Sunday, January 3, 2010

Christmas Eve Dinner in the Dutch Ovens, Part III

Now, this bread recipe is one that I've done before.  It's a simple, sweet, and soft sandwich loaf (I get bonus blogger points for alliteration).

So, even though I've done this bread before, I'm writing about it again, because I learned something very important.  In the process, I've salvaged my bread-baking confidence.  Let me tell you the story. 

Over the last few months, I've tried to make some breads, but they've not worked out well.  I first noticed it when I tried to make my sister's whole wheat recipe.  It was very difficult to knead it enough to get a good gluten windowpane (see below) going on.  After 30-40 minutes or so, it would kinda come together, but not really, and I would give up.  It would rise, but not as I hoped it would, and when it all baked it was heavy with a hard crust.

I just figured that it was because that's how whole wheat is, right?  But that's not how it was when Mom made it so many years ago...

Then my wife tried to make rolls that ended up like bricks.  I thought to myself, "She didn't knead them enough."  Fortunately, I didn't say anything, because when I did make a white bread a few days later, I had the same problem.

I was really down about it.  Here I'd been all confident that I was really learning how to make bread, and suddenly nothing was working!  I just didn't get it at all!

Gradually it dawned on me that the white flour I'd been using might be bad.  It had been a part of Jodi's step-dad's food storage for years, and he had given it to us.  I checked with my sister, who's been a wonderful source of inspiration and guidance, and she thought it might be the problem, too.

So, when I did the bread for the Christmas feast, I bought a fresh batch of bread flour and did it all again, just like I had before.  Right away, I could tell a difference.  The dough was more white, where the bad dough had been kind of yellow.  It felt better in my fingers as I kneaded it.  This was how I remembered it.  I got to the point where I could do a full gluten window in about ten minutes of kneading.

Jodi's Bread in the Dutch Oven

12” Dutch Oven
17 coals above, 8 below for 350 degrees (in normal weather, more in cold)

  • 1 cup hot water
  • 1 Tbsp yeast
  • 3/4 cup honey

  • 4-5 cups flour, with probably about cup to be added during kneading
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 cups milk (mixed from powder)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tblsp oil
  • An egg to coat the top

First, I activated the yeast.  I got fully hot tap water, and added the honey to it.  This cooled it significantly, but it was still quite warm.  I added the yeast to that and let it sit and grow foamy for a while.

Then, in a separate bowl, I added the flour, and the other ingredients.  I added in the yeast/honey mix and stirred it all up with a wooden spoon.  It came loose from the sides of the bowl, but was still quite sticky.

Then, I floured up the countertop, and dumped it out.  I sprinkled more flour onto the dough ball and started kneading.  It was still quite sticky, but I kept kneading and sprinkling on more flour gradually until it no longer consistently stuck to my fingers and the table.

Then I kept kneading until I could make a good windowpane.  For those that don't understand that yet, you cut of a chunk of the dough and make a ball about the size of a golf ball.  Then you stretch it out with your fingers like you're making a pizza.  You keep stretching until it tears.  If you can stretch it thin and translucent without it tearing, then you've achieved the "Gluten Windowpane", and you're done kneading.  If it keeps tearing, then you need to knead more.

Once it was ready, I used spray oil on the mixing bowl and put it back in.  I sprayed another coating of oil on top to keep it from drying out, covered it with a towel, and set it aside to rise. 

It rose up very nicely, just like I had hoped it would.  That was the second sign that it was working.

Once it had risen, I went outside and started up the coals.  It would take a while for the coals and the oven to get ready while I proofed the bread. 

I came back in and dumped out the dough.  Using one of those cool pastry cutters, I cut it into quarters and formed each quarter into a ball.  You pull the surface around and underneath, then pinch it together.  That stretches the surface smooth.  I quickly sprayed oil into the dutch oven, and put each dough ball on the bottom, like in quarters.  Then I set the dutch oven aside to rise again ("proofing"). 

In the meantime, I took the dutch oven lid outside and poured some coals onto it, about 20 or so, so that it would pre-heat.  After about 20 minutes, the dough balls had risen some, and I knew the lid was good and hot.  I coated the dough balls with the beaten egg.  Then, outside, I made a ring of coals and set the dutch oven onto it, and closed on the lid. 

I let it cook for about an hour.  Every 15 minutes or so, I rotated the lid about a quarter turn, and then lifted and turned the oven itself.  This helps reposition the coals relative to the oven and the bread inside, so you don't get hot spots.  After about a half hour, I put a cooking thermometer into the dough and reclose the lid.  That allows me to check the internal temperature of the bread.  Soft breads like this are done at about 180-200 degrees F.

When it was done, I pulled it off.  I let it cool a little in the oven with the lid off.  I need to get one of those drying racks so that the bottom can air out while it cools.  Then it won't be quite so moist and squishy.

So, the lesson I learned:  If you're using food storage flour, make sure that you actually use it and not just keep it under your stairs for a hundred years.  If it's that old, if it doesn't respond, throw it out.  There's not much use for it.  My wife even tried to make brownies with it, using baking powder, and it didn't even work well for that.

More Dutch Oven Bread-Making Notes from Mark:  This post was written almost a week ago.  Since then (today, in fact) I re-attempted the whole wheat bread recipe from a few weeks ago, this time with the fresh bread flour.  It was a little nerve-wracking, because it still took a long time to get the proper knead goin' on, and it was still a two-hour rise. Still, I after the first rise, I formed two loaves, side by side in the dutch oven, and let it proof.  I got a successful proof rise, which I hadn't before, while I was getting coals ready and pre-heating the dutch oven lid.

It turned out GREAT!  I was so excited.  The crust was strong, but not rock-hard like before.  Well, the bottom crust was harder than I would have liked.  I need to be better about managing the bottom heat on the dutch oven.  The crumb was soft and with a good texture.  The honey gave it a very sweet flavor as well.

Another note:  For the past five-six days or so, I've been trying to catch a sourdough start.  I put out some flour and water, and just for the sake of the experiment, I put a half-tub of plain yogurt in it as well.  I kept feeding it by adding more flour and water over the course of the days, and today, I noticed it bubbling up a bit!  Then, when I was done with the whole wheat bread, I noticed that it was really frothy!  That means that I caught the yeast spores, and they had multiplied.  I think next week, I'll do a sourdough bread.

That reminds me - Next weekend is our church's annual Chili Cookoff!  Woo Hoo!

Mark has discovered a love of Dutch Oven Cooking. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including and his MoBoy blog.

Mark's Other Blog Posts: Joyful Noises - Jan 2010


  1. Question: Have you tried one of the dutch oven no-knead bread recipes that have to rise for at least 18 hours? I have seen them and wondered since some people rave about the texture of the bread. Trying to figure out how it would work in a camping situation since there is no such thing as room temperature. Even in the heat of summer night time is bitter cold in the mountains where we tend to go.

  2. Is the bread in your top photo the result of cooking like you described? If so, how did you get the shape of a loaf with the muffin top that comes from expanding over the top of a loaf pan?



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