Dealbusters: Incredible, professional bread

slice of breadThis Monday series checks out whether something that sounds like a good deal — or takes a bit of extra work — is a good deal. We’ll look at cost and benefit — with everything filtered through my individual experience. Please chime in with your take.

Mr. Cheap and I have a dream bread: The 3-pound boule from The Denver Bread Company. It’s an amazing, huge loaf of bread (although I would happily forfeit the hugeness). The crust is chewy and dark, the inside rich and moist, with large bubbles and a fantastic tooth. Years ago, we lived a few blocks from the wonderful bakery and sometimes splurged on it. More often, Mr. Cheap brought home a remnant of a loaf from the great restaurant where he worked; we would turn it into grilled cheese sandwiches, salad croutons, croutes with cheese, or my personal favorite, a simple slice of toast with butter and homemade strawberry preserves.

I’ve tried a lot of things to make a bread that good at home. Eventually, I gave up, and Mr. Cheap took over. Between us, we’ve tried slow rise, making our own sourdough (from organic grapes – no kidding! It was gross and didn’t work, and wasted TONS of flour), using baskets, bannetons, towels, the pizza stone, a pan of steam, a Pyrex pan of steam (Note to readers: Pyrex will break into thousands of safety-glass crystals if you spray water on a hot pan in your oven; this dims the glow of bread making), and spraying steam into the oven. Eventually Mr. Cheap, too, gave up the ghost, and we succumbed to storebought (at our local grocery — we live a 40-minute drive from Denver Bread Company) or bread-machine sandwich loaves.

This week, all that changed. And it’s really cheap, too.

So, you can spend thousands on a fancy-pants oven, you can spend $150 on a bread-steaming contraption, or you can just do this: Click on over to Mother Earth News, print out this recipe, pull out your Dutch oven, and go to town.

The cost breakdown:

One of our prize possessions is a Williams-Sonoma cast-iron Dutch oven that a co-worker gave me in about 1992. It has about a 5-quart base with a handle and a lid, with a matching handle, that makes a griddle. We use one or both pieces just about daily. It’s well-seasoned and well-loved. The recipe says you could even use Pyrex — any heavy, oven-safe container with a lid. Even if you have to buy a Dutch oven for this recipe, it will pay you back post-haste.

What am I comparing to? Here are my benchmark breads:

  • Denver Bread Company 3-pound boule – $9 (or $3/pound).
  • Ecce Panis bread – baked locally at our King Soopers – a 20-ounce (1.25-pound) loaf. Sometimes I buy it at regular price, about $3.79 a loaf (which actually works out to $3.03 per pound, slightly more than Denver Bread). More often I pay about $1.79 for “manager’s special” bread in the grocery clearance section.
Ingredients Cost
Whole wheat flour (organic) – 0.5 c

$0.06

Bread flour – 2.5 c

$0.11

Yeast – 1/4 tsp

$0.00

Sea salt – 1.5 tsp

$0.01

Cornmeal (organic) – 1/8 c at most

$0.04

1.5 cups water

$0.00

gas (oven)

$0.19

TOTAL = $0.41 for a 1.5-pound loaf ($0.27 per pound).

If you cooked two loaves at once, you would save a lot of natural gas, and the price would drop to $0.30 per loaf or $0.20 per pound.

Savings = 81 percent over clearance Ecce Panis if you bake one loaf at a time; 86 percent if you bake two. A whopping 91 percent savings over Denver Bread or non-clearance Ecce Panis if you bake one loaf at a time.

loaf of breadThe winner: Homemade! Homemade! (I never thought I’d say that.) Mr. Cheap reports that he actually gave a little squeal of shock, amazement and bliss when he removed the lid of the pan.

The priceless factors:

  • Simple ingredients.
  • Extremely easy! No kneading! Not that kneading is so onerous … unless you are restless like me. Standing there for 10 minutes gets me agitated thinking of other things I could be doing, I don’t like to get my hands that messy, and my hands get tired. (Note that your hands do get slightly messy with this method, though — it’s a wet dough, which gives it the moist interior and characteristic bubbles.)
  • Can be as organic as you want it to be.

