Pain a l’Ancienne Rustic Bread

Hey folks, guest post by Peter here. Anna wants me to describe how I go about making bread, so that’s what I’ll try to do. No promises, though.

This bread comes from Peter Reinhard’s Artisan Breads Every Day, the main thesis of which is that if you put a boatload of water in the dough and let it sit in the fridge at least overnight, your bread will be better. (This also has the effect of making your dough extremely messy, which is always a plus for me.) This particular recipe typifies this philosophy the most out of any of the non-sourdough-starter ones in the book, so I’ll put it here, somewhat modified, so y’all can get an idea of the style. Though this bread doesn’t involve a whole lot of action time, you do have to plan it out a bit: nominally up to 45 minutes on the night before and up to 3 hours the day of baking, but you can certainly reduce these.

One last bit before we get down and dirty: for non-enriched breads like this, there are really only four ingredients: flour, salt, water, and yeast. All of the variation, therefore, has to come from the relative amounts of these and the production process. Unfortunately, conditions like the humidity of your kitchen and the liveliness of your yeast make any attempt at absolute reproduction somewhat iffy at best, so you have to just dive in and do what feels right, repeatedly. Fortunately, this agrees with my loose-cannon-nothing-to-lose nature, and I’ll encourage you to play it fast and loose as well. OK, here we go.

(makes 2 medium-to-large ciabatta-style loaves or “6 to 8 mini-baguettes” ; quantities in parentheses indicate the original amount in the book–where absent, I’ve remained true to the original)
4.5 cups flour
2 tsp salt (1.75 tsp)
2 tsp instant yeast (1.25 tsp)
2.5 cups water (2 cups, chilled)

Commentary on the ingredients

I’ve found that King Arthur brand flour works well for me. For a while I did half all-purpose white flour and half “white whole wheat flour”, but 100% bread flour or 100% all-purpose flour also work just fine. The closer to whole-wheat-town you get with the mixture, the more water you’re going to need; I consider white whole wheat to be halfway from white-ville to whole-wheat-town, but I’m not sure why. The book has a variation for 50% whole wheat and even 100% whole wheat, which add oil and honey (in addition to more water).

Don’t forget the salt. You can change the amount as you like; I use 2 tsp instead of 1.75 because it’s annoying to get out another measuring spoon.

Same goes with the yeast. If you use active dry yeast I’m told you’re supposed to use 33% more or something, and if your yeast is old it’s also supposed to be weaker. I’m not even sure how critical it is; I read somewhere (so it must be true) that most of the rising in many baked good comes from the water in the dough expanding into steam as it is baked. I certainly believe it for this bread.

As I mentioned earlier, the thesis of this bread is that your dough should be really freakin’ wet. I’m not sure where Peter Reinhart bakes his bread, but I’m pretty sure that our kitchen here in socal it’s a good bit drier, because in order to get my dough to look like his pictures I need to add a lot more water. I think you should, too: on your first couple tries go for broke with the amount of water.

This is usually about what it looks like after all the ingredients are mixed

What to do ahead of time

I start by putting the water in a large mixing bowl and adding the yeast to let it hydrate. You don’t have to do this (at least with instant yeast), it’s just a superstition I have. Add the flour and salt and then mix for minute or so. The dough should mostly come together into a sticky and/or shaggy mass; if there’s unincorporated flour don’t worry about it, but with 2.5-to-4.5 water-to-flour you probably won’t. Give it a rest for five minutes to let the water hydrate the dough (I first thought the idea of letting the water hydrate the dough was baloney, but I now think it actually helps). Mix for another minute or so, and the dough should be wet and sticky. All the flour should be incorporated at this point; if it’s not, the dough isn’t wet and sticky (you can add more water at this point)! Wait for ten minutes for the dough to, I don’t know, mature or something.

The first stretch and fold. What a sticky, gooey mess.

Now comes the “stretch and fold”. Peter Reinhart is pretty proud of this technique, and to his credit it works pretty well. He wants you to put the dough on an oiled work surface, but I just do it in the same bowl. Grab a hold of the bread somewhere under the front of it and pull it up. The goal is to stretch out the dough as much as possible without it ripping. Then pull the stretched part around over the top of the original part. Depending on how much you’ve stretched it, you may just need to roll it up. Now pick another part of the dough and do the same thing, with the goal being to stretch another part of the dough you haven’t yet. Do it twice more for a total of four times. Then wait ten minutes, do it again, wait another ten minutes, do it a third time, and wait ten minutes more and finally perform a fourth stretch and fold. If the dough is really wet, the first (and quite possibly second and maybe even third) stretch and fold(s) can be quite tricky. Don’t worry about it, just do your best. By the fourth the dough should “come together”, which means, as far as I can tell, that it’s less of a sticky glop and more of a coherent whole. It will still be pretty wet (and sticky), though.

The second stretch and fold. It's starting to look better.

Now put the dough into a clean, oiled bowl and stick it in the fridge. I have tried to use the same bowl I did all the mixing in, but I really recommend oiling a new one so you can more easily get the dough out without handling (and degassing) it too much. If you’re going to bake the dough on separate days I’d also recommend splitting it now and using separate bowls if you have them and the room in your fridge, again because if you have to rip the dough apart later you’ll lose some of the trapped gas.

It's about to go in the fridge. You can see it's come together somewhat.

