Alison’s Traveling Crusty Artisan Bread

Alison's Travel Bread

I call this “Traveling Crusty Artisan Bread” because it can be made almost anywhere without special equipment.  Although great baguettes can be made from this recipe, they do require some extra gadgets and “tricks” and are more challenging. The Traveling Crusty Artisan Bread is the next best thing as it is delicious and requires only tools you are likely to find in most kitchens.  What could be nicer than going to someone’s home and baking fabulous artisan bread?  If you are a “house guest,” they will probably ask you to stay a couple of extra days.  Homemade bread is the best gift:  It smells great, tastes great, and makes people happy.   (Editor’s Note:  We asked Alison to stay a couple of extra days to help clean up the kitchen after she dropped a bag of flour and to read Shakespeare’s Love Sonnets to an enraptured audience. Please note that this is the updated version of the original recipe for Crusty Artisan Bread that was published in Gourmay in April 2011.)

Crusty artisan bread has only four ingredients:  flour, water, yeast, salt.  It is important to use high quality ingredients if you want high quality bread so make sure you use only the best flour (King Arthur, of course).  You will want flour that is not bleached nor bromated.  Bleaching masks the fact that the product uses an inferior part of the wheat berry and bromides are used to speed up the natural maturing period of the flour. Excellent bread is like excellent wine.  You cannot hurry either of them.  The flour should have a protein content of 11.7% – 12.7%, the higher the protein content the higher the gluten.  Bagel flour, for example, will have a protein content of  14%, cake flour, 8%.

If you are not going to make your own leaven (which is easy and worth it but time consuming), the quality of store bought yeast is very important.  I highly recommend “saf red instant” which comes vacuum sealed in 16 oz. packages.  You will only use a little for each recipe, but you can keep the rest for months in a sealed canister in your refrigerator.  Those little packets you find in the supermarket can be iffy but will do if nothing else available.

Different salts vary in strength.  The key is to choose one you like and stick to it, altering the amount of salt you use based on your personal taste.  King Arthur sells an excellent bread salt I like to use.

Water is important and acidity (pH levels) can affect the fermentation process, but you work with what you have and adjust with practice over time.  Some people use bottled water to control the consistency.

I advocate baking all the time, using too much of something, too little, screwing up, hitting home runs, and just getting a feel for the dough so you will know what it needs.  You are working with a living culture and when you get into the entire “bread experience”, it is easy to sense there is a rich relationship with the dough and bread. If you bake bread frequently, your kitchen will be full of wild yeast and your bread will develop its own personal signature.

Some useful (but not mandatory) pieces of equipment are a timer, a scale, an apron, and a “baker’s bench knife”, which is a 6-inch long rectangle of stainless steel with a handle across the top and is used to divide the dough into pieces or to scrape the dough and dried dough from your counter-top or “bench”.  You can find absolutely everything you need related to baking at, including equipment, ingredients, recipes, and a great help line.  No other flour purveyor has more rigorous standards or more consistently performing flours than King Arthur.  It has been around for 220 years, is 100% employee owned, is a Benefit Corporation, and is genuinely committed to bringing the joy of baking to everyone.

Bakers also work with metric weights, not cups and teaspoons.  But not everyone has access to a scale, especially when traveling, so I am using cups and teaspoons for this recipe.  As a reference:

  • 1 cup flour = approx. 140 grams flour
  • 1 cup water = approx. 220 grams of water
  • 1 tsp salt = approximately 7 grams salt

I find it works equally well if you use all-purpose or bread flour.  I tend to use all-purpose flour because it is easily available but either works.  I sometimes substitute ¼ cup of whole wheat flour for all-purpose flour when making the starter.  It gives the bread an excellent flavor and nice color.  Until you get the hang of it, you don’t want to substitute too much whole wheat in making artisan bread because it contains the entire wheat berry, including the bran (or outer shell), whose “shards” tend to puncture the little bubbles created by the flour, yeast, and water doing their magic.  Whole wheat flour tends to make a denser bread.

So let’s get going.

Make the starter the night before by mixing together with your fingers:

1 cup flour (or ¾ cup AP or Bread flour and ¼ cup whole wheat flour)

1 cup water

1 pinch yeast.

Cover and let sit at room temperature overnight.  If you need to speed this up, let it sit in the oven with the oven light on for about 6-7 hours and it should be ready to use.  After it sits, it will contain many little bubbles and will have increased in size by about 25%.  The slower overnight fermentation at room temperature will create a more complex flavor.

The next day, baking day, you will add:

For 2 medium loaves                          For 2 large loaves

3 cups flour                                              5 cups flour

1 ¼ cup                                                      1 2/3 cups + 1 Tbsp lukewarm H2)

All of the starter                                    All of the starter

2 ½ tsp salt (approx.)                           4 ¼ tsp salt (approx.)

