Introduction: Cob Loaf: Simple, Quarantine-Friendly White Bread
So you're stuck inside, huh? We all are currently, but that shouldn't be an excuse to not have fresh bread!
This Cob Loaf, also called farmhouse bread, country loaf, rustic white bread, and a bunch of other names, is a no nonsense white bread that is a great project. Here are the great benefits to trying this recipe:
- No special equipment needed, seriously. Loaf pan? Nope. Pastry blender? Nah. Proofing baskets? Not here! If you've never baked before this is your chance!
- The dough is easy to handle. Thanks to being a relatively low hydration dough you won't have to worry about this dough getting stuck to your hands, table, walls, whatever. No clue what "low hydration dough is?" Don't worry, no previous baking experience is necessary and I'll explain what it is later if you're curious.
- No lengthy kneading is needed! That's right, thanks to the power of laziness you will only have to knead this for ten minutes, I promise.
- It's a blank canvas and experimentation friendly. Want to try a different sweetener? Cool. Wonder what would happen if you threw in a handful of freshly snipped chives, rosemary, citrus zest, or other aromatic? Give it a go! This bread is a lot of fun to experiment with and is very forgiving.
- Multipurpose means multi-utility. You can make this recipe into a ton of shapes. Got a loaf pan you want to try? Ok! In the mood for smaller dinner rolls? Roll 'em up and do it! Need edible soup bowls to impress your friends at the dinner party you're planning to throw once we are allowed to be around each other again? DO IT!
- The finished product keeps well. Without any preservatives, special storage, or other funny business, you can count on this bread being tasty for four or more days.
- It's awesome stale! "Huh? That makes no sense" I can hear you thinking. If any of this bread survives until it becomes stale, you can do lots of stuff with it. Here are some ideas:
- Bread soup!
- Bread pudding! (Here's my Instructable on how to make New Orleans-Style Bread Pudding.)
- Bread crumbs!
Alright! Are you sold? Ready to roll? Have a burning need to knead? Not scared of corny dad jokes? Saddle up, we got some baking to do.
- Heat-proof vessel such as a measuring cup or microwavable bowl
- Parchment paper
- Prep bowls
- Bowl scraper
- Baking tin
- Shower cap (optional)
- Clean cloth such as a tea towel or wash cloth
- Cooling rack
- Oven-safe wide container
- Baker's lame (totally optional)
If you are missing any of the supplies, don't stress. I'll discuss alternates you can try along the way. I will also place Amazon links in the picture to kit that I trust and use daily. Disclaimer: the Amazon links are affiliate links, so I may receive a small commission if you purchase the product.
Step 1: The Cast and Crew!
- 5g (1.25 tsp.) Sugar
- 255g (1.25 cup) Water
- Go for filtered or bottled water, tap water and yeast are not BFFs.
- 7g (2.25 tsp. or one packet) Instant or active dried yeast
- 450g (3.5 cup) Bread flour
- If you only have all purpose flour handy, that's fine. You may not get the same rise out of it, but it will still be tasty.
- 8g (1 tsp.) Kosher salt
- Only have table salt on hand? Don't fill the measuring spoon the whole way, go for something like 3/4 full. Avoid iodized salt if you can.
- 20g (1.5 Tbs.) Neutral oil
- Veggie oil is ideal, but olive oil works, too.
What's with the "g" bro? Let's face it, measuring spoons and cups aren't the best when it comes to measuring precisely. The best way to bake is by weight using grams (and by far the least messy). If you don't have a scale, that's fine, no shame from me! Think of it this way: once you catch the baking bug, and eventually get a scale anyhow, you'll thank me because you won't have to convert this recipe (which is a big pain in the tukus, trust me).
Step 2: The Setup
Want to impress a date? Invite them over for a baking date (lots of time to kill while the dough is rising!). When they ask why you're gathering and measuring everything before you start, tell them the first step to successful cookery is mise en place (meez ehn plaws). It's a French term used in professional kitchens and simply means "everything in place." If you have everything in place and ready when you start, you save yourself a ton of hassle and stress later. (You're welcome, good luck)
Using prep bowls, or little squares of parchment paper folded like a pocket, measure all your ingredients and set aside. I like to use a spare baking tin to store my already measured ingredients. In my mind, if it's on the tin it's ready to go in.
Now go turn the light on in your oven, but do not turn the oven on. You'll see why in a minute ;-)
Step 3: It's Alive: Waking Up the Yeast
Yeast are living things, and they give bread its delicious flavor. Warm the water to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Don't have a thermometer handy? 104 is a little warmer than skin temperature, but much cooler than what you likely consider "warm." Yeast are delicate little buggers and you don't want to cook them before they meet the oven, m'kay? Try not to stress over this step. If the water is at least as warm as your skin, it'll work.
Whisk in sugar until dissolved. No whisk? Use a fork!
Whisk in yeast. It won't dissolve, but you want to break it up enough that water gets between the granules.
Set the yeast mixture aside. Depending on the freshness of your yeast, how warm the water is, and how warm your kitchen is will determine how long it will take for the yeast to "wake up." What you're looking for is something that looks foamy and smells like bread (or beer). This typically takes ten minutes.
