The night before you plan to bake your bread, prepare the pre-fermented dough. This will provide both lasting flavor and strength to your dough. Combine the water and yeast in a bowl and stir. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Add the salt and flour, mixing on the lowest speed of your mixer for 3 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic and allow the dough to ferment at room temperature, ideally 70°F/21°C, for 12 hours.
The next day, it’s time to prepare the final dough.
In the bowl of a stand mixer combine the yeast and three-quarters of the water. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Add the bread flour, salt, and prefermented dough. Set the mixer to its slowest speed and mix for 3 minutes. If the dough looks too dry, slowly add a little more of the water until it look like a nice, cohesive dough. You may not need the entire amount of water, depending on the flour you’re using and the moisture in the air.
Set the mixer to its second speed and mix until you’ve got decent gluten development, about 3 minutes. (If your mixer runs on the slow side, it may take an extra minute or two.) Take a piece of dough and gently pull it between your fingers, to see if it creates a windowpane. If it doesn’t stretch thin to the point of being transparent, mix for another 30 seconds. Turn the dough out onto the counter and give it a “fold” to help it build strength. (Here is a quick video tutorial.) Set the folded dough into a large bowl that has been lightly greased with oil and cover the bowl with plastic to prevent the dough from drying out.
From here, the dough needs to ferment for about 2½ hours. During this time, it needs to be folded twice more—once after 50 minutes and again after 1 hour 45 minutes.
Take this opportunity to prepare your oven. Set two racks in the oven—one in the very center, equal distance from your top and bottom heating elements, and a second rack directly underneath it. If you’re using a baking stone, place it on the top rack. Then fill a large metal baking dish about one-third with water and set it on the bottom rack. Have a squirt bottle ready, full of fresh water (not the water that’s been sitting in the bottle for months as a plant sprayer or for hosing the cat).
After the dough has been properly folded and fermented, divide it in half. Use a scale if you’ve got one, so that each half is evenly weighted (and therefore of equal baking time). Lightly flour your work surface and gently press some of the gases out of the dough. Preshape each lump of dough into a ball. (Here’s another video tutorial, since seeing it makes it a hell of a lot easier.) Set the rounds on your counter and cover with plastic wrap. Allow them to rest for 20 minutes.
Lightly dust your work surface again with flour. To shape the dough into round loaves, gently press down on the dough to expel some of its gas. Shape into rounds yet again, using the same method you used to preshape them, but this time tighten them up a little more to give them more strength. Be sure not to tighten so much that the surface of the dough tears, which will look like large rough patches instead of being nice and smooth. Also make sure to dust your hands with flour so that they don’t stick to the dough and tear it. The smooth side of your dough is the top of the ball, where it did not come in contact with the work surface.
Set the rounds smooth-side down in a gently floured banneton, if you’ve got one, or set them smooth-side up on a floured surface (loaves left to proof on a table will spread out a little more). Cover the dough and allow it to proof about 1 hour 15 minutes, or until it’s roughly doubled in size. The ideal proofing temperature is about 75°F/24°C, and loaves may proof faster or slower depending on how warm your room is.
IMPORTANT: About halfway through the proofing process, preheat your oven to 450°F/232°C. Don’t forget, as the dough won’t stop proofing just because you forgot to flip the oven on. Overproofed dough is no bueno and can collapse as it bakes. Also, set a pot of water to boil on the stove and keep it hot until the bread goes in the oven.
Once the loaves are proofed, transfer them to a sheet of parchment paper, making sure they’re smooth-side up. If you like a more rustic look, sift a thin layer of bread flour onto the top of your loaves. Not too much, though, since no one wants a mouthful of browned flour when they take a bite.
Use a very sharp knife to cut 3 lines across the top of each loaf, about ¼ inch deep. (Or get more creative with your design.) By creating these areas for the dough to expand, you’re allowing the bread to increase in volume without exploding out wherever the crust happens to be weakest.
Transfer the parchment and loaves to your baking stone, if you’re using one. If you’re not using a baking stone, set the parchment and loaves on heavy-gauge baking sheets and slide them into the oven.
Immediately pour the boiling water into the baking pan on the bottom rack, then use the squirt bottle to spray 4 or 5 spritzes of water around the back and walls of the oven. This step is super important—it creates steam, which keeps the crust of the bread moist, and that allows the bread to gain more volume as the softer crust allows it to expand more before hardening. After about 3 minutes, crack open your oven and give it 3 more spritzes.
Bake the loaves for 15 minutes, then turn them around in the oven and carefully remove the baking pan with the water.
Bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how dark you like your crust. Keep an eye on them, because bread will go from deep brown to burnt within just a few minutes. You’ll know the bread is done when the crust doesn’t give easily to a squeeze and the bottom sounds hollow when you thump on it with a knuckle. If you’re the temperature-taking type, the inner temp should be about 200°F/93°C.
Remove the loaves from the oven and set on a cooling rack. Don’t set them on a flat surface or the bottoms will get soggy as condensation collects under the bread. Allow to cool for 2 hours before cutting or wrapping, to preserve the ideal moisture content of the bread.
Oh, and for the best possible experience, buy some awesome salted butter for spreading on your bread. I use Plugra 82%; Kerrygold is very good as well. But I suppose that’s an entirely different post.