How to Make Good (Beer) Bread

A lot of people have asked for this recipe, and I keep promising to write it down, so here goes. You can use any kind of beer, and get a wonderful variety of colours and flavours, but I tend to prefer it with dark ales; they give the bread a darker crumb like a rye bread, and have a really malty, yeasty flavour that I like.  Really hoppy beers do a totally different thing, you should experiment.

I can’t take any credit for this at all – it’s how the French have made bread for 500 years, I suspect (albeit more often with water than beer.)  It takes about 15 minutes of active work (most of it up front), 30 minutes of baking (all of it at the end) and hours in between when you go and do other things.

Ingredients:

  • 1lb flour (white, whole wheat, whatever turns your crank.  I have pretty good success starting with about 10-14oz unbleached white flour, and topping up with whole wheat, but going all white flour is the classic french bread recipe) plus some for working.
  • One 12oz bottle of beer (or, I suppose, 12oz of water).
  • 2tsp salt
  • 1tsp instant yeast (if you buy the traditional yeast instead of instant, I presume you already know how to activate it)

Method in Brief:

  • Combine dry ingredients
  • Stir in beer
  • Knead
  • Cover, let rise for at least 1 hour
  • Punch down mixture, recover.  Let rise for at least 2 hours or refrigerated overnight
  • Pre-heat oven to 450F
  • Form dough into loaf, slash top, dust lightly with flour
  • When dough is placed in oven, spray oven surfaces with water, or throw in two ice cubes
  • Bake for 25-30min or until the crust is nicely browned.  Let stand for at least 15 minutes.

Method with Narrative (and an explanation of the ice cubes):

Mix the flour, salt, and yeast in a bowl that you think is too big.

Pour in the beer.  It helps if the beer is not ice cold, since that will really slow down the yeasties.  If you didn’t think to take the beer out earlier, no worries, just run it under a warm tap until it’s no longer cold to the touch.  This is not an exact science, nor should you treat it as such.

Mix with a spoon until the ingredients are combined.  This will be a really sticky dough.  It will make you sad the first couple times, until you learn to recognize the goodness it portents.

Sprinkle some flour on a countertop or other largish surface, and dump the dough out on to it.  Remove any rings or watches.

Now you’re going to knead the dough.  If you’ve never kneaded before, it’s easy.  Your job is basically to keep mooshing the flour molecules past one another so that there is ample opportunity for them to link up into chains called “gluten”.  Gluten is what gives bread its elasticity.  If you are not accustomed to thinking of bread as “elastic”, think about how a slice of bread deals with mashing and stretching (i.e. by mashing and stretching) vs. how a slice of cake does (i.e. by crumbling).  Flour mixtures all tend to form gluten.  Things like kneading help it out (which you do it with bread doughs and not cake doughs), things like fat hinder it (which is why you add things like shortening to cake – so-called because it “shortens” the dough – breaks up the gluten chains).

Kneading is also a nice analog process for getting the flour:beer ratio right, since your natural stickiness aversion will tend to have you adding sprinkles of flour as you work the dough and the surface becomes sticky again and again.  To knead, use your fingers, knuckles, or palms to stretch the dough out along one axis, then fold it over on itself and repeat.  When it gets too sticky to work with (try to keep it as sticky as you can stand) add more flour.  You don’t have to do this for long, 5-10 minutes is probably fine.  When you’re done, you’ll see a difference in the dough ball: if you stretch it a little, it will bounce back mostly into shape.

You’re basically done the hard work.

Throw the dough ball into a big bowl.  If you’re clever, you will have really lightly oiled the bowl first (not like a muffin pan or anything, just a shot of Pam, or a dab of canola oil swooshed around on a paper towel) because it will make the dough easier to remove later.  Throw a dishcloth over the bowl and leave it somewhere warm in your kitchen to think about life.  If your oven is a newer one with a “Proof” setting, now is when you can use it.

You don’t want to cook the dough here, you just want the yeasties to be at a happy temperature.  In case you weren’t clear, yeast are little, edible, live fungi that eat sugars in flour (among other things) and leave alcohol and carbon dioxide gas as well as a host of mostly nice-tasting things in their wake.  The alcohol is mostly incidental for our purposes here, though there is a delightful symmetry in the fact that we’re mixing beer (grains + yeast + water = alcohol and incidentally CO2) and bread (grains + yeast + water = CO2 and incidentally alcohol).  Point is, these guys will work through the flour making little bubbles as they go, which give our bread the ability to rise.  Very exciting.

