Bread has been around for roughly 7,000 years, though early breads were very rough versions of what we eat today.
Stone Age hunters would grind grains with rocks and add water to make a kind of gruel. At some point in history this mixture was placed on a heated stone and baked into a flat cake.
This discovery lead to entire nomadic tribes setting down roots, quite literally, by planting wild grains in fields and building their communities around them. These grains provided a source of food year round as grain could be harvested and stored and then cooked during harsh winters when other sources of food like wild roots and vegetables, and animals were scarce.
For 3,000 years bread was unleavened, meaning it did not include a leavening agent like yeast, which is what makes dough rise. This original, unleavened bread is similar to flatbreads like pita and naan that we still eat today.
But it was the Egyptians who discovered, likely by accident, that if a mixture of flour and water was left out too long, the natural yeasts in our environment would start to make a home in the mixture and begin eating the natural sugars.
The yeast begins to release both alcohol and carbon dioxide, which turns the original grain and water into a bubbling mixture that is quite soupy. Now, I’m sure the Egyptians didn’t stumble upon the perfect starter the first time around, but in time the expert bread bakers in Egypt had perfected what we now know as sourdough starter, and all of their breads and baked goods were now using leavening agents to help the dough rise. These techniques eventually traveled across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece and Italy, where they provided the basis for all of the western breads we know today.
On this episode of Cooking with Fire, Josh Cary and Chef Tom Jackson share a recipe--and the experience--of baking bread in a wood-fired oven, and how to adapt it for the backyard grill. Listen here or through iTunes.
For the Biga:
- 800g all purpose unbleached white flour
- 544 g water (80ºF)
- .64 g (3/16 tsp) instant dried yeast
For the Final Dough:
- 200 g all purpose unbleached white flour
- 206 g water (105ºF)
- 22 g fine sea salt
- 2 g instant dried yeast
- To mix the biga, combine the flour and yeast in a 6 quart container and mix together by hand. Pour in the 80ºF water and begin mixing by hand. Pinch the dough between your thumb and forefinger, then occasionally fold the dough over itself. It’s a good idea to have a container of water to dip your hand into to prevent the dough from sticking too much. Continue mixing until all of the flour is hydrated (a few minutes). Cover the container with a lid and let sit out at room temperature overnight (12-14 hours).
- The next morning the big should have tripled in size, have visible bubbles and smell like alcohol. At this point, working in a round 12 quart container, combine the ingredients for the final dough. Mix together by hand to incorporate all ingredients. Then, add the biga, and continue mixing like you did while mixing the biga the night before. Mix until all of the biga and new dough are incorporated (a few minutes). Place a lid on the 12 quart container and let rest 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, give the dough its first fold. Wet your hand, then lift from the bottom of one side and stretch to the opposite side. Make a quarter turn of the container and continue doing this until it’s been folded on four sides. Then, flip the dough over, so the folds are on the bottom. Rest 30 minutes and repeat. Rest 30 minutes longer and fold a third time.
- Let the dough continue to ferment another 1-2 hours after the final fold, until tripled in size. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Divide into two using a bench knife. Shape each half into a boule. Start this much the same way you performed the folds, stretching the dough from one edge to the other and rotating. Then, flip the dough over (seam side down). Cupping the far edge of the boule, pull toward yourself, allowing the boule to tighten as you pull. Rotate the boule and continue this motion until the boule is round and the top is tight. Place seam side down in a floured cane proofing basket, or a bowl lined with floured cloth. Cover with a towel and allow to proof for about an hour. You’ll know when the bread is ready to bake when you poke the dough about 1/2 inch in. It should spring back slowly and incompletely. If it springs right back, it’s not yet proofed. If it does not spring back, it’s over-proofed.
- Preheat your grill or oven to 475ºF. Also, preheat a cast iron dutch oven on a rack for at least 30 minutes.
- Carefully, transfer the boule from the basket to the hot dutch oven. Bake uncovered for 15 minutes, or until the top is browned. Cover with a lid and continue baking another 15 minutes, until the bottom is browned as well. Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack.