The Five Stages of Bread Effort
So you’ve always wanted to become a devotee of the artisanal bread arts. Now that we’re all stuck inside, you’re ready to seize the day. Maybe you don’t actually want to do more than 20 minutes of work, maybe you want fresh bread but don’t have super strong bread opinions, maybe you’re a bread fiend who’s willing to keep a spreadsheet in pursuit of your ideal sourdough. What style of bread-making suits your level of devotion to worship at the golden-brown altar of crackling crusts??
First, your mileage may vary based on what you find effortful.
- Do you enjoy reading up on bread science principles?
- Do you mind remembering to do a quick prep step the night before?
- Do you dislike doing active work (where you’re kneading or shaping dough constantly, or need to babysit it and check on it every half hour)? Or does this feel nice and meditative to you?
I’m happy to read a whole book or three to understand bread better, and I don’t mind feeding my starter the night before, but I prefer to minimize active work. (Note that although I dislike active work, it does not deter me from my pursuit of sourdough; I am a true bread fiend.)
I recognize that lots of people may have different preferences, but because Medium is a linear format, I’ve loosely sorted the effort tiers in this article by active / time-sensitive effort.
Level I: I cannot set a timer to save my life
Try flatbreads, skillet breads, or crepes. They don’t require leavening, so you just have to mix them and throw them on a pan or in a toaster oven. They make excellent snack breads.
Level II: I want real bread, but I don’t want to do work in between the dough step and the baking step
Bread Baking For Beginners | The Spruce Eats may be a helpful starter read.
Brioche is basically cake with less sugar and more fermentation. It involves one fermentation step and almost no babysitting. It can be 10–50% composed of butter depending how decadent you’re feeling, which is fine sometimes, but like, maybe not the most ideal everyday staple bread.
If you search “easy no-knead bread”, you will find a ton of excellent four-ingredient recipes.
I have not personally made this style of bread, but I’ve heard pretty good reviews. It takes about 15 minutes of active time, a 12–18 hour overnight wait, and looks procedurally very similar to but not quite the same as my personal favorite easy bread…
Delayed-fermentation bread, or pain a l’ancienne (via Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice), is the style of bread I made a multiple times a week while at MIT, probably hundreds of times total, while severely overworked and sleep-deprived. It only takes about 15 minutes of active work, but you have to wait 1-3 days before you can have bread in your mouth.
It demands none of the meticulous kneading, folding, tensioning, and other time-sensitivity of most artisanal breads, yet it has a unique punch of bready flavor. You mix it and put it straight in the fridge for a couple days. On the day you want to bake it, let it rise a few hours (you can miss your mark by an hour and it’ll be forgiving), and then stick it in a steamy oven.
As with anything, you can customize it to your needs and execute it more consistently if you’re willing to learn some of the mechanisms behind how it works, but it requires such minimal handling that it’s probably possible to get away with not understanding the bread science on this one. Personally I just think the reasons it works are really cool.
My pain a l’ancienne modificationsTemperature: Reinhart insists on using ice-cold 32F water to maximize the flavor extraction you get by altering the amylase to yeast activity ratio. This produces an excellent characteristic flavor but also makes the end result very dense. I personally prefer the results I get with refrigerator-temperature water. This comes at a very slight flavor tradeoff, but I think it hugely improves the crumb texture and makes the dough a lot easier to handle.Time: You're supposed to leave this dough in the fridge until it has doubled in size, which will take at least 24 hours. However, I personally prefer the flavor after a full 3 days of fridge time.
The New Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day is another resource for similarly low-effort bread that relies mostly on developing in the fridge. While this book’s bread is definitely easier than many styles of artisanal bread, note that 5 minutes is an exaggeration; it’s more like 20–30 minutes.
One logistical drawback of their approach is that you need to devote fridge space to a large volume of dough for 1–2 weeks. With most bread, you just need to fridge an individual portion for a day.
Level III: Ok, I can check in on my dough a few times
Focaccia, english muffins, challah, and ciabatta take a few more steps or more active work. Ciabatta takes an additional overnight step.
These take more shaping and monitoring than pain a l’ancienne, but are usually still relatively forgiving, yielding a nice ratio of effort to genuine crusty bread.
As with all breads, you’ll need to read up on bread science, practice a lot, and observe frequently if you want to achieve consistency or a specific bread outcome. If that’s not your jam, you might not blow your tongue’s mind, but let’s be honest, any bread fresh from the oven is still good bread.
Though I love The Bread Baker’s Apprentice for first introducing me to bread science and pain a l’ancienne, the breads I’ve made from that book tend to be denser and less holey than I prefer. It looks like some forum members on The Fresh Loaf feel similarly. Since I prefer eating crusty bread with big, irregular holes, I tried doing a variant of the super high-hydration ciabatta above and it turned out great!
Interlude: sourdough starter
So someone gave you a sourdough starter; now what do you do with this magical bread-gateway bubbling with live organisms?
