On baking bread (and losing track of time)

creative simplicity

Baking bread is a deceptively simple task. Not easy, necessarily, but simple. I used to be very intimidated by the entire category of “yeast bread.” It had something to do with the mystery of the process, I think, but I also attributed a sort of aura to that rare category of people who bake bread.

To me, it seemed nothing short of miraculous that flour, water, and yeast could be transformed from an unwieldy, sticky mass into a round, golden foundation for a meal.

Everything changed for me during graduate school, when I lived with a roommate who baked bread on a regular basis in our very own humble kitchen. After over a year of lurking while she baked and feasting on the results, I decided to give it a try.

I was surprised to discover that, in addition to the three basic ingredients, a good loaf of bread is created with two guiding principles: patience and restraint.

Although a recipe may call for an hour and a half of rising time, this estimate is arbitrary. A lump of dough has a mind of its own. It will be ready when it’s ready. My advice is not to set a timer, but rather, after you have whipped up a batch of dough that is not too dry and not too sticky, cover it with a damp tea towel and forget about it.

This is the point at which it is very important to lose track of time. I would urge you to take a very long walk or a very long nap. Or perhaps both. Your dough will be better for it, and your body will thank you.

If, upon returning, that little batch of dough looks quite the same as when you started, resist the urge to poke and prod it and generally do something to it. While your dough is rising, it does not need you. Best to leave it alone and start up a new project. Something terribly all-consuming, like organizing your sock drawer or folding paper cranes, will do just fine. Or perhaps another nap is in order.

Hopefully, you’ll have started your dough sometime in the morning or early afternoon. And if your stomach is beginning to growl for dinner, you can be pretty sure your dough is finally ready for you to get involved again. It is much bigger now, and looser and wobblier, than when you started.

At this point, you may cover your hands in flour, punch down your dough, and turn it out onto a floured surface. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for—the iconic doing moment in the life of a loaf of bread: kneading. But remember your restraint. Kneading is a transient process, a few moments of turning the dough and folding it back onto itself. Try not to knead the life out of it.

Now that you’ve spent a little time with your dough, I’m sure you’d like to pop it right into the oven. Don’t. Cover it back up with that tea towel and forget about it again. Set to work on the other aspects of dinner, which will hopefully involve sautéed onions and will definitely take a while. Get the oven going at a high temperature, somewhere near 400 degrees, perhaps. When things are beginning to come together and starting to look like the components of a meal, you can finally transfer your dough from counter to oven (minus the towel).

I know, you’re getting really hungry now. Me too. Don’t worry. It’ll only bake for a little while—perhaps twenty minutes or so, depending on the bread and the oven—before it’s golden brown and ready to toss into a basket and onto the table.

Your bread is hot still, so I suppose you’d better start with a glass of wine or a passionate conversation. Or both. Some of the simplest, most wonderful things cannot be rushed. They’ll take all day. It’s worth the wait.