Adventures in Hobo Bread

The finished product in all its rustic glory!

So truly, you want tasty and fast bread that looks all artisan-y and spendy. Me too. I like expensive bread. I especially like it now that I love hundreds of miles away from being able to purchase this bread. Having moved to the land of 79 cent white bread two years ago, we always knew that good bread was just something we were going to have to sacrifice here in Southern Indiana. Which of course means we would find a way to do it ourselves.

There has been an awful lot of food talk about Mark Bittman’s No-Knead bread. Some offer huzzahs, citing the ease of preparation, flavor, and looks. Others decry the lack of sourness, crispness and fussiness that this type of bread demands. (Rose Levy Beranbaum, ahem…)

Look, I like bread. I pounced on all the no-knead variations. The one I have played with the most is the Mother Earth News version, which squawks a little loudly about how great it is. I found it to be super-duper hydrated (which is the point, I know) but I kept producing blobs. I wanted tight boules all over my counter, not blobs! My other huge motivating factor in perfecting this recipe is that it allows you to chuck things in a bowl, stir, and walk away. Very, very important. I also wanted to be able to produce this recipe without using plastic wrap or washing an unreasonable amount of dishes. Say, like one spoon.

The Basics:

Get yourself a fine bread bowl that you won’t mind wholly sacrificing to the bread gods.  Ceramic is preferable, but glass will do. I wouldn’t use stainless or aluminum.

You’ll also want those cheap plastic or wooden woven baskets that bread or chips are served in at restaurants. Round is best but you can wing it with oval.

Be prepared to sacrifice a few towels/cloth thingees that you’ll be coating with flour. I use these muslin sacks my mom has in bulk quantity (don’t ask), but you could use any flat weave material. The average dishcloth is probably not a good idea; t-shirt type material, muslin, or floursacks are the best here. Avoid terry cloth.

Critical also is the dutch oven. I use a cast iron one, but I have also baked this bread in a squat stock pot with a lid. Whatever you choose to bake in, I would recommend lining the sides and bottom with one big piece of aluminum foil. Parchment paper sticks, and you can’t reuse it.

This sounds sooo much more fussy than it really is. Once you’re set-up, it’s very easy, I promise.

Origin Stories

Here’s the original recipe, just for background. My modified (and I think, far more successful, recipe follows this one.)

1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
3 cups all-purpose (AP) flour, plus more for dusting…you may use any combination of white or whole wheat.
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

In your sacred bread bowl, dump the water, add the yeast. Add flour and salt. Stir this globbly mess until you feel like all the water has touched some flour and vice versa. Cover and let the dough rest at least 8 hours and up to 24.

When the surface of the dough is dotted with bubbles and yeasty smelling, dust your work surface with a generous layer of flour. Pour (yes, pour) the dough onto the work surface, dust with more flour, cover with your bowl (or plastic wrap) and wander away for about 15 minutes.

(Here’s where I continually ran into trouble. The recipe states that I should be able to lightly shape this goo into a ball and let it rise for 2 hours. It has always been far too wet.)

100_1456Take your t-shirt, towel or what have you and coat it with flour. I don’t mean dust it, either. I mean COAT THE SUCKER. I grind into the material as thickly as I can. I occasionally shake out the excess and add another layer when I feel like it needs to be freshened.  Lay your flour coated material in your restaurant basket (or round colander or sieve or whatever else you have) and set it aside while you try to shape this liquid goo into a ball. Transfer the amorphous shape with the bottom up to your basket, cover gently, and let rise for about 2 hours or so. When it’s ready, it will perhaps be nearly doubled in size and not spring back readily when you poke it.

Next, preheat your oven to 475 degrees WITH YOUR BAKING VESSEL INSIDE IT. This can be a glass, ceramic or cast iron dutch oven thingee, about 6 to 8 quarts.Make sure it’s good and hot.  I line it with aluminum foil because I’m too lazy and make too much bread to wash the sucker out every time. When the dough is ready, remove your baking vessel from the oven and remove the lid. Lift your risen bread by both ends of the towel and kind of roll it into the !!hot!! vessel. (WATCH YOUR WRISTS.) Take your sharpest knife and cut deeply across the surface. Replace the lid and tuck the whole thing back into the oven.

Bake it for about 20 minutes with the lid on. Generally, when I smell the bread, I check it and remove the lid to let the top get nice and brown. When I smell the bread again, I take it out and promptly move it to a cooling rack.

My Version:

I stopped measuring, for one thing. But that doesn’t help you, now, does it? So I weighed out a couple of batches for you, my friends, so you can follow along.

