulty lay in finding a container large enough to house the dough in the fridge. Since I didn’t have something convenient and didn’t have time to pick something up, I lopped the top off of a one-gallon jug of water and covered the dough with plastic wrap. The dough threatened to rise over the top once or twice, but it worked remarkably well. The book does recommend sources for good-sized containers, so you shouldn’t need to resort to water jugs!
After that, however, everything was quick and easy. The dough was crusty as advertised. It had a lovely crumb. It had tons of flavor. It went over beautifully at that feast. And most importantly, it really did take only a few minutes of work. Right now we have a cheddar bread dough in our fridge; every day this week I’ve pulled some off to make bread to go with dinner.
My only disappointment is that the method isn’t quite as easy and simple when it comes to making whole grain breads. You definitely have to adjust things a bit, and it’ll take a little time to get the hang of making sure the dough is wet enough. Also, whole grains don’t really lend themselves to those perfect crackling crusts, so you’ll have to live without that. One tip, though, if you want to use this method with whole grains: it works better with King Arthur Flour’s white whole wheat than with regular red whole wheat.
Luckily the book includes a ton of tips that’ll help you adjust the recipes appropriately depending on the flour you use (high-protein bread flour, or KAF’s all-purpose, for example, behaves much differently than regular lower-protein all-purpose)—different amounts of water, different baking temperatures, and so on. It won’t take long before you’re making wonderful bread of whatever type you most enjoy!
There’s a ‘master recipe’ that works beautifully well, as well as ‘peasant loaves’ (including a delicious Limpa bread), flatbreads and pizzas, and even enriched breads and pastries. In addition to the breads themselves the authors include recipes to go with them and on them, and even to use up stale bread (not that I think you’ll find yourself with much stale bread—this bread disappears very quickly!).
This is a delightful baking method that sets tradition on its ear and produces wonderful bread with little effort. Using Hertzberg and Francois’s method, you’ll be able to make fresh, homemade bread even around a busy working schedule.
*For best results, it’s true that you do want to use a baking stone; the porous nature of the stone and its ability to retain heat results in the bottom crust of the bread turning out every bit as crunchy as the top and sides. However, there are other alternatives. If you don’t mind missing out on that crunchy bottom crust, you can use a regular cookie sheet. Or, if you have a French bread pan—a thin, dark metal pan with lots of tiny holes in it—that too will produce a nice crusty bottom, without the need to pre-heat it in the oven. A baking stone is more versatile, but if, like me, you’re all thumbs when it comes to sliding loaves around with pizza peels, you might prefer the French bread pan method.