After an hour or two, your dough will have doubled in size.  The only problem with cooking it right now is that your bubbles will not be evenly distributed.  You’ll probably actually have a couple giant bubbles that will lead to silly looking bread.  And anyhow, that’s not actually the only reason – giving the yeast more time also lets them develop more interesting flavours.

What you CAN do after an hour (or two, or three, this is not an exact science) is what bakers call “punching down.”  You can leave the dough in the bowl, but basically what you want to do is re-distribute the bubbles through the dough, and bust up any big ones.  Just rotate the bowl around, folding the edge back towards the center until you’ve got a ball again without any obvious giant bubbles.  It will lose some of its newfound volume too, that’s okay.  The yeasties still have plenty to work with.

What you do now is up to you.  You could wait another hour and bake it and have tasty bread.  You could go out for the afternoon and then bake it for dinner and have very tasty bread.  Personally, I do this on a Saturday, with an eye to baking it on Sunday, so I give it the rest of the day to rise, and then I’ll generally punch it down a second time and put it in the fridge overnight.  By Sunday dinner, I have me some outstandingly tasty bread.  Again, I’m not taking credit, the recipe is as old as the hills.  But ask around, my Sunday night bread kicks ass.  Anyhow, time passes.

Your dough should be room temperature when you go to bake it which is trivial unless you’ve gone for the (highly recommended!) overnight rise in the fridge.  Why not just leave it to rise overnight, out of the fridge, I hear you ask?  By all means, give it a shot.  It will rise a lot, and the surface will feel like silk, and it will be nearly impossible to handle (think about trying to form a loaf out of steam, say).  But I admire your moxie.

Every time you manipulate your dough, some of the bubbles will collapse.  They’ll come back as long as there is anything else for your yeast to eat (which there will be), so don’t worry, but it does mean that you don’t really want to be doing any dough manipulation immediately before baking.  I deal with this by forming the loaf and putting it on a sheet of parchment for the final rise, since parchment can go directly into the oven.  Pro-tip: wax paper is not parchment.

This is a French bread recipe, so you want to bake it on a stone or, failing that, a cookie sheet.  You don’t put this in a loaf pan.  That means that you have considerable flexibility on the size and shape of your loaf.  You can sort of just plop your bread ball down and make a round “boule” loaf, or you can form it into the standard french-stick ellipsoid.  The only trick here is to try to ensure that the “skin” of the loaf, the soon-to-be-crust, is stretched nicely instead of lying slack.  To do that, as you’re shaping it, curl the sides of the loaf down under itself, so that the top skin stretches.  This is easier to do than to describe – you’ll get the hang of it.

Heat your oven to 450F (convection ovens are yay, and will generally be smart enough to re-interpret that as 425F since they do a better job of baking.  If yours doesn’t, help it out.)  If you have a baking stone, it should obviously be in there too.  When the oven is hot, right before putting the bread in, slash the top a few times and dust it with a little more flour.  Not only does this give it a classic look, but it also lets the bread rise more evenly as the bubbles expand in the heat.

Right after you put it in the oven, throw in a few ice cubes.  Not on the bread, just anywhere in the oven.  The ice cubes are key. They will form steam, and the steam will condense on the dough, since it is cooler than the air in the oven.  In the process, they will give up some heat to the surface of the dough.  This makes for very happy crusts, and is the difference between people thinking you cooked bread, and people thinking you are super-awesome.

5 minutes in, you can throw a few more ice cubes in, to finish the job. Be careful when you open the oven door, that steam is going to try to have a party on your face.

Total baking time is about 25 minutes, though I generally have to give whole wheat dough a little bit longer to get a good crust going.

Take it out when it’s ready, put it on some kind of rack to cool.  If you put your ear up next to it, you will hear the signature sound of bread – a crackling as it cools, that makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

Cut thick slices.  Use real butter.  Marvel at how something so easy can taste so good.  I know there’s a lot of words there, but by the third time you do this, it is easier and more rewarding than just about anything else you’ll do in your kitchen.

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