1 tsp yeast                                                   1 ½ tsp yeast

It is important to add them in the following order:

  • Add the starter to the warm water (about 80-85 degrees) and mix it with your fingers until it dissolves and has no lumps.
  • Add the rest of the flour and incorporate so that all of the flour is moist, mixing with your fingers. Do not add the salt or yeast at this stage.
  • Let it rest, covered, for 15-30 minutes so the flour hydrates.  This is key to great bread and is called “autolyse”.
  • After the 15-30 minutes, add the salt and yeast and incorporate well, kneading with your hands until you do not feel anything grainy from the salt or yeast.  This takes about 2 minutes.
  • Now you are ready to make the bread.

For the next 2 hours, you will work the bread by doing a “stretch and fold” every ½ hour.  You never “knead” the bread in the traditional sense, you simply run your hand under the faucet to get it wet, then scoop your hand under the dough, and pull the dough up and over itself about 4-5 times. This makes layers and helps create the nice big holes in the bread.  A good timer is useful here.  I use two timers.  One I set to remind myself to do the “turn” every 30 minutes, and the other I set for 2 hours so I don’t have to keep track of how many “turns” I have done.  I wear them around my neck because I get distracted.  During the two hours, your dough will increase in size about 20 – 25%.  Keep the container covered, at room temperature in between the stretch and fold processes.

Your dough with be a bit wet and sticky when you start the process, and it is tempting to add flour at the early stage, but it will become firmer during the stretch and fold period, so hold off on adding flour until you are sure it needs it. What you are going for is the highest level of hydration while still keeping the dough workable. While any container works during this phase, a glass or clear plastic container is preferable as it allows you to see the dough as it ferments and begins to develop little bubbles and holes.  You never pound the dough.  Try to handle it rather gently.

After 2 hours of stretching and folding, turn your container upside down onto a cutting board (or “bench”) and let the dough fall naturally onto the bench.  This is the dough’s “final stretch”.  Do not put flour on the cutting board before you let it fall. The dough should stick slightly to the cutting board.  Lightly flour the top of the dough and cut the dough into 2 sections, cutting with a bench knife or sharp knife.  Only flour the top of the dough – not the bottom.  From now on, the outside – the side you lightly flour – will eventually be your crust.  You want the inside to stay as moist as possible and have minimal contact with additional flour.

With each loaf, and using the bench knife or something similar, flip the dough over so that the floured side is now on the bottom.  Flatten lightly and pull the side nearest you up and over towards the middle.  Pull the left side then the right side up and over towards the middle.  Finally, pull the side farthest from you up and over towards you so that the dough now looks like an envelope.  Then fold in half, away from you, with the floured side on the outside, and roll the section into a ball by cupping from underneath with your hands and pushing it away from you, cupping from underneath again, and then rolling back towards you.  It should stick slightly to bench and create some tension and something almost like a membrane.  Try to work the dough as little as possible and make some tight balls in 3-5 attempts.  This is really hard to learn but it gets easier with practice.  The balls should feel and look (but not smell) like a baby’s behind. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, repeat the process again.  Pat the balls down gently, then flour the tops lightly, flip them over so the floured side is on the bottom, make the envelope by pulling the sides and stretching towards the middle, but now, roll into the shape you like.  I suggest that for the first attempts, you roll into balls and make two round loaves.  Put each loaf into a basket or bowl, seam side up, in which you have put a light towel sprinkled with enough flour so the dough will not stick.  Some people use oil to coat the bowl.  Cover the bowl with a towel, and let the loaves sit for 1½ hours at room temperature.

pot30 minutes before baking:  One of the most important things is to create a “steam oven”.  This is hard to do for baguettes, but for the round loaves, you can easily replicate a steam oven by creating a dutch oven made of two cast iron skillets (or any metal or ceramic skillet/pot that can go into the oven), which fit on top of each other.  The skillet on the bottom will contain the bread and the larger, deeper skillet will be the cover, upside down, so the bread will have room to rise.  They need to fit on top of each other so that moisture will not escape.  This captured moisture replicates a steam oven.

You actually can use any covered pot or pan that goes in the oven for this phase.  I do find, however, that the more contained the bread is in your skillet or pot, i.e, the more it fits the size of the loaf, the higher your bread will rise.  If it sprawls too much in a large skillet, it will tend to expand sideways as well as upward.  But don’t worry.  Either way your bread will be puffy, light, full of big holes, and delicious.