Step 4: Mixing the Dry Ingredients
Mix the salt into the flour in a large mixing bowl.
Mixing the salt in now coats the granules in flour. This helps keep the salt and yeast isolated. Why does that matter? Salt is great a killing all sorts of stuff, but it is terrible at knowing what is good versus bad. Yeast is definitely good in baking, so we don't want the salt killing it off. This mixing also breaks up any lumps in the flour and keeps you busy while the yeast is proofing.
Fun fact, yeast is actually a member of the fungi kingdom, which makes them a distant relative of mushrooms. Neat! Thanks to cstodgell for pointing that out.
Step 5: Get the Wet Stuff Onto the Dry Stuff
Once your yeast mixture is nice and foamy, add it to the mixing bowl. Using the spatula or your hands (or a stand mixer), start mixing it all together. When the dough starts to form, add the oil and continue mixing until a shaggy dough forms. What's a shaggy dough? It's a dough that has all the wet ingredients incorporated, but isn't forming a dough ball yet.
Once the shaggy dough forms, it's time to knead! Dump the shaggy dough onto your work surface, and knead for 10 minutes. Hey, you're all cooped up indoors, so use this to replace arm day at the gym you're not allowed inside right now.
If using a stand mixer, the kneading should take two minutes from the time a shaggy dough forms. You're aiming for a dough ball that clings to the hook, and leaves the bowl clean.
Step 6: The First Rise: Oil It Up and Take a Break
Fold the dough ball under itself until the top is relatively smooth.
Put about 2 teaspoons of the same oil used in the dough into a bowl that is at least twice the size of the dough ball. Roll the dough ball around in the oil to coat it. This prevents it from drying out.
Cover the bowl with a clean cloth, or shower cap. I personally love shower caps. They're cheap (like 10 for $1.50 at the dollar store cheap), and they help keep moisture from escaping while the dough rises. They are also large enough to grow with the dough if it rises more than you expected it to.
Now chuck the whole lot into the oven you previously turned on the light in. You should notice the inside of the oven is warmer than your kitchen, which means you just created the perfect environment for proofing dough!
Leave the dough to rise 30 minutes.
The dough probably won't double because of the low hydration, so don't fuss about that. Oh yeah, dough hydration. I did promise to talk about that, didn't I? If you don't care about dough hydration, go to the next step, you won't miss anything.
A Sidebar on Dough Hydration
Dough hydration is the ratio of how much "water-contributing-liquid" is present in the dough when compared to the flour content. This is quickly figured out by dividing the weight of water by the weight of flour, and then multiplying by 100 (yet another reason we use scales in baking). In our case:
255g water / 450g flour = 0.566 x 100 = 56.6% or more simply 57%
Okay, so what does this mean? A lot actually! Dough hydration directly affects how the dough will perform when formed and baked. Take a look at this very rough outline:
- <55% is very stiff, and yields a tight crumb (i.e. very small and compact bubbles in the final product).
- 55-60% is stiff, think bagels and pretzels. The dough holds it's shape and is not sticky in the least. Our cob loaf is in this range, and is what makes it so forgiving to work with. You can still overwork the dough by kneading it too much, but it is certainly harder to do so.
- 60-65% is supple and velvety, yielding a tender yet still closed crumb. Your typical sandwich loaf falls into this range. Dough in this hydration range often requires more shaping or requires a loaf pan.
- 65+% makes for a very loose dough that yields more irregular holes in the crumb that are very airy. Think about focaccia, ciabatta, pizza crust, and other rustic breads.
So what's the point of this? Simple! If you want to experiment with our recipe, you'll want to keep its hydration in mind. If you want to replace some (or all) of the "water-contributing-liquid" you need to think about the "not water" part of whatever you use. If you replace the water with milk or even beer, you may need to add a splash or two more to compensate for the solids in the milk or beer. If you want to substitute a different flour type such as whole wheat, it will absorb water differently, and you may have to use less water to get the same results.
Oil and fats affect the dough too by providing tenderness. If you want to replace the oil with butter, you may need to add a little more flour to account for how loose butter is.
Baking is part science and part art. The arty part is figuring out how to break the recipe while the sciency part is fixing it!
Step 7: Knocking the Wind Out of the Yeast's Sails
Once the first rise is complete, your dough ball should be a little gassy (but in a good way). The yeast is digesting the sugars in the dough, and..ahem...farting out carbon dioxide. These bubbles of carbon dioxide slowly stretch the gluten within the dough. Gluten gives our bread its signature chew, so some farty yeast action is exactly what we need.
We need to knock the gas out of the dough, however, to allow it to stretch more evenly. You can certainly pull the dough out and knead it for a minute or so by hand, but I like the pull and tuck method personally. Following the directions in the pictures may be easier than how I'm about to explain it, but here goes...
- Grab a "corner" (yeah, I know, balls don't have corners, work with me here) of the dough and pull it up about four inches.
- Pull the stretched "corner" over the dough and place it on the opposite "corner."
- Tuck the "corner" down with gentle pressure. This gentle pressure helps squeeze the gas out.
