Winter Comfort Bread

One of my long-time food quests has been to make a really good, crusty, crunchy loaf of bread. A loaf of bread that’s sturdy and solid and meant to stand up to a lengthy dunk in a steamy bowl of soup or stew. Not a soft, sweet, buttery sandwich bread, but winter comfort bread. I think I finally found it, and it’s the easiest bread I’ve ever made.

The most gorgeous loaf of bread to ever come out of my kitchen

In the past, I’ve tried using two different kinds of baking stones to get the heat of a wood-burning hearth oven, adding a pan of boiling water to my oven or spraying down the walls with water to replicate its steam, and plenty of other tricks. They all work, sort-of. But I didn’t want a sort-of loaf.

You'll need a lot of flour and some really big bowlsGluten-y

This is a loaf to be reckoned with. It uses four pounds of flour, first of all. It will take your biggest mixing bowl and the better part of two days. It’s easiest to cut into hunks and chunks, perfect for serving warm, slathering thickly with butter, and soaking up a rich broth.

Bread dough, post salt waterPretty round bread babies

Conveniently, this is also one of the easiest breads I’ve made. The two days is mostly just waiting. There’s no kneading; you don’t need a mixer. The timing works on your schedule–the pre-ferment can probably wait an extra day; the dough, after the first rise, can be put in the fridge until you’re ready to bake it (I didn’t get around to baking my second loaf for nearly a week–it was still delicious, though a little denser than my first loaf).

Scored and ready to bakeJust a quick peek!

Fair warning: this recipe makes two humongous loaves of bread–if you didn’t guess from the aforementioned four pounds of flour. Unless you have a giant cast iron pot, or just want a more wield-y option, I’d suggest splitting this into four loaves.

Perfect with soup

Crusty Bread
I highly recommend using a scale to weigh the flour–losing track after 10 cups is really not fun. According to the original recipe, you can also add mix-ins like nuts or dried fruit.

Pre-ferment
1/4 teaspoon granulated yeast
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Dough
13 3/4 cups (63.5 ounces or 4 pounds) all-purpose flour (I subbed one pound rye flour, which makes a denser loaf)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
5 1/2 cups warm water
5 tablespoons kosher salt dissolved in 1/2 cup of warm water (or as dissolved as possible)

White rice flour or all-purpose flour, for dusting

Make the Pre-ferment
Dissolve the yeast in the water. In a medium bowl, mix in the flour, cover with plastic wrap, and put in a warm spot for 10 to 14 hours.

Make the Dough
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours. In another large bowl, mix together the pre-ferment and warm water. Dissolve it as much as possible, using your hands as needed; for any parts that won’t dissolve, cut them into small pieces and toss them in the flour.

In your largest bowl (I used a 7 1/2 quart low, wide pot), mix together the flour and dissolved pre-ferment until they form a dough. Fold it over on itself a few times, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.

Uncover the dough and add the salt water. Fold it into the dough until it’s completely absorbed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap again and let rest for 20 minutes. Uncover the dough and fold it over on itself four times. Re-cover and repeat the resting/folding process two more times. After the last folding, cover the dough and let it rest in a warm spot for 3 1/2 hours.

Turn the dough out onto a floured board and cut in half (for extra large loaves) or quarters (for normal-people sized loaves). Gently shape the dough into rounds, tucking the sides under as needed to make a nice shape. Let rest 20 minutes and tuck the sides under one more time.

Line two of your largest bowls (or four regular sized bowls) with towels and generously dust the towels with rice flour. Gently flip each loaf into a bowl, rounded top-side down. Cover bowls with a towel and let rest in a warm place for 4 to 5 hours (or rest for 1 hour and refrigerate for up to 4 days, or freeze; let dough come to room temperature before proceeding).

Heat oven to 490 degrees. Put an enameled or regular cast iron pot with a lid in the hot oven for 30 minutes. Remove the pot from the oven, dust the bottom with rice flour, and carefully flip a loaf, rounded side up, into the pot. Slash the top a few times with a sharp knife. Replace the lid and return the pot to the oven.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 470 degrees. Continue baking for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and bake 25 minutes or until the loaf is deeply browned. Remove from the oven and carefully tun the bread out onto a rack. Cool before slicing.

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