30 minutes before you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 500 degrees with both skillets in the oven so they will be very hot.  You will bake one loaf at a time, so put the second one in the refrigerator at the same time you preheat the oven.  You can bake it after you finish the first loaf or the next day.

If you let the second loaf sit in the fridge, covered, overnight, it will develop a deeper and more complex flavor.  You can bake it in the morning and have fresh bread for breakfast without having to get up at two AM to make it from scratch.  Simply remove it from the refrigerator and let the dough sit unrefrigerated for 30 minutes while the skillets are heating up.  The dough does not need to be at room temperature and works just fine if you take it directly from the refrigerator and put it into the very hot skillet and cover immediately.

When the oven is ready, take the shallow skillet out of the oven (careful – it will be very hot) sprinkle the top of one loaf with flour so it will not stick, and flip upside down (seam side down) from its bowl into the very hot skillet (try to center it but it’s difficult).  Quickly score the top with a lame, razor, box cutter, or very sharp knife into a pattern you like, with 4-5 decisive deep slits.  You can make a tic tac toe pattern or anything else you desire.  I like to make a square with 4 slits.  These slits will allow the bread “pop open” and give it room to rise.

Immediately after scoring your bread (the slits).  Put the skillet with the bread into the oven and cover with the upside down deeper skillet or heated top so that you are sealing the moisture inside.  Reduce the temp to 450 degrees, and bake, covered, for 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes, take the top skillet off and let it bake uncovered for another 15-20 minutes until it is a deep golden brown.  Your bread should have popped open and grown in size.  The larger loaf recipe will take a bit longer than the medium loaf, so keep an eye on them for the last 5 minutes.  I like bread with a very dark and “crusty” crust, so after it has baked, I generally let it sit in the oven, temperature turned off, oven door cracked open, for another 7 minutes before I remove it.  This helps create a drier crunchy crust.

Remove your beautiful bread from the oven and let it sit on a bread board to cool.  It is tempting (and delicious) to eat immediately so go ahead, but I find it is even better after it sits 15 – 20 minutes as it settles and the full flavor emerges.  I find that artisan bread, especially the crust, reaches its peak about ½ hour after it is removed from the oven.

Although the whole process is quite long (about 6 hours not including making the starter the night before), each stage is very short.  Instead of being a slave to the process, I have learned that if something comes up, I can stop at any stage and simply cover the dough/loaves, put them into the refrigerator, and resume where I left off by removing the dough/loaves from the refrigerator and letting them sit for ½ hour while I preheat the oven.  It is not always desirable, but it gives your schedule some flexibility and your bread will still be delicious.

One other trick about bread – no matter what you do, baking bread is messy, so WEAR WHITE!

If you get the “bread bug” you might want to read more about it.  As I said before, the ingredients are simple, but making great artisan bread involves many subtle processes, each of which is important and makes a huge difference in the quality of your bread.  There are millions of books on the subject of bread and baking, but I have found the following four books to be the most useful and have listed them in order of complexity and detail:

The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook, King Arthur Flour:  A wonderful book to get you started, chock full of information on baking, flours, and many great recipes. You can learn to make many different types of bread as well as pies, pastries, brioche, etc.

Baking Artisan Bread, 10 Expert Formulas For Baking Better Breads At Home by Ciril Hitz:  I like this book because it includes pictures depicting what the bread or dough should look like at different stages. There are pictures of “too little”, “too much”, “just right” plus recipes for baguettes, ciabatta, pizza dough, bagel dough, and challah among others, all of which I have made with good results.

Bread:  A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman:  Jeffrey is the Director of Baking and the Baking Education Center at King Arthur Flour in Vermont.   This is the book to read once you want to get serious.  It is a textbook for bread bakers and used in most baking institutes.  It is well written and provides great information on everything from recipes, history and techniques to how to stand so your back won’t hurt when baking.  Jeffrey is one of the most famous bakers in the world.  I call him the “J.S. Bach of Baking”.

Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson:  Tartine is the most famous bread bakery in San Francisco and Chad is obsessed with baking the perfect bread – his famous Tartine Country Loaf.  I have borrowed many of his techniques and refer to him as the “Chopin of Bread Baking” as this book is a romance between Chad and bread.  The Country Loaf recipe is 26 pages!   It is a bit hard to follow unless you know the basics, but definitely worth it.

(Editor’s Note:   On behalf of all Gourmay readers, we are thrilled at Alison’s contribution to raise the level of culinary art.   Having sampled many of Alison’s baking creations, I can assure you that it is the real deal.  Alison provides a lot of useful and practical information on mastering the art of  baking.  Thanks Al, for your most useful and timely contribution.   MAKE BREAD NOT WAR!)


  1. Nice Al. On behalf of carb-deprived Americans everywhere, keep up the good fight.

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