Shaping and Baking
My man Peter says to take the dough out 3 hours before baking for ciabatta or 1 hour for baguettes. I generally agree, but if you’re rushed, so be it. It will still taste good. When handling the dough henceforth, try to do it gingerly so you don’t degas the dough: the small bits of gas in the dough will expand greatly when heated during baking, so they give the large and irregular holes that a certain resident of my apartment demands (or maybe it’s the steam, as I mentioned above, or some combination). For the first few times I was unable to do this, but lately I’ve gotten better. It still tastes good no matter what; the main modifier to the taste is the amount of fermentation time in the fridge (more = better, at least up to 4 days or so).

For ciabatta, let it sit out for an hour (skip this hour if rushed) and then put it on a very well floured pizza peel; pat the dough with flour to coat it. Shape it into a 9×9 inch (approx) square, then cut it in half (make a 4.5 x 9 rectangle if only making one loaf). Fold it in thirds like a letter (gently!), and rub it again with flour. Flip it so it sits seam-side down, and put some plastic wrap/cling wrap stuff on it so it doesn’t dry out as you let it sit for another hour. If you have spray oil (we don’t) feel free to spray the dough with it for some additional anti-drying-out power. After that hour is up, flip it over, cover it again, and give it another hour. (Again, if you’re short time, just reduce these proofing durations.)

The shaped ciabatta-style dough. It's pretty flat.

To make mini-baguettes, after the dough has been out for an hour make it into a 9×9 square (again, or 4.5 x 9) on your pizza peel. Slice it into 6 (or 3, or whatever number looks right) 1.5 inch wide pieces and gently cradle them to stretch them out by another inch or two, whatever feels right. You can put them in the oven right now or give them another few minutes (maybe up to half an hour) to proof. Note that if you’re making 6 of them you may need to bake them in batches, depending on the size of your oven/baking stone setup.

Put a baking stone in your oven and preheat it so that it’s at 550 F when the last proofing time finishes (remember that the baking stone makes it take longer to preheat!). Also, if you have an oven-safe pan or bowl or something you don’t really care that much about, put it on a rack underneath the stone to use for water. Get the dough unstuck from the peel (if it is) by shaking the peel until the dough detaches itself and then shake it right off onto the stone. Put a cup or so of (hot) water in the water pan (be careful doing this), close the oven, turn the heat down to 450 F, and bake for 25-30 minutes (12-18 minutes for baguettes) until golden brown (it’s always golden brown, isn’t it?). Let cool on a wire rack for as long as you can stand to wait.

You can also see it's pretty irregular, and doesn't hold its form too well. That's okay.

Further commentary

That’s the overview for how I make this bread. If you can’t follow it exactly, don’t worry about it; remember that people have been making bread since before writing was invented so it can’t be that hard. The baking stone helps keep the heat constant and even, but a regular pan works fine (you can put the shaped dough on the pan to proof, for example). Steam in the oven helps make the crust all deliciously crusty, but if you don’t have a water pan just throw some water on the sides of your oven (don’t get any on the glass window) or put an ice cube on the bottom or don’t use any water at all. And so on: do whatever it takes and whatever seems right to you.

A few more bits of commentary: this dough is (again) really wet, and you generally don’t want to handle it so much, so it doesn’t lend itself to all that elaborate shaping rigmarole (boules vs. batard vs. baguette, etc). As I mentioned at the beginning, different kitchen conditions are going to alter how much flour to water you’re going to want to use, so go by feel (or guess) and don’t bother measuring too closely. I really, really hate it when I read recipes that say that you have to measure the flour precisely with some kind of scoop-and-sweep crap or something. Just go jump in a lake or something, all right? It’s my damn bread. That said, I understand it can be even more difficult to figure out what exactly a given recipe author means by dough that is “tacky but not sticky” and so on, so sticking close to the numbers can get you in the right ballpark. The final word is that you will come up with your own preference for how wet you like your dough, and that, of course, is how it should be.

The finished product.

I suppose I should also give the book another plug. I’ve made most of the non-enriched non-starter breads and they’re all pretty good, basically just differing in the amount of water (though he’s got some crazy ones with brown rice and stuff like that, too). I’ve made a cheese bread that came out pretty well (but cheese makes everything come out well). I haven’t ventured too far into the enriched bread section for fear that I may never return, largely due to the truly terrifying-looking dessert breads. (I did, though, win a battle with the sweet rolls recipe: the battle being that I’ve managed to refrain from making them every time that I’ve opened the book.) I think there will be many more good things to come, and I do recommend the book; since we don’t have one of those Amazon affiliate thinigies where we get a commission if you purchase the book through our link, you can even trust me.

In breadiness,

And yes, we do put chocolate on our bread.


11 thoughts on “Pain a l’Ancienne Rustic Bread

  1. Well, Chaz started it last night, and then today he called me from College Ave. and said could you do whatever the next step is? So I think I did that, or maybe the step before or after. We’ll see. Sticky it indeed is.


    • Yeah, I probably should have said to start with 2 or 2.25 cups flour and then work up to 2.5 cups. Oh well. I hope it came out well!

  2. Don’t forget the salt, indeed. My mom and I accidentally omitted the salt in a bread recipe once, and the results were shockingly bad. There’s no way to fix it, either – you’d think salted butter would help, but there’s no salvation for it. I think we threw most of the loaf off the deck or something.

    • I think Anna might have rescued some bread that I accidentally left unsalted (or maybe just severely undersalted) by turning it into bread pudding. But I consider bread pudding to be the all-dogs-go-to-heaven of the bread world, so only marginally more respectable than being thrown off a deck. But much more delicious.

      • Hmmm… I don’t remember now, but I DO remember how delicious it was when you made it 🙂 BTW, have you ever tried orange bread pudding? I can give you the recipe if you’re interested. It involves a lot of, well, orange: juice, zest, you name it. But it’s really summery and happy (or wintery here, since citrus is the winter fruit of choice).

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