Don’t let a bread recipe scare you off! I find that even those of us adept at baking cakes, cookies and the like, are often intimidated by the process of baking a loaf of bread. Baking with yeast definitely takes longer and requires a little practice, but in my opinion is still an attainable goal for even the rookie baker. I’m not going to tell you that you need to dive head first into the intricacies of bread-making and study the many, many different techniques, because I’ve already done that for you (to some degree)! If there’s one “everyday” bread recipe to master and keep on hand, it’s this one.
You may have seen in the past that I typically picked up a loaf of bread from one of my favorites local bakeries each week. Over the past few months, I have tested out recipes and techniques to create my perfect rustic whole wheat bread at home. Since I usually eat a slice of bread at some point every single day, I opt for mostly whole wheat to add in fiber and whole grains. This loaf offers the whole wheat benefits, and has the perfectly crunchy exterior and perfectly hole-y interior of a great bakery loaf. On top of that, I tested the proportions out until I felt the recipe yielded the right size loaf that’s feasible to eat in a short period of time (unlike this monstrous one I made).
The time frame required for this may seem like a lot, but there’s very little active time involved, so it’s easy to start at 9:00 on Sunday morning and have it done in time for Sunday night dinner, while still enjoying your day in between. I have done my best to include tips so that even your first go at this bread will be successful, but I will also assure you that after just a few times of working through the recipe you’ll feel a million times more comfortable with the dough.
A couple of housekeeping items before you dive in – I strongly recommend investing in a simple kitchen scale for bread-making (or any baking, really). Measuring by weight is always more accurate, which is particularly important when it comes to flour. A cup of flour can vary anywhere from 4 to 6 ounces depending on how you measure it – for example, you’ll end up with much more than desired if you pack it down into the measuring cup (please never do that). The ratio of flour to water is important when making bread dough, so the difference in quantity can have a big impact. I have included estimates for measurements by volume as well, for convenience. Lastly, I use my handy electric kettle for heating water to the exact right temperature, but you could easily use a standard thermometer as well.
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Rustic Whole Wheat Bread
Yield: 1 standard loaf
Start at 9:00 AM, finish by 5:00 PM
- 13 ounces whole wheat flour (about 2-1/2 cups)
- 4-1/2 ounces bread flour (scant 1 cup)
- 15 ounces water, warmed to 100-110°F
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 teaspoon instant yeast
- Olive oil, for drizzling
Set the bowl of a stand mixer on a kitchen scale, zero the scale, and pour the whole wheat flour in. Zero the scale again and add the bread flour. Add the salt and water. Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the water and allow to sit for a few minutes, until it has dissolved and starts to foam.
Transfer the bowl to the stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on low speed until the ingredients are fully incorporated. Replace the paddle with a dough hook and continue mixing until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10-15 minutes. The dough should remain fairly wet and sticky.
Remove the bowl from the machine, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a 70-75°F area to rise for approximately 5 hours, or until the dough has tripled in size. During the first 1 to 2 hours of the rise time, you will stretch and fold the dough three times to redistribute the yeast and encourage gluten development. I recommend doing this after the first 10 minutes, again 30 minutes later, and then again 30 minutes after that.
To stretch and fold the dough, first wet your hands with warm water to prevent sticking. Slide one hand underneath the dough and pull about one-quarter of it up until you feel resistance, then fold it over the top to the other side of the dough. Repeat four or five times, working around the dough until it has tightened back up into a ball.
Once the dough has risen completely, prepare a moderately floured work surface. Tip the bowl slightly and gently work a floured hand beneath the dough to loosen it. Ease it out onto the work surface without pulling or tearing it. Using your hands, shape the dough into a round boule or oblong ciabatta shape. Once formed, clear the loose flour from the area, cup your hands on the far side of the loaf, and slide it 12 inches towards you, creating friction on the surface to tighten the loaf’s shape.
Cover the dough with a dishtowel and allow to proof for one hour. While the dough is proofing, begin preheating the oven to 475°F, with a baking stone and cast iron skillet inside.
When ready to bake, score the loaf with several slices along the top, brush the top with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Transfer the dough to the baking stone inside the oven, pour 1 cup of cold water into the cast iron skillet and quickly close the door to trap the steam. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 375°F and bake for 40-45 minutes longer. When the bread is done, it should sound hollow on the inside when you knock on the bottom of the loaf. Allow to rest for at least 20 minutes before slicing.
Refine Baking Tips
- You can substitute all-purpose flour instead of bread flour with little change to the final product. Bread flour is typically used because it has a higher protein content which helps with gluten development.
- I find that when the rise time is at least 2 to 3 hours, instant and active yeast can be used interchangeably. If using active yeast, when you initially sprinkle the yeast over the water, let it sit for 10 minutes to allow more time to dissolve.
- If you don’t have access to a stand mixer, feel free to knead the dough by hand but plan to knead at least 5 minutes longer to achieve the desired texture.
- After kneading, test the dough by pulling off a chunk and stretching it slightly. If it quickly tears, continue kneading until it becomes more elastic.
- Whole wheat dough will not stretch as much as regular dough, so be mindful not to move too quickly and tear it.
- The exact timing of the three “stretch and folds” can be adjusted to fit your schedule. They should be done at least 20-30 minutes apart and can be done at any point during the rise time, except for the last hour.
- The wet, slack dough that this recipe produces and the process of stretching and folding are what create the open holes in your final loaf, rather than a tight crumb sandwich bread.
- Form the loaf into whatever shape you prefer – although I love the look of a round boule, I like that an oblong loaf makes for smaller slices of bread in the end.
- The cast iron skillet steam step can be skipped (but I don’t recommend it). Steaming during the first few minutes is what creates the thick, crusty outer layer of a rustic country loaf.