The drawbacks:

  • Planning. From start to finish, my bread took 20.5 hours. I mixed it around 7:00 Saturday night; around noon the next day I punched it down, let it rest 15 minutes, and set it up on its corn-mealed towel to rise again; at 2:00 I turned on the oven, and at 2:30 Mr. Cheap put it in to bake. Just a few steps, but you do have to plan ahead. (This would be another great reason to make two or three loaves at once and freeze what you aren’t using for later.)
  • The pan can be heavy, and it will be really hot.

The verdict:

Have you seen the movie A Christmas Story? When Ralphie fantasizes about the grade his teacher will give him?

Grade: A+! +! +! +!

15 thoughts on “Dealbusters: Incredible, professional bread

  1. fallenwoman says:

    damn that looks good!

    if only kitchen activities didn’t increase my anxiety level…

    would love to BAKE.

  2. Sara says:

    Oh! I’m going to try your recipe… though I admit that unkneaded bread sounds odd to me.

    There was a span of time when I made wild sourdough bread, and made so much I sold a few loaves. But then I neglected my starter and it died. I haven’t yet started it back up. Maybe sometime soon. I also got a little heavier, but man it was fun.

  3. cheaplikeme says:

    The 1/4 tsp. of yeast sounded odd to me, and both of us were totally skeptical that unkneaded bread would turn out well. But we are happily disproved.

  4. L'an says:

    Mmm… I’ve heard many tales of fabulous bread resulting from this no-knead method (which was originally published by Mark Bittman, no?) I’ve also seen various people asking whether/how they could modify the recipe to include different grains and/or to give it a bit more punch. So, when I saw this posting of whole wheat, rye, and pumpernickel versions, I thought I should share:

    http://www.rebeccablood.net/thriftyo/2007/06/whole_wheat_rye_and_pumpernickel_no-knead_bread.html

    Now, I just need to find an oven-suitable lidded pan so I can try ’em myself!

  5. cheaplikeme says:

    Well, if we give credit where credit is due, I looked up the original 2006 article, which was written by Mark Bittman, but he is chronicling the process of Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery (an amazing bakery in New York’s SoHo neighborhood) — though I suspect it’s an old method:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/08mini.html

    The Mother Earth News recipe says you can use whatever grains you want (that’s why I added some whole wheat flour; and I should note we use a stone-ground whole wheat flour that is full of bran and very heavy) — but your link looks like it provides all the details to make them work right!

    Personally, I’m a sucker for mostly white breads, so I didn’t reach far to experiment, but our whole-grain-loving friends will appreciate your extra research. Thanks!

  6. Melinda says:

    I just came across your blog (don’t ask from where, as I don’t remember!). This is hilarious. We have done every single one of those things (we dubbed our starter from grapes “Audrey” from the Little Shop of Horrors – it’s in stasis in the back of the fridge right now). We found water on the pyrex quite delightful (it really does create a fun mess of crystals), baskets, bannetons, towels, pizza stone, spraying steam in the oven, a cloche (wait, you didn’t do that one?)…. yeah. And we ended up cutting out the No Knead Bread Recipe from the NY Times. It’s now our daily bread.

    We don’t have a dutch oven so we bake it in our cloche. And we add a little wheat germ into the dough, and dust it with wheat germ. I will bookmark your blog!

  7. Condo Blues says:

    Your post is so timely! I have a crockpot full of 15 bean soup on and a loaf of pumpernickel bread baking in the breadmaker for tonight’s dinner. My breadmaker was a wedding gift that I use a lot, especially for making dark breads (my favorite) to go with winter soups and stews.

  8. cheaplikeme says:

    @Manuela – Now that I’ve tried the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day method, I prefer that one — the boule dough is basically the no-knead method, but you have dough at the ready for several batches after just one mixing.

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