I also decided to treat my bread like sour dough. Every time you make a loaf of bread, remove a blob of dough–say, about the size of a deck of cards. Set it aside for your next loaf. You can wrap it up and refrigerate it, or just cover with water in your sacred bread bowl, which is what I do. My bowl always has either this lump of dough in it or the next batch rising. Got it? The combined weight of my dough blob and water consistently weighed in at 13 oz total. Just pull off your blob, put it in the bowl and add enough water to make it roughly 13 oz. You can go less or more, assuming your vessel can hold a larger loaf. I double this all the time by eyeballing the water and dough blob.100_1455

I also stopped washing my bread bowl. That may gross some of you out. However, it’s the same idea of feeding a sourdough starter, just lazier. I scrape down the sides very thoroughly into the dough blob and water mixture each time.

Next, I sprinkle in the yeast, about .20 ounces. This is a fairly consistent amount. I also drizzle in about .85 ounces of honey; sometimes more, others less. None at all if I don’t have any. Sugar is ok…but the honey is nicer.

I start stirring at this point, breaking up the dough blob with the spatula. I start adding the fun stuff, like oats, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cooked quinoa, and ground flax. Nuts, and dried fruits are delicious as well. The total weight of the fun stuff has generally been :3 to 3.5 ounces. Splash this around with the water.

Next, I add whole wheat flour (yup, I ground it myself). About 3 ounces. For first timers, I might scale back here since too  much whole wheat flour can make for a denser loaf.

Now you can start adding your AP flour (6 ounces). Don’t forget the salt–usually .5o ounces. I add the AP flour and salt last so the salt doesn’t frazzle the yeast and kill it off. Stir until it’s sticky, and pulling away from the sides of the bowl. If you stick your finger in there, it’s going to come off with dough. The dough should have a vague shape but not be a blobbly wet thing. Feel free to add flour until it looks like the picture.Don’t feel like you have to stop at 6 ounces if you need more.100_1465

You’ll note that there is a basic proportion to the ingredients here. Generally twice as much salt as yeast; half as much whole wheat flour and “fun stuff” as AP flour, and twice as much water as AP flour. Eyeballing all of this allows you to not wash any dishes except the the spatula!

Tuck your dough away. I make the dough at night and finish the bread at my leisure the next day. You may refrigerate the dough at this point if you’d like. Maybe up to a day or two.

When you’re ready to finish the dough, you’ll have your basket already lined with your flour coated material. I get all this ready before I handle the dough so I don’t have to flop around the kitchen with dough hands.

I dump a fair amount of flour on the work surface. At least half a cup or so. Scrape the dough (if you have to pour your dough, get ready to add  ALOT of flour) onto the counter. I give my bread a quick knead, adding flour as necessary so it doesn’t stick to me or the counter. I always have to add some. Next, cover it and walk away for a few minutes–say, 15. I’ve forgotten about it for up to an hour with nothing bad happening.

100_1458Next, smoosh your dough into a rough square (or a rectangle if you’re partial to those instead). Add flour as needed to keep things from sticking. Roll up the dough onto itself, then turn it 90 degrees and roll it again. I do this a few times, turning and rolling until the dough starts to feel tense and tight, as compared to loose and fluffy when it was laying on the counter. When it starts to tighten up, start shaping it into a ball shape by smoothing the outer surface of the dough and tucking it under itself. This motion is nearly impossible to describe with words!  Your goal is to create surface tension on the outer layer of the dough so it’ s nice and tight. I turn the dough ball in a circle while I do this, adding flour as needed.

Now, turn your dough ball over and place it upside down in your flour cozy. Fold the sides of the material over neatly, and let it rise for about 2 hours. Again, I’ve walked away for nearly 8 hours (my house is frigid this time of year!) and had good results.


Preheat your oven with your baking vessel inside, lined with foil and with the lid in place. If you use cast iron, let it heat up for a while, like 20 minutes or so. Remove the hot vessel form the oven, take off the lid, and kind of lift the material with the dough from the basket. If you have used enough flour on your material, the dough should just roll right off the surface of the material (rolling over so that the ugly bottom you were looking at is now the touching the bottom of the hot pan) and into the hot vessel. (Again, MIND YOUR WRISTS.) Take your sharpest knife and assertively cut across the top of the dough. Replace the lid, put it back in the oven, and check it when you can smell the bread. Maybe 15 to 20 minutes or so. At this point I remove the lid and let it finish baking until it’s nice and brown and crackly. Transfer the bread promptly to a cooling rack.

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know:

One thing that always bugged me about bread baking is all that flour left over on the counter. I scrape it up and add it to my dough blob along with the water for my next round of bread. Granted, it’s not a lot of flour, but if you bake bread everyday it starts to bug you.

I keep my bread bowl covered with a plate in order to eliminate the need for plastic wrap while rising or percolating.

Dried cranberries and pecans are a nice addition, as is fresh rosemary or other herbs.

Ok, so you forgot about your dough rising on the counter and it’s been a day or two. Not all is lost. The dough will be deflated and probably still have bubbles on the outer surface. I would sprinkle more yeast on the dough, stir it up, let it rest for a little while, and then proceed. I might add this yeast boost if I had left the dough for a few days in the fridge.

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