Hearth bread: the name brings to mind an ancient kitchen fireplace, its blackened stone interior ready to bake one crusty loaf after another, doesn’t it? While very few of us bake bread in a fireplace hearth oven these days (or its modern counterpart, an outdoor stone oven), crusty/chewy “hearth bread” is still very much within our reach.
With very little necessary skill beyond knowing how to knead dough (or using a stand mixer to do it for you), hearth bread is accessible to just about all of you out there.
What is hearth bread, exactly?
It's a crusty, chewy loaf made from the simplest of ingredients and baked directly on a baking stone or on a baking sheet, rather than in a loaf pan. Since our version of Hearth Bread is a “straight” dough (as opposed to one using some kind of starter, like sourdough), its flavor is mild: a hint of yeast, a touch of wheat, the perfect complement to main dish, soup, or salad.
You can make sandwiches with this bread; its sturdy texture means it's especially good for panini, French toast, and grilled cheese. Toast it for breakfast; or let it dry out and make it into breadcrumbs, bread pudding, stuffing, or croutons. Looking for an all-purpose loaf? You’ve found it.
If you’re a seasoned bread baker, the following illustrated directions for making this bread will be old hat to you: mix, knead, let rise, shape, let rise, bake, enjoy.
But if baking bread is a new endeavor for you, following the directions carefully is your key to success.
Pulling these loaves out of the oven, you’ll feel the pride of accomplishment that hearth bread bakers have been basking in for over 10,000 years.
How to make hearth bread
This Hearth Bread recipe graced the back of our all-purpose flour bags for years; we daresay it's given millions of bakers the confidence to tackle yeast bread. Are you ready to give it a go? Here’s what you’ll need:
1 (1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast or 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1 tablespoon (14g) sugar
1 tablespoon (14g) salt
2 cups (454g) lukewarm water (not over 110°F)
5 1/2 to 6 cups (663g to 723g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
cornmeal or semolina for sprinkling on the pan, optional
A brief note on commercial yeast: active dry and instant
You’ll commonly find active dry yeast in three-pack strips on your supermarket shelf. This recipe gives you the option of using active dry yeast but not so-called “rapid” yeast — so pay attention to what you grab.
Instant yeast is more commonly available online than at the grocery store, and usually comes in a 1-pound bag. Considering a pound of instant yeast costs $5.95, and 3/4 of an ounce of active dry in packets runs about $1.99, it’s worth your while to spring for instant; it’ll stay good in your freezer for years.
You may have heard that yeast needs to be “proofed,” which means dissolved in warm water before using. This was a necessary step a few decades ago, but commercial yeast’s manufacturing process has changed: these days, you can simply mix either active dry or instant yeast with the rest of your bread’s ingredients, no proofing necessary.
“What?!” I can feel your angst, all of you who learned to bake bread back in the day. “You HAVE to dissolve yeast before you use it.”
Actually, you don’t have to dissolve yeast before using it. In fact, the one and only time I’d suggest doing so is if you question your yeast’s viability: maybe you’re using an expired packet, or the last little bit from a dusty old jar. In that case sure, go ahead and “prove” that it works by dissolving it in water to see if it comes to life. Otherwise, save yourself some time and skip this step.
OK, back to the recipe. Hearth bread dough is easily prepared by hand. Or if you have a stand mixer, go ahead and use it. A bread machine set on the dough cycle is also a good choice; simply let the dough go through the complete cycle, then shape and bake as directed below.
To make the dough by hand
If you decide to make the dough by hand, mix all of the ingredients together in a large bowl, starting with the smaller amount of flour (5 1/2 cups, 663g). Mix thoroughly until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, adding more of the flour if necessary. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface to knead.
Fold the far edge of the dough back over on itself towards you. Press into the dough with the heels of your hands and push away. After each push, rotate the dough 90°. Be firm with your motions — but not so "firm" that you mash the dough onto your work surface and it sticks. This whole process may be a little messy, but don't give up — practice makes perfect!
Repeat this process in a rhythmic, rocking motion for 5 minutes, sprinkling only enough flour on your kneading surface to prevent sticking. Let the dough rest while you scrape out and grease the mixing bowl.
Finish kneading the dough, which should take only a few more minutes. How will you know when the dough is ready? See our short video, How to tell if bread dough is fully kneaded.
