In Search Of The Perfect Rustic Loaf

We've all had it at least once. It has a crisp crust, a chewy interior, large, irregular holes and a slight tang. When toasted, it soaks up butter like nobody's business. In short, it's leavened perfection.

French bakers Lionel and Max Poilane have mastered this bread. The rustic bread has become upper crust, but its roots are peasant. Its many names reflect this: rustic bread, farm bread, country bread, pain de campagne and hearty country loaf. Although it requires time, this bread thrives on long periods of "neglect", making it ideal for busy farm (and city) kitchens.

But can this bread be made in the bread machine? We weren't sure until good friend and freelance food writer Marcy Goldman, sent us a recipe she'd developed for her bread machine. After following her formula and tasting her delicious rustic loaf, we concluded that this bread can indeed be made with the help of a bread machine.

Watching friend and local restaurateur Rebecca Cunningham turn out her near-perfect, Poilane-inspired loaves by hand made us even more eager to take up the challenge of making a bread machine version. So, with thanks to Marcy, and after experimenting with different proportions of liquid to flour, as well as alternate rising and baking methods (which you'll find detailed in the notes at the end), here's a loaf the Poilane family would be proud of.
Prep
30 mins
Bake
30 to 35 mins
Total
13 hrs
Yield
1 large loaf, about 24 hearty servings
In Search Of The Perfect Rustic Loaf

Instructions

  1. To make the sponge: Place all of the sponge ingredients in the bucket of your bread machine. Program the machine for dough or manual, press start, and let the machine run until everything is thoroughly combined. Close the lid, cancel the machine, and let the sponge rest at room temperature overnight, or for 8 to 12 hours.
  2. The next day, add all of the dough ingredients to the sponge in the bucket. Program your machine for dough or manual, and press start. As the dough begins to mix it should form first a soft mass, then eventually a ball that's soft, but not overly sticky. Adjust with additional flour or water as necessary.
  3. When the cycle is complete, remove the dough from the machine. Cover it and let it rest for 30 minutes. If you want to leave the dough all day, place it in a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and refrigerate it.
  4. When you're ready to work with it, deflate the dough gently and form it into a round ball, Place the ball, seam side-down, on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet.
  5. Cover the dough lightly. Let it rise a second time until it's puffy and about 30% to 40% larger, about 1 hour (or longer, if the dough has been refrigerated). Don't let it rise too much, since it rises some more in the oven and, if it's over-proofed initially, it'll collapse as it bakes.
  6. Preheat the oven to 475°F. Make several 1/4" to 1/2" slashes or crosshatches in top of the loaf. Using a clean plant mister, spritz the loaf with water. Spray some water into the oven, and place the bread on the lowest rack.
  7. Spritz the oven walls every few minutes for the first 15 minutes of baking. Lower the heat to 425°F (this reduction in heat mimics the "falling oven" used by brick-oven bakers, and will give your bread an incredible crust), and continue to bake until well-browned, about 35 minutes. The interior temperature of the bread should register at least 190°F on a digital thermometer.
  8. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a rack before slicing. Store, cut side down, on a counter (do not cover). Yes, this really works; your bread will remain fresh but not soggy for several days. (See "tips," below).

Tips from our Bakers

  • For an even chewier bread with larger, more irregular holes, try increasing the amount of water in the dough's second stage by 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Add 1/4 cup initially, then take a look at the dough while it's in its second kneading cycle. Your goal is to create a dough that's very wet and slack, but will still hold its shape when formed into a free-form loaf. Add additional water if it looks as though the dough can absorb it and still remain firm enough to be workable.
  • This bread is an ideal candidate for a linen-lined banneton, which will hold and shape it as it rises and, because of the moisture-drawing qualities of the linen, help produce a chewy crust.
  • Try putting your risen loaf into the oven without slashing it first; it'll develop its own natural split, producing a more rustic-looking loaf.
  • For a thick, brown, chewy bottom crust, try baking the bread in the oven in a preheated cast iron skillet, or on a baking stone.
  • For a crisper crust, allow the loaf to cool in the oven. When the bread is done, turn off the oven and crack the door open a couple of inches, leaving the loaf inside.
  • Store crusty hearth loaves uncovered, but with their cut side down on the counter. This is one of the best tips we've come across in some time. Though this doesn't work on baguettes, rolls, or other small loaves, it works beautifully on big boules or free-form loaves. The moisture in the bread's interior gradually migrates to the surface, but since the cut side is covered, it can't escape there; instead, it must navigate its way through the thick crust, a much slower process. This keeps the bread's interior soft, and the crust hard and crunchy.