I admit it, I was skeptical. The phenomenon of baking a loaf of bread in a heavy duty enamel over cast iron pot seemed like a load of bunk to me. How could this possibly work? I tried to talk myself into explanations... the pot steams the bread, making the crust what you would expect to find in a high end bakery. Is that true? I'm not sure, but I suspect it to be at least partially true, now. Now that I've tried it and become a believer!
The first time I heard of this magical bread was on America's Test Kitchen, where the people who bring us the fab mag Cook's Illustrated show us how to make all kind of incredible dishes. It stayed in the back of mind to try sometime. Then I saw it again in two different cooking demos that I went to last year. It's like it was taunting me... calling to me. Make that bread! So I gave in and tried it. And I'm a damn fool for not having done it sooner!
The recipe I use is from America's Test Kitchen. Start off with 3 cups of unbleached all purpose flour in a large bowl. Add 1/4 teaspoon of instant or rapid rise yeast. I'm not positive the yeast I have is the quick kind. I buy it in bulk since I make so much foccacia for customers so I put it in an airtight container in my fridge. So considering that, I used about a full teaspoon and a half. Also add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. IMO, it could use a touch more. I think I'll go with 2 teaspoons next time. But by all means, try it with 1 1/2 first! Combine these ingredients with a whisk.
To the dry ingredients, add 3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons (7 oz) of room temperature water, 1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons (3 ounces) of lager beer and 1 Tablespoon of white vinegar.
Do you like the big econo jug of white vinegar? It's got many many household uses ;)
All you need is a rubber spatula to mix the dough. Fold the ingredients together and make sure to scrap the sides of the bowl. When you are doing this, it's going to look like a complete mess. And if you panic, like I did, you may find yourself putting the whole thing in the Kitchen Aid and mixing it together. I admit it, I did it. I couldn't help myself! I think it was probably unnecessary, but it made me feel better about how terrible the dough looks. The recipe calls it a shaggy ball. That's pretty much exactly what it is. Even after a minute in the Kitchen Aid, it didn't look much better, but I put it in the bowl to rise. Cover with plastic wrap and set at room temperature for, get this... 8 to 18 hours!
I gave it about 8-9 hours. After that amount of time it really doesn't look all that much better. But then you put it on a lightly floured surface and knead it about 10 times or so, forming it into a ball. Then place your now beautiful and smooth ball in a parchment paper lined skillet (I used my cast iron). Make sure your parchment is bigger than the skillet, you will need that overhang later and spray it with nonstick cooking spray. Put the dough seam side down.
Can you believe how that dough came together!? It was shocked, especially because it really didn't rise all that much in that 8-9 hours I had it sitting out. But a few kneads and it was this perfectly smooth ball of dough. Once it's in the skillet, spray the top with nonstick cooking spray and then cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for about 2 hours. The second rise only took a little over one hour for me.
Now, about half an hour before you're ready to bake you need to get your pot hot. The recipe says to adjust the oven rack to the lowest position. I didn't do this and my bread turned out amazing, so use your judgment on whether or not you think you need to. The pot needed for this must be a heavy bottomed 6-8 quart pot with a lid.
You may remember my glorious pot from such blogs as this one or this one. With the lid on, place the pot in a 500 degree oven for 30 minutes before baking the bread. Yeah it's hot. Screaming hot! After that 30 minutes, take the plastic off your dough and score the top with a sharp knife or a razor blade, about 6 inches long ad 1/2 an inch deep. And sprinkle with flour.
Yes, I'm well aware that it looks like a big ass of dough! So after your pot has been heating for half an hour, take your own ass of dough and lift it by the parchment and carefully put it in your extremely hot pot, then put on the lid. Reduce oven temperature to 425 and put the pot back in the oven for 30 minutes. After that time, take the lid off the pot.
Bake another 20-30 minutes without the lid on so the crust can get a nice brown. You most likely will not need the full 30 minutes. I pulled mine out after 15 minutes. Remove the bread from the pot carefully. Remember how hot that pan is. Lift with parchment paper and place on a cooling rack.
Can you even stand how gorgeous that bread is!? The recipe says to let cool for 2 hours. I dare you to try that! I was slicing into this bread about 5 minutes after it came out of the oven! It's really really incredible!