If you love crusty bread but don't like paying $5 or $6 for a loaf at Panera I beg you to make this bread. It's crusty, chewy, full of flavor, and magical. Did I mention how easy it is to make? Stupid easy. Basically you stir the ingredients together, let the dough rest on the counter all day, knead about 10 turns, and bake inside a preheated dutch oven. This recipe was inspired by Cook's Illustrated "Almost No-Knead Bread" which was inspired by Mark Bittman's "No-Knead Bread" in the minimalist column in the food section of the New York Times. Here is my version:
3 cups (15 ounces) unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast (cheat and add a little more yeast if you are in a hurry)
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (7 ounces) water, at room temperature or a little bit warmer
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lager beer (3 ounces) (I use O'Dooles non-alcoholic or even water if I'm out of beer)
1 tablespoon white vinegar (this gives a slight sourdough flavor, substitute 1 tablespoon water if you prefer)
Put flour, yeast, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Dump in water, beer, and vinegar. Stir with a spatula or wooden spoon until a shaggy ball forms. I usually end up mixing with my hand to make sure all the flour is mixed with the liquid. No need to knead. Really. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for about 4 to 8 hours, or more, on the countertop. Sometimes I mix the dough just before bed and bake mid-morning the next day. If you need more time before you are ready to bake the bread punch the dough down and let rise again. And again, if you need.
Place a sheet of parchment paper over a medium mixing bowl. Spray parchment with cooking spray. Dump dough onto a lightly floured counter top and gently knead about 10 turns. Shape dough into a ball and transfer to prepared parchment paper. The dough and paper will sink into the bowl Cover bowl lightly with plastic wrap and let rise about 1 hour.
Place a 6-qt enameled cast iron dutch oven with a tight fitting lid into the oven and preheat to 500 degrees while dough rises, at least 30 minutes. If your dutch oven has a plastic-type handle it will stink at high temperatures. I ordered a metal replacement knob for my pot.
Reduce oven heat to 425 degrees. Dust top of loaf with flour and using your sharpest knife, make 3 slashes over top of loaf. Remove super hot lid from top of pot. Using parchment paper as a sling, lift dough out of bowl and gently place into preheated pot, paper and all. The parchment paper will stick up all around the sides. Don't worry, just put the lid on as tightly as possible and bake for 30 minutes. NO PEEKING. Remove lid and continue baking for 5 to 10 minutes more until loaf is a deep golden brown. Dump loaf out of pan, place onto cooling rack, remove and discard toasted parchment paper, and let loaf cool for at least 45 minutes before cutting. If bottom of loaf is too dark reduce the oven temperature by 5 or 10 degrees and/or reduce baking time next time.
Asiago Cheese Bread:
To the original recipe add 1/2 cup (2 ounces) asiago cheese (cut into little tiny cubes) into flour mixture. Proceed with recipe. This is my current favorite bread - so full of flavor and texture. It makes amazing panini sandwiches.
Cranberry Walnut Bread:
To the original recipe add 1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts and 1/2 cup dried cranberries (craisins) into flour mixture. Proceed with recipe.