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Beard on Bread was the first bread cookbook I bought, and it is still the very best basic guide to breadmaking I have come across. The  first recipe, Basic White Bread, is carefully described step-by-step with illustrations; once you have made that bread you can make any of the recipes in the book. In another recipe Beard describes how he put some dough in the oven and discovered shortly thereafter that he had turned the oven to “broil,” not “bake,” yet the bread came out beautifully – different than what he had intended, but still excellent.  From that inadvertent experience he noted that breadmaking was always an adventure and the potential for experimentation was limitless. He soothed the fears of neophyte bakers when he said no two batches of homemade bread would turn out the same, due to differences in air temperature, humidity, flours, yeasts, and the baker’s hands. And he also said that if you were interrupted, the bread dough’s rising could be halted by just putting it in the refrigerator – which I’d never heard before, and which suddenly opened up all kinds of possibilities.

From there I moved on to The Village Baker by Joe Ortiz (owner of Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola, California) and was introduced to the concept that making bread could be spread over several days –  in fact, bread made over  a few days would likely be far superior to a loaf made in one afternoon. I’d never heard of biga and poolish and levain.  The breads I made from this book eclipsed everything that came before.

Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook has a recipe for Sara’s Oat Bread, a simple recipe for beginners that yields a delicious, slightly sweet, tender mostly whole-grain bread.  (You can find that original recipe here.)  Late one night last week I started to make it, then decided I was too tired to finish it before I went to bed. So I decided to experiment and mess with the recipe process a little bit, guided by both James Beard and Joe Ortiz. The results were wonderful. My husband said it was the best bread I’d ever made.

Since it was an experiment, I need to put this down where I can remember it before I completely forget what I did! The name is a bit of a misnomer, as you could extend this out to four days, or compact it to two, if that’s how your schedule runs.

This technique – refrigerating the dough and retrieving it as time allows – can be used with all yeast breads.

Three-Day Oatmeal Bread

On the first night, combine in a large bowl

  • 2 cups rolled oats (do not use instant or quick-cooking)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 cup honey

Pour two cups boiling water over this, stir, and let cool for one hour.

After an hour, combine in a cup

  • 1/4 cup warm water (100-115 F/38-46 C)
  • big pinch sugar
  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast

Let stand until yeast bubbles and foams. (This is called proofing.) If it doesn’t act interested, the water was either too cool (yeast remained inactive) or too hot (you killed the yeast), in which case, try again. Once you have some happy bubbly yeast, stir it into the cooled oat mixture, along with

  • 1 cup flour

Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap to prevent it drying out, and let it sit on the counter overnight.

The next day, stir up the oat mixture, which should smell yeasty and be puffy.

Once more, mix another small batch of yeast:

  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • big pinch sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dry yeast

and proof it as before. Pour it into the sponge along with

  • 2 teaspoons salt

and mix very well.

Now start adding flour. You’ll need to keep one hand dry (to add flour with) and one hand in the dough. Add flour, fistful by fistful, and thoroughly mix each handful in before adding the next. This will seem very tedious, but it’s necessary to let the dough absorb the flour bit by bit so it won’t turn out hard, tough bread, and also to avoid flour pockets. You’ll need around 3-4 cups of flour. This dough is sticky!

When the dough is starting to feel less sticky, you can form it into a ball, and your hands no longer feel like you’ve become a golem,  turn the dough out onto a floured surface and begin to knead, adding bits of flour as needed to keep it from gluing itself to the surface.

How do you know when it’s been kneaded enough? It will feel springy and not be totally gummy. (The dough scraper, below, can assist in the early stages of kneading.)

Into a large bowl, pour

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

and swirl it around to coat the inside of the bowl. Plop the dough into the bowl, turn it over so it’s coated with oil, and cover the bowl with a cloth. Place bowl in warm-but-not-hot place (like the oven that’s been turned on for 20 seconds, then turned off) and walk away for an hour or so.

After an hour or maybe two, the dough will have risen and should be about doubled in size.

Give it a good punch to deflate it.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap to completely cover, and stick it in the refrigerator.

The next day – or two days – take out the dough. It might have burst the plastic wrap! If it did and some of it is dried and crusty, cut that part off and discard. Unwrap the dough, put it back in that large bowl, cover with a cloth, and put the bowl in a warm place. Walk away for a few hours.

When you come back, the dough will be at room temperature or even warmer, and will have started rising again. Punch it down again.

Prepare your baking pans: oil two loaf pans or a baking sheet (if you want free-form bread). Shape dough into loaves and place in the prepared pans (or on a baking sheet).

Cover with a cloth and let rise again until doubled.

Preheat oven to 400. When oven is thoroughly heated (this takes longer than you think – allow at least 15 minutes), place the pans in the oven. Reduce heat to 375 and bake 25 minutes.

Check to see if top seems crusty and bread is shrinking from pan edges. Remove pans from oven; take bread out of pans and put directly on the oven rack for five minutes, then remove to cooling rack.


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