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Read up on some of 2012's most-loved cookbooks, tested and reviewed by the one and only Food52 community.
Paging through Flour Water Salt Yeast for the first time was both inspiring and daunting. Inspiring because most of the recipes in the book are made with only the four ingredients in the title. Daunting because the book is brimming with mouth-watering images of deep-brown, flour-speckled loaves of bread, and pizzas with poofy, char-spotted edges surrounding molten, cheese-covered centers. I was excited to start making dough, but I had some concerns. Could such impossibly beautiful loaves and perfect pizzas be created in a home kitchen? Could delicious bread really be created from the four humble ingredients that form the book's title? I was ready to find out. Almost.
The book is arranged into four main sections: "The Principles of Artisan Bread," "Basic Bread Recipes," "Levain Bread Recipes," and "Pizza Recipes." I started by reading the principles section, and found it to be informative and interesting. The second chapter, entitled “Eight Details for Great Bread and Pizza” is invaluable. It gives reason for the persnickety level of detail found in the recipes, as well as the purpose behind the various steps in the dough-making process. It also has a troubleshooting section for when problems inevitably arise. Once I felt well-grounded in the science behind the recipes, I was ready to actually bake bread.
I started with the basic Overnight White Bread, and making the dough by hand was simple yet gratifying. Forkish employs several somewhat unusual techniques, like the “pincer method” for mixing the dough, and “folding” for both mixing the dough and helping it to develop its structure. The book presents clearly written directions as well as photo tutorials for each process, and following in the footsteps of Jim Lahey (My Bread) and Chad Robertson (Tartine Bread), the loaves are baked in preheated Dutch ovens. This allows the bread to create its own steam, which makes a crispy crust. After mixing, folding, rising, shaping, proofing, and an unbearably long 30 minutes of blind anticipation, it was time to remove the lid. Huzzah! The bread had risen nicely; the top spanned with wide, shallow fissures. After a bit more time in the oven, the exterior became nut-brown and flecked with patches of flour. It was a photo from the book brought to life. I ate the first slice plain, reveling in the crisp crust, chewy interior, and clean, yeasty flavor. I was elated! I had succeeded in making a picture-perfect loaf of bread, one with a depth of flavor that somehow exceeded its four simple ingredients.
Over the next several weeks I became a bit obsessed with the book, and made white breads using biga and poolish methods to preferment part of the dough, which adds complexity of flavor and helps the bread keep longer. My favorite white bread was the “palate-sparkling, almost buttery-flavored” White Bread with Poolish, but the slightly earthy White Bread with 80% Biga was also delicious. Next up, a levain culture to use in sourdough breads. I used it to make the breathtakingly gorgeous Walnut Levain, dotted with nuts and streaked purple throughout. Then I used it to make Pain Au Bacon -- my only recipe failure –- which was overly dense but still deliciously tangy and savory. But the troubleshooting section in the book had answers; I rectified my missteps and was able to create a sublime vegetarian version of the same bread using green olives and olive oil instead of bacon and bacon fat.
I postponed the final portion of the book until I was very comfortable with making dough. I take pizza seriously, and am a wood-oven, thin-crust pizza junkie. I chose to make the Overnight Pizza Dough with Poolish. With it, I first made salami pizza on a baking stone, and it was the closest to wood-oven pizza I've ever made at home. The edges were poofy with brown spots and a small amount of char, the crust crisp but still a bit chewy. It was downright fantastic! Next I made iron skillet pizza with red grapes, mozzarella, and salami, which had a thicker, chewier crust perfect for heavier toppings. I used the remaining dough to make a thick-crusted focaccia with a perfectly chewy, open texture and a rich, buttery flavor. Overall I was so pleased with the dough that it will be hard to convince me to try another recipe.
I am grateful I tested Flour Water Salt Yeast. The knowledge and experience I gained while working though the book have markedly improved my bread and pizza making. The book is relevant for a wide range of skill levels: novice bakers will be able to start with the basic doughs, while experienced bakers will be able to push their boundaries to the point of being able to create their own recipes. With its largely approachable techniques and its artisan-caliber results, this book deserves a spot in any home kitchen. And now you'll have to excuse me; I need to go bake some bread.