Here’s a mini-zine I made about how to tend starter. Once you have a working starter, it’s about as labor intensive as a goldfish (if you could put a goldfish on pause for several months in the fridge whenever you want and it came back to life after a few feedings). Feeding is not too time-sensitive as long as it happens roughly near the peak of the starter’s activity.
Sourdough waffles, pancakes, pizza, and english muffins are nice sourdough outlets that require you to feed a starter, but let you mix and use the dough with fairly minimal effort. They don’t require you to spend time carefully tending for textural factors in your final product, so I find them easier than ciabatta.
The above are considered sourdough discard recipes, aka what happens when you made too much starter and want to use it up. Some camps of starter-caretakers keep very large sourdough starters (sometimes as much as a quart jar), which must be activated with proportionally large feedings, which is why there are so many recipes out there for sourdough discard.
Because I have limited fridge space and not much desire to use sourdough discard, I fall in the tiny starter camp. I keep a half-pint jar with one spoonful of starter in it, which means I only need to feed an additional spoonful of ingredients to re-activate it. I then take out one spoonful of fresh starter and use it to activate my pre-ferment (levain, sponge, poolish, etc). I put the remaining spoonful back in the fridge, leaving me with no discard.
On the occasions I do want to make a sourdough discard recipe, I just activate my starter and then make the necessary amount of sponge. As long as you have flour, water, and a comfortable human temperature, you can always make more starter.
Gluten-free sourdough is a thing! You will have difficulty obtaining a super-rustic open crumb structure because the strength to maintain that structure comes from gluten formation, but you can definitely make bread, and sourdough discard recipes are a good place to start since they tend to be less texturally opinionated.
Here are a load of gluten-free bread tips from The Spruce Eats!
Level IIIc: I can handle a few more steps
Sourdough bagels take a few more steps than the above — namely, shaping individual bagels, boiling them, and topping them — but are significantly less finicky and hands-on than the classic artisanal country loaf.
I got pretty good at them this winter by calibrating them on New York natives’ mouths and plowing through a metric snowbank’s worth of cream cheese. Once you know what the dough should feel like, you can get into a pretty easy groove where the main work is just shaping and boiling them.
I started from Peter Reinhart’s sourdough bagel recipe, but I’ve made several tweaks to suit my needs. The biggest change is that I don’t shape the bagels until after the fridge step, in order to save fridge space. I find I like them best after 18 hours in the fridge, but you may obtain different results in your kitchen. Bread is very personal.
Once you make a bread enough times in the same kitchen, your active work investment goes down because you don’t need to babysit it as much to know how it will behave.For example, if you're feeding a pre-ferment for the first time in new conditions, you should probably be inspecting and smelling it every 30-60 minutes to see how it's doing. I know that 75g of my 50:50 sourdough levain will take 3 hours in my kitchen in summer conditions and closer to 6 hours in chilly conditions, so I just wait it out and don't count that as active time.(Yes you could wire up a camera but what's the point if you're not at home to intercept the fermentation process anyways (unless you are doing mass data collection under various flour parameters for some fun reason).)
Level IV: I’m willing to keep a starter and tend my dough for several hours as if it were my child
breadsheet (n.) — a spreadsheet where a baker tracks the parameters of all their baking endeavours, in order to discern patterns and improve future endeavours
If you have the time and energy to obsessively analyze and pay attention to your bread, you can unlock your personal holy grail of bread, whatever that may be. For me, it’s crackling, scrumptious, tender, artisanal sourdough loaves with an epic rise and open crumb.
There are more different sourdough methods than there are sourdough bakers, but my journey started from reading Tartine Bread’s country bread method. It relies on a closed baking vessel such as a combo cooker or Dutch oven to closely retain steam from a high-hydration dough. Though I’m still a baby at consistently achieving the textural results I want with this bread style, it’s shockingly straightforward to get consistently tasty results out of the box, if you are willing and able to:
- develop a meticulous understanding of underlying processes & how different ambient factors affect your dough
- be at home for at least 4–5 hours of the process so you can inspect, fold, and/or shape your dough about every half hour
Although I was consistently turning out fantastic loaves in the summer when my kitchen was warm, I don’t yet have enough baker’s intuition to compensate well for suboptimal ambient conditions. My kitchen is pretty chilly right now, so I’ve been doing more work this week to figure out how to compensate for the suboptimal temperature.
Additional Tartine sourdough debugging references
- Overview of the basic method | The Perfect Loaf
- 81% hydration variant with open crumb | The Perfect Loaf (challenging)
- Tartine Bread with training wheels | Tartine Bread Experiment
- Extended autolyse | Tartine Bread Experiment with “guest baker” the o.g. Chad Robertson on deck
Level V: I’m milling my own custom flour blend
*screams* nope not touching this
- The New Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day (Jeff Hertzberg, Zoe Francois)
- The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (Peter Reinhart)
- Peter Reinhart’s sourdough NY-style bagels | Honest Cooking
- Tartine Bread (Chad Robertson)
(Go for the print copies. I’ve never encountered an ebook version of a food-science-heavy cookbook that was non-frustratingly formatted.)