The vintage Pyrex #441 bowl is my favorite bowl to bake the peasant bread in — the perfectly round shape of the bowl creates a beautiful round loaf. It belongs to a set of four nesting bowls (also called Cinderella bowls, specifically the Pyrex #441, #442, #443, #444), which I have purchased from Ebay. I absolutely love the set in general, but I love most of all that I can bake the whole batch of peasant bread in the second largest bowl (#443) and half of the batch in the smallest bowl (#441). The set runs anywhere from $35 to $50 or higher depending on the pattern of the Pyrex. More pictures of the bowls can be found on this post.
This is a sticky, no-knead dough, so, some sort of baking vessel, such as pyrex bowls (about 1-L or 1-qt) or ramekins for mini loaves is required to bake this bread. You can use a bowl that is about 2 qt or 2 L in size to bake off the whole batch of dough (versus splitting the dough in half) but do not use this size for baking half of the dough — it is too big.
I buy SAF Instant Yeast in bulk from Amazon I store it in my fridge or freezer, and it lasts forever. If you are using the packets of yeast (the kind that come in the 3-fold packets), just go ahead and use a whole packet — It’s 2.25 teaspoons. I have made the bread with active dry, rapid rise, and instant yeast, and all varieties work. If you are interested in buying yeast in bulk, here you go: SAF instant yeast and Red Star Baking Yeast (use this if you prefer to stick to active-dry, though I highly recommend using instant). The beauty of instant yeast is that there is no need to do the proofing step — you can add the yeast directly to the flour. I never use active-dry yeast anymore.
For questions on high-altitude baking, see this post.
Several commenters have had trouble with the second rise, and this seems to be caused by the shape of the bowl they are letting the dough rise in the second time around. Two hours for the second rise is too long. If you don’t have a 1-qt bowl, bake 3/4 of the dough in a loaf pan and bake the rest off in muffin tins or a popover pan — I recently made 6 mini loaves in a popover pan. The second rise should take no more than 30 minutes.
Also, you can use as many as 3 cups of whole wheat flour, but the texture changes considerably. I suggest trying with all all-purpose or bread flour to start and once you get the hang of it, start trying various combinations of whole wheat flour and/or other flours. Also, measure scant cups of flour if you are not measuring by weight: scoop flour into the measuring cup using a separate spoon or measuring cup; level off with a knife. The flour should be below the rim of the measuring cup. Here’s a printable version that’s less wordy: Peasant Bread Recipe, Simplified
Peasant Bread Fans! There is now a book: Bread Toast Crumbs, a loaf-to-crumb bread baking book, filled with tips and tricks and answers to the many questions that have been asked over the years. In the book you will find 40 variations of the master peasant bread recipe + 70 ideas for using up the many loaves you will bake. Learn more about the book here or buy it here.
- 4 cups (512 g | 1 lb. 2 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 cups lukewarm water (made by mixing 1 1/2 cups cold water with 1/2 cup boiling water)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons instant or active-dry yeast
- room temperature butter, about 2 tablespoons
- Mixing the dough: If you are using instant yeast: In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, and instant yeast. Add the water. Mix until the flour is absorbed. If you are using active-dry yeast: In a small mixing bowl, dissolve the sugar into the water. Sprinkle the yeast over top. There is no need to stir it up. Let it stand for about 10 to 15 minutes or until the mixture is foamy and/or bubbling just a bit — this step will ensure that the yeast is active. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. When the yeast-water-sugar mixture is foamy, stir it up, and add it to the flour bowl. Mix until the flour is absorbed.
- Cover bowl with a tea towel or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise for at least an hour. (In the winter or if you are letting the bread rise in a cool place, it might take as long as two hours to rise.) This is how to create a slightly warm spot for your bread to rise in: Turn the oven on at any temperature (350ºF or so) for one minute, then turn it off. Note: Do not allow the oven to get up to 300ºF, for example, and then heat at that setting for 1 minute — this will be too hot. Just let the oven preheat for a total of 1 minute — it likely won’t get above 100ºF. The goal is to just create a slightly warm environment for the bread.
- Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Grease two oven-safe bowls (such as the 1-qt pyrex bowls I mentioned above) with about a tablespoon of butter each. Using two forks, punch down your dough, scraping it from the sides of the bowl, which it will be clinging to. As you scrape it down try to turn the dough up onto itself if that makes sense. You want to loosen the dough entirely from the sides of the bowl, and you want to make sure you’ve punched it down. Then, take your two forks and divide the dough into two equal portions — eye the center of the mass of dough, and starting from the center and working out, pull the dough apart with the two forks. Then scoop up each half and place into your prepared bowls. This part can be a little messy — the dough is very wet and will slip all over the place. Using small forks or forks with short tines makes this easier — my small salad forks work best; my dinner forks make it harder. It’s best to scoop it up fast and plop it in the bowl in one fell swoop.
- Let the dough rise for about 20 to 30 minutes on the countertop near the oven (or near a warm spot) or until it has risen to just below or above (depending on what size bowl you are using) the top of the bowls. (Note: Do not do the warm-oven trick for the second rise, and do not cover your bowls for the second rise. Simply set your bowls on top of your oven, so that they are in a warm spot. Twenty minutes in this spot usually is enough for my loaves.)
- Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375º and make for 15 to 17 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and turn the loaves onto cooling racks. If you’ve greased the bowls well, the loaves should fall right out onto the cooling racks. If the loaves look a little pale and soft when you’ve turned them out onto your cooling racks, place the loaves into the oven (outside of their bowls) and let them bake for about 5 minutes longer. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before cutting.
#1. Cornmeal. Substitute 1 cup of the flour with 1 cup of cornmeal. Proceed with the recipe as directed.
#2. Faux focaccia. Instead of spreading butter in two Pyrex bowls in preparation for baking, butter one 9×9-inch glass baking dish and one Pyrex bowl or just butter one large 9×13-inch Pyrex baking dish. If using two vessels, divide the dough in half and place each half in prepared baking pan. If using only one large baking dish, place all of the dough in the dish. Drizzle dough with 1 tablespoon of olive oil (if using the small square pan) and 2 tablespoons of olive oil (if using the large one). Using your fingers, gently spread the dough out so that it fits the shape of the pan. Use your fingers to create dimples in the surface of the dough. Sprinkle surface with chopped rosemary and sea salt. Let rise for 20 to 30 minutes. Bake for 15 minutes at 425ºF and 17 minutes (or longer) at 375ºF. Remove from pan and let cool on cooling rack.