- Repeat the above steps with the other three "corners" of the dough ball.
Give the dough ball another quick roll around the inside of the bowl to make sure the top has oil on it. Replace the clean cloth or shower cap on the bowl and return to the oven for 45 minutes...more free time with your date!
Step 8: Forming and Final Proofing
After the second rise, you'll notice the dough really grew this time. This is thanks to the degassing we gave the dough after the first rise. The stretches we did also helped the gluten line up in long rows which provide a bigger "web" for the gas to become trapped within. It's this "web" that creates the crumb in the final product.
Prepare a baking tin with parchment paper. If you don't have parchment paper rub a little vegetable oil on the tin instead.
Dump the dough onto your work surface. If necessary, add a little flour, but chances are very good you will not need flour to prevent sticking.
Pat the dough down to degas it again. Using a bench scraper or your hands, continuously tuck the dough under itself until a round ball forms, or boule (bool) if you're impressing your date with your new French vernacular.
Place the loaf in the center of the prepared baking tin. Sift or lightly sprinkle the top with flour to prevent sticking, and cover with a clean cloth.
Place the whole thing into the oven again for a final proofing or 45 minutes. Don't wander too far though, we have business to attend to during the last 15 minutes of proofing.
Step 9: Finally! We Bake!
Fifteen minutes before the proofing is complete, remove the loaf from the oven. Place the baking tin on a dry towel or trivets. Why are we doing this when the loaf hasn't baked yet? The loaf will have one last chance to grow as it bakes (we call this oven spring). If we temperature shock the yeast now, the bottom of the loaf may not spring as much as possible, resulting in a "slumpy" texture on the bottom third of the loaf.
Adjust one rack in the oven to the bottom, and the other to the middle. If you only have one rack, place it in the middle.
Turn the oven on (for real this time), and preheat to 390 degrees Fahrenheit for at least ten minutes. While the oven is heating up, bring about four cups of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, place a cake pan or other container that can survive being on the bottom rack of the oven, or to one side if you only have a single rack leaving enough room for the baking tin. Pour the water into the vessel in the oven. This will create a steamy environment for the bread, which creates a lovely crispy crust on the loaf. Wait about five minutes before putting the loaf in to bake while the steam builds.
Slash the top of the proofed loaf with a baker's lame (la-may). If you don't have one, I'll show you how I made one since mine broke at the end. You can also use an extremely sharp knife blade, but be careful to not go deeper than 1/4" into the loaf, and do not use a serrated knife.
Carefully open the oven being mindful that a blast of steam is about to come out, and place the baking tin in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes.
Step 10: So Close You Can Smell It...
Once the baking time is up, use oven mits to remove the baking tin. Remove the baked loaf, and place directly on the rack in the oven to bake an additional 5-10 minutes. This extra baking time will help ensure the bottom of the loaf has a nice crust too.
Remove the loaf and place on a cooling rack. If you don't have a cooling rack, use a couple pencils or chop sticks to elevate the loaf up some. You just want air to circulate under the loaf so it doesn't sweat.
Leave the finished loaf rest for at least 20 minutes before cutting into it! Cutting into a freshly baked loaf will allow too much steam to escape, leaving you with a gummy interior that dries out quickly.
Step 11: Bonus Material: How to Keep Bread Fresh
So you were patient enough to wait at least 20 minutes before digging in. What do you do to keep the loaf fresh now? Wrap it up tightly in plastic wrap? NO! Please don't do that, it will ruin the texture of the crumb. Here are some tips.
- For the first three days, leave the loaf out, uncovered, with the cut side down. The crust will do a decent job of preventing moisture loss on the rest of the loaf.
- For day four and five, place in a plastic zippy bag.
- Giving the gift of fresh bread? Place the loaf in a paper bag. This allows the loaf to breath without trapping too much moisture.
- Freezing it for later? Sure! Cool for a few hours, wrap tightly in two layers of plastic wrap and freeze. To refresh the loaf, thaw in the wrapping on the counter overnight. Preheat the oven to 325, lightly spritz the loaf with water and place directly on the rack in the oven for 10 minutes.
- Want it to get stale faster so you can make bread pudding (recipe for my New Orleans-Style Bread Pudding)? Split the loaf in half about 1.5" from the bottom of the loaf, and then cut the two parts in half. Leave on the counter with the cut side up overnight and up to two days.
Step 12: Bonus Material: How to Make a Baker's Lame
Disclaimer, this is a hack and you are at risk of cutting yourself. Please be careful!
- Start with a clean razor blade.
- Place a piece of masking tape that is about 1/2" longer on each side on the upper half of the blade.
- Turn the blade over, and carefully fold the upper part of the tape onto the backside of the blade. Trim the ends so they are neat. When folding over, leave a small space between the crease and the blade edge.
- Fold the loose ends over and press to secure.
- Take a second piece of masking tape that is just a little less wide than the blade, and place over the upper part of the razor securing the loose ends from the previous step. Fold over the top to the front creating a second layer to protect your fingers from the blade edge.
- Store in a container to prevent accidents when not using.
Second Prize in the
Baking Speed Challenge