Thursday, October 2, 2008

No-Frills Flatbread

Cooks Illustrated just ran an illuminating article about a bread called 'Pizza Bianca,' a sauceless, cheeseless flatbread that turned out to be the most practical bread recipe on earth. It is simple, inexpensive, flexible, and delicious. For weeks around our move, this was the only bread I made. We would cut it into squares for sandwiches, shape it into mini-rounds for personal pizzas, twist it into bread sticks, cube it for strata, make it with spelt, durum, red wheat, buckwheat... as bread recipes go, this one pays a big reward for a small effort.

One caveat: the first time I made it, it came out like shoe leather because I hadn't given it enough time to rise. It still tasted great, but the texture left something to be desired. Every batch after that, however, was perfect - crisp crust, soft bubbly crumb, ready when I needed it.

Another caveat: I have made this recipe with some buckwheat, but have not tried a 100% gluten-free version. This being a flatbread, it's conducive to GF-adaptation and I'd be curious to see how that turns out.

Here we go:
8 ounces sourdough starter (100% hydration)
11.5 ounces wheat flour, any kind
9.5 ounces water, filtered if you live in Philadelphia
1 1/4 (one and one-quarter) teaspoons salt
Oil for the proofing bowl
One overnight rest in the refrigerator
One 2-hour rise at room temperature
One 30-minute pre-bake rise

Mix everything together. No need to knead - just mix, plop in the oiled bowl, and toss it in the fridge overnight. It doesn't have to be "smooth and elastic;" one big sticky mess is just fine. An overnight rest is key to getting amazing flavor out of whole wheat. If you made the same recipe with the same flour, minus the overnight soak, it would taste suspiciously like cardboard. I think that is how whole wheat got a bad reputation.

At some point between the mixing and the baking, it's necessary to give the dough a two-hour rise, followed by a thirty-minute rise just before baking. Keep in mind that bread will rise more slowly when it's cold from the refrigerator and will need a little extra time to de-chill.

Sometimes I break up the two-hour rise into an hour in the morning before work and another hour after work, so that the bread will be ready in time for dinner. After the two-hour rise, I might also split the dough - some to bake now and some to save in the refrigerator for tomorrow or the next day. After three days in the refrigerator, the yeasts start to die, giving an off-flavor to the bread.

When you're ready to bake your proofed bread, preheat the oven to 450 F. If you have a baking stone, put that in the oven before preheating. Spread the dough on a baking sheet to a thickness of about half an inch. The dough should be so wet that it's just a matter of pouring it out and guiding it into a roughly rectangular shape or mini pizza rounds. If you want to cut the dough and save some to bake later, kitchen shears can do a neat job of this. Try not to pop too many of the air bubbles while shaping/cutting the dough. Let it rise thirty minutes while the oven preheats.

When the oven and dough are ready, put the dough into the oven and leave it alone for about fifteen minutes. Start checking after fifteen minutes, but don't pull the bread out of the oven until the crust is a rich brown and the bread sounds hollow when thumped. I'm sure many things are less appetizing than underbaked bread, but I don't want to go there.
Depending on thickness and hydration, this bread should take 15-25 minutes to bake at 450 F.
Once you master the basic technique, get creative!


jenn said...

I found this place that sells all kind of Gluten Free food and snacks. I had a great experience with them the last few times. Thanks to them I can have lots of yummy treats.

austen_n_burney said...

wow this is a great recipe. I can't wait to try it. Thanks!