I had an interesting experience the other day. I've been enjoying Ratio, Michael Ruhlman's newest book, and decided to try the basic bread ratio. He explains that the actual quantity of yeast isn't all that important, and that less yeast just requires more time, with better-developed flavor as your reward for patience.
Well, I mixed up the dough. I didn't worry about water temperature and I used a small quantity of yeast. After kneading, I covered the dough and waited for it to double in size. I checked it after an hour, and it looked like nothing had happened. Two hours, and it was the same result. I shrugged, figuring I'd gotten a batch of old yeast and went on about my day, intending to throw the dough away and start over.
Oops, I got distracted, forgot all about the dough, and didn't rediscover the bowl sitting in a quiet corner until the next day. Hmm, it had finally doubled in size. And it smelled fine. So I punched it down, let it rest a bit, formed it into a boule, wrapped it in plastic, and put it in the refrigerator.
The next day I pulled the dough out of the refrigerator and let it proof for a couple of hours. Then I popped it into the oven with a pan of steaming water, baked it until done, and let it cool.
The crust color was a bit odd, but at this point it was just an experiment, so I didn't much care. I cut into the boule and the structure of the bread was absolutely marvelous. Well, I decided I should taste it to see if it was alright. It certainly smelled fine.
Oh my, what a delight! It was, hands down, the best-tasting bread I've ever made: dense without being heavy; very tasty but without the overly yeasty flavor I'd usually achieved. And long-lasting as well. It didn't dry out for the three days it lasted, and every bite of it continued to satisfy.
Was it a fluke? Only one way to find out. First, the recipe.
Basic Bread Dough
from Ratio by Michael Ruhlman
20 ounces bread flour
12 ounces water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon active or instant yeast
Put the flour and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer. P0ur on the water--I also added 1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 1½ tablespoons honey--then sprinkle the yeast on top. If you have patience, let the yeast rehydrate for a couple of minutes. Mix with the paddle attachment for a few seconds until the dough comes together. Then fit the dough hook onto the mixer and knead for about ten minutes, until it's smooth and elastic.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and cover it with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise until it doubles in size. When you push a finger into it, there should be some resistance and it shouldn't spring back.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. It's going to stick to the bowl a bit, so just keep pulling it away from the bowl until it's out. Knead it a couple of times to expel excess gas and redistribute the yeast, then cover with a towel and let it rest about 10 minutes. Form it into the shape you wish--Ruhlman gives excellent instructions for different shapes--then cover with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator overnight.
Pull the dough from the refrigerator, remove the plastic wrap, place it on a baking sheet, cover with a towel, and let it proof for 1½-2 hours. Near the end of proofing, preheat your oven to 450°F/230°C and place a cast iron skillet in the bottom of the oven. Set aside a cup of water to add to the pan at baking.
Put your bread in the oven, add a cup of water to the pan, and bake for 10 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 375°F/190°C and continue to bake another 45-50 minutes, until done. Let it cool on a rack as long as your patience will allow before cutting the first slice.
If you've never made bread before, try this method. It produces fantastic bread with minimal effort. And if you haven't looked at Ratio yet, get a copy. You'll be glad you did.