Baker’s tip: If your hands become unbearably sticky while kneading, “wash” them with flour instead of water. Water will just make your hands stickier; instead, grab a couple of tablespoons of flour and rub your hands vigorously. The sticky dough will turn into dry bits and fall off, so do this over your compost bin or a wastepaper basket.
To make the dough using a stand mixer
Place all of the ingredients in your stand mixer’s bowl, using the smaller amount of flour. You'll want to reduce the amount of water to 1 3/4 cups (396g), since you won't be using any extra flour on a kneading surface as you do when kneading by hand.
Mix all of the ingredients using your mixer's dough hook until everything comes together, with no patches of dry flour remaining in the bowl.
Sticking with the hook, knead the dough at medium-low speed for about 7 minutes, until it's smooth and just barely sticking to the bottom and perhaps the sides of the bowl.
Baker’s tip: When washing a bowl in which you’ve made sticky yeast dough, use cold water. Hot water will “bake” yeast dough right onto the bowl, rather than floating it off. Once the bowl is clean of dough, rinse it in hot water to finish.
Let the dough rise
Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or other container large enough for it to at least double in size. Cover with plastic wrap or your favorite reusable cover and place in a warm, draft-free place (your turned-off oven works well) until the dough doubles in size, about 1 to 2 hours.
Shape the dough
Gently deflate the dough, and move it to a lightly greased work surface.
Baker's tip: Why a greased work surface, rather than floured? The more flour you add to the dough at this point, the drier your bread will be. A quick spritz of cooking spray onto the table is all it takes to keep dough from sticking as you shape it.
Cut the dough in half; a digital scale is helpful if you want two equal-sized loaves.
Shape each half into an oval Italian-type loaf, or a longer, thinner French-style loaf. Here's the best way to shape your dough: Working with one piece of dough at a time, gently pat it into a rough rectangle. Grab a short side and fold the dough like a business letter (one short side into the center, the other short side over it). Use the heel of your hand to press the open edge of the “letter” closed, then gently pat and roll the dough into the shape of your choice. Repeat with the remaining piece of dough.
Place the loaves on a baking sheet lined with parchment (if you have it) and generously sprinkled with cornmeal or semolina. The cornmeal or semolina are optional, but give the bottom crust lovely crunch.
Baker's tip: Why choose semolina over cornmeal? It's true cornmeal is more readily available, but semolina doesn't burn and potentially become bitter like cornmeal might.
Drape the loaves with greased plastic wrap or a reusable cover. I use wide, heavy freezer wrap, since it covers the entire baking sheet and isn’t as liable to stick to the rising dough as thinner wrap.
Let the loaves rise
Let the loaves rise for about 45 minutes, until they're noticeably puffy but definitely not doubled in size. They should be larger, but not feel at all fragile or “marshmallow-y.” This dough is a fast riser, so keep your eye on it.
Toward the end of the rising time (which may be as little as half an hour in), start preheating the oven to 425°F.
Ready the bread for the oven
Brush or spray the loaves generously with lukewarm water. This step enhances the bread's rise; if the crust dries out too quickly in the oven, it sets and prevents the bread from rising fully.
Use a sharp knife to slash the tops of the loaves two or three times diagonally. Use fast, aggressive strokes: SLASH SLASH SLASH, all in under 5 seconds, and you're done. Slowly and tentatively dragging the knife through the dough won't work.
Don’t be a scaredy-cat; really slash that dough, going a good half-inch in. The dough may appear to deflate a bit, but so long as you get it into the oven immediately it’ll pick right back up.
Bake the bread
Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake the bread for about 35 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and a loaf, when rapped on the bottom, sounds hollow. The interior temperature of the bread should register at least 200°F on a digital thermometer.
Remove the loaves from the oven.
Take the loaves off the pan and return them to the oven, placing them right on the rack. Turn the oven off and crack the door open several inches. Let the loaves cool in the cooling oven; this will make their crust extra-crispy.
Since this bread doesn’t include any added fat (the lack of fat helps account for its nicely chewy texture), it’s best enjoyed within a day or two of baking. I usually slice off what I'll use quickly, then slice and freeze the rest.
For easiest access I package four or five slices at a time in plastic wrap, then place all the packets into a larger plastic bag and freeze. When I want bread I simply pull out and thaw one of the packets. Toasted or griddled, the bread will taste fresh as ever.
And there you have it: Hearth Bread, a loaf whose very simplicity — both in ingredients and technique — makes it one of the foundation recipes of yeast bread baking.