If you have the room for it, keeping a bowl of basic Italian-style bread dough in the fridge allows you to make a wide variety of flavorful and very easy “slow food”-style breads fresh over the course of a week as you want them, without requiring a lot of work or day-long kneading-and-rising procedures each time.
Ingredients are simple and fairly cheap, mixing and kneading take a total of 5 minutes, and the equipment is very simple. All it takes is a Pyrex mixing/salad bowl (2.5 qt or liter), plastic wrap to cover it, a microwaveable coffee mug for heating the water, and a plastic sandwich baggie to go over your hand while you’re mixing the dough (a lot cleaner and less sticky and wasteful than the traditional method, and somewhat faster as a result.)
It’s nearly as quick and painless as using a food processor or a mixer with a dough hook, and there’s a LOT less washing-up–always a plus in my book.
This dough is somewhat wetter than an old-fashioned Joy of Cooking-style standard white bread recipe–more like (definitely like) pizza dough. You can use it to make anything from pita and pizza to herb breads, crusty rolls, ciabatta, calzone, even puff pastry or croissants. You can also keep the bowl going as a semi-sourdough for another couple of rounds before starting a completely new batch–see the notes at the end of the recipe.
One mistake novice bakers make is to dump all the ingredients in the bowl before mixing. That sometimes works for cakes, but yeast dough texture needs to go by feel–the amount of water you need depends on the amount and kind of flour, the weather outside, etc. Once you mix the dough, the main rise takes 6-12 hours, so the bowl can sit out on a counter during the workday or overnight, and then once it’s risen, the dough can be tapped down lightly to keep it from overflowing and stored covered in the fridge as-is to slow down fermentation and keep it from going alcoholic.
When you use the dough, take out the bowl, cut off the piece you want, sprinkle flour over it, shape it lightly or roll it out, rise it if you feel like it, and bake it hot, hotter, hottest in an oven at about 400-450 degrees F (or 350 F in a toaster oven for about 10 min. if you’re doing just a pita, small pizza crust or a couple of rolls). For a deep crunchy crust, mist big loaves with water before baking or put a metal pan of water on a lower shelf in the oven. (NB don’t do this for croissants!)
Obviously, croissant or puff pastry takes a little more work–but not that much more. Once you have a bowl of dough that’s already risen, making the flaky dough is just a matter of rolling out, grating a layer of butter over it, folding, and turning. And refrigerating it and repeating a couple of times. It’s repetitive and takes some advance planning, but it’s not actually hard to do.
A Bowl of Dough in the Fridge
Equipment: 2.5 qt/liter pyrex mixing bowl, coffee mug, sandwich baggie, plastic wrap, fridge
- 3-5 c. flour (bread, plain, whole wheat, or a combination), enough to make a fairly big mound in the bowl
- a little yeast (maybe a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon, not a whole packet
- a dash of salt–1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon, optional
- 1-2 c. warm water (warmer than body temperature), added just as needed and no more
- a drizzle of olive oil
Heat half a mugful of water in the microwave just enough to get it obviously warm but not scalding (maybe 30 s to 1 min.) Add cool water to fill the mug and get it down to something touchable. Put the baggie over your mixing hand, mix the dry flour, yeast, and salt lightly in the bowl, and pour in part of the water. Stir with your hand until a lump of dough starts to come together. Drizzle in a little more water and work the bowl so that all the flour comes off the sides–if it seems a bit stiff, drizzle in a little more water at a time. The dough should be somewhat sticky but substantial, not runny.
Knead it for a minute or so, and try to free the whole mass off the bottom and sides of the bowl a few times. It should be a ball about 5-6 inches across, and it should be fairly easy to stretch or shake into an oblong and double over on itself. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top, roll or knead the dough a few more times, form a ball that isn’t stuck to the bottom of the bowl, throw away the baggie, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
Let it rise at room temperature several hours or overnight–until the dough comes up to the edge of the bowl. It will be very bubbly and somewhat thinner/looser than it started out. Tap it down lightly to get it off the plastic wrap, and use or refrigerate.
CROISSANTS/PUFF PASTRY: You can make puff pastry and croissants with this dough fairly easily using the standard basic puff pastry or croissant/wienerbrod rolling and folding instructions from any good recent pastry cookbook or web site. Take a decent-sized chunk of risen dough–maybe half a bowl’s worth, or all if you like. Flour and roll it into a large rectangle about 1/4 ” thick, grate some frozen butter and/or stick margarine in a layer onto it, fold it over in thirds, turn and reroll and grate another thin layer of butter onto it before folding again, turn, roll, grate butter, and fold–that’s the first round. Wrap the rectangle in plastic wrap and refrigerate, repeat the rolling and folding without extra butter for two more rounds. Roll out the final dough COLD and quickly cut into shapes. Fill and shape the croissants/pastries and bake immediately in a hot oven–don’t let them rise or come to room temperature if you want them crisp and flaky.
SOURDOUGH: If you use the last bits of dough at the end of the week to start a new batch, you can stretch your initial small amount of yeast for several rounds, perhaps 3 or even 4. However, you’ll be developing a sourdough, which needs to be used up faster than a first-round dough because the acidity it generates exhausts the elasticity of the gluten sooner–the dough may just flop if it goes more than a day or so, even in the fridge. So this is probably better for big loaves where you use most of the dough at once. To keep a sourdough capable of rising and holding its shape in the oven rather than collapsing to something flat and rubbery, you may need to feed in a little fresh flour and water, and perhaps a new sprinkle of extra yeast as well, a few hours before baking. Let it rise at room temperature.