For the aspiring baker, bread is the Holy Grail. It’s like the Boston Marathon to your Couch-to-5K app. Yeast and starters and rising and punching down and proofing—none of that appears in the recipe on the back of the Toll-House chocolate chips bag. Yet there are few things as satisfactory as home-baked bread: the comforting smell that wafts through your house, the delectable sensation of butter melting into a fresh-baked slice. Baking bread is a worthy enterprise, surely. But where to start?
My Takeout colleagues have recommended America’s Test Kitchen’s Bread Illustrated and Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast as two great introductory texts. My exploration into bread began with Heritage Baking, the new book by Ellen King, co-owner of Hewn bakery in Evanston, Illinois. The subtitle of her book is “Recipes for rustic breads and pastries baked with artisanal flour.” King takes a definitely zen approach to the baking process: “If you love to eat sweets and bread, you should learn how to bake. And you don’t have to be freaked out, and you don’t have to be good at math or whatever. To be a good baker, it’s literally just patience and persistence, putting the time in to develop it.”
After all, baking bread starts with a basic concept. “The thought that you just mix flour and water together and something happens?” King tells me. “That’s what you’re doing.” The process used to be simpler than today’s bread machines and KitchenAid mixers: “Baking used to be your grandma in the kitchen with literally a cup. A cup of this, a cup of that. And then we made it into a science and people got afraid, and that shouldn’t be the case at all.”
King makes a great case for bread-making. She’s so persuasive that if you’re not doing it, you feel like you’re missing out. In her book, she describes heritage baking as “defined by the use of heirloom grains that are grown sustainably,” then stone-milled and baked using a homemade sourdough starter for bread. Granted, some of these flours can be a little difficult to come by.
Even in Chicago-adjacent Evanston, Whole Foods doesn’t carry the flours that King likes to use. “They’re carrying organic flour, but it’s not local stone mill. They are in other areas, like on the East Coast and West Coast, but in this area there hasn’t been the push yet.” If you really want to try out the varietals that King recommends like Glenn or Red Fife, “Most of these farms will sell direct to you. If you Google ‘local stone mill flour,’ more and more places will show up.” You can even contact the mills directly to get flour shipped to you. Or, as King says, “We order everything on Amazon and they’ll ship it to you in a five-pound bag.”
The advantage of these flours is not just avoiding “flour that’s been treated with junk,” as King puts it. In the book, she explains, “Bread should be something more than what you use for a sandwich or smother with bread and jam. We should be able to source as many real, wholesome nutrients from bread as we get from the locally grown lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, farm-churned butter, and wholesome nut butters many of us seek out and appreciate.” (If you don’t want to order special flour, though, King offers a few substitutes in the recipe below.)
It’s easy to be seduced by bread-making. Several of my Takeout colleagues, like many other bread neophytes, fell down the rabbit hole with Jim Lahey’s famed no-knead bread recipe. Once you graduate from that relatively easy boule, bread-making gets more nuanced and difficult, and will take much trial and error.
For me, I opt to begin with baby steps: dinner rolls. It’s a low-commitment, high-yield project for bread-making beginners. No starter necessary, just some store-bought yeast. The trickiest part is kneading the dough into the cute little rolls, pushing it with your thumb and then rounding it with your palm, but the butter makes the dough malleable. “Never try to make it too perfect,” King cautions me. “You’ll destroy it.”
Making and forming the dough one night, I was then ready to bake dinner rolls for everyone’s breakfast the following morning. It was an absolutely heavenly scent to greet the day with. As described in the book, “For a really easy alternative to a traditional roll, we add some herbs to the dough and brush with rosemary-infused butter… The smell of baking rosemary is also a comforting, natural fragrance for the home.”
Luckily, I had some thyme available, but the fact that I’d made these rolls with my own two little hands made me appreciate them so much more. And that is one of the great revelations of bread-making: Holding those rolls, you almost can’t believe you birthed it into the world. King told me, “Even if it doesn’t turn out the best, it’s still probably better than something that you would have actually bought.” She was absolutely right.
Makes 12 rolls
- 485 g (3 1/2 cups) sifted heritage flour, such as Red Fife or Glenn. If you can’t source those varietals, King suggests Bob’s Red Mill or Whole Foods organic brand.
- 55 g (1/4 cup) sugar
- 6 g (1 tsp.) fine sea salt
- 7 g (1 1/2 tsp.) instant yeast
- 50 g (1 large) egg
- 120 g (1/2 cup) water
- 120 g (1/2 cup) milk
- 113 g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cubed
- 2 g (1 tsp.) chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 g (1 tsp.) chopped fresh thyme
- 1 rosemary sprig
- 56 g (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast and mix on low speed to combine.
With the mixer running on low speed, add the egg, water, and milk. Slowly add the cubed butter, a few cubes at a time, and continue mixing for five minutes, or until all of the butter is incorporated. Fold in the chopped rosemary and thyme.
Remove the dough from the bowl and gently knead with your hands for about 1 minute. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit for 45 minutes.
Take the dough out of the bowl and divide into 12 equal balls (about 50 g each). Take each ball and place in the palm of your hand and round them on the counter to create skin tension.
Coat a 10-inch cake pan or a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with cooking spray. Place the balls in the pan or skillet, spacing them about 1/4 inches apart. They should fit snugly into the pan and will bake into each other; you can tear or slice them apart after baking.
Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let sit in a warmer part of your kitchen for one hour to proof. Don’t let the plastic wrap touch the dough or it will stick when you remove it.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 24 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking, until golden brown.
Meanwhile, to make the rosemary butter, in a small microwavable bowl or in a small saucepan with the rosemary sprig, melt the 1/4 cup of butter.
Remove the rolls from the oven and brush with the rosemary-infused melted butter while still hot.
Let cool for 10 minutes and serve warm. Or cool completely, cover with plastic wrap, and serve the next day. The rolls can be frozen for up to three months in a resealable plastic bag or an airtight container.
Rewarm frozen rolls in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes, brush the tops with about a teaspoon butter each while warm, and serve. Once the rolls are reheated, they are best eaten that day.
Reprinted from Heritage Baking by Ellen King with permission by Chronicle Books, 2018.