This single loaf bread recipe is just about the easiest loaf of bread ever. I adapted it from the King Arthur recipe site (which is a treasure trove of baking know-how). They call it hearth bread. That recipe, however, makes two loaves, which is just too much for one person. So, I reduced the quantities and made one single loaf recipe instead.
A Kitchenaid stand mixer makes the whole process much easier and faster. If you don’t have one, you can do it the old-fashioned way and knead it by hand.
At its simplest, bread is flour, water, yeast, and salt, with maybe a bit of sugar to give the yeast something to munch on. You can get crustier bread by brushing it with water or egg white. Make it softer with milk, or add new flavors (like honey or sesame seeds). However, those basic few ingredients are all you really need. It may seem intimidating if you haven’t done it before, but it’s really not. After a while, you get a “feel” for how the dough should look and feel and can correct any mistakes.
The bread is easy, but the instructions in the original recipe were a bit confusing. They gave several different variations on how to bake the bread (depending on how crusty you like it) and was a bit tricky to navigate through all the different options. So, I have shared the version/combination I found works best for my taste.
Update: King Arthur eventually decided that the original instructions were both too confusing, and were causing many people to end up with burned bread! The new method ditches the pan of water, and leads to a delicious, crusty loaf of bread. I tried it out and the results were much better. If you want the bread to be extra-crusty, let it cool in a turned-off oven (instructions are in the notes section of the recipe).
They also say to make it a long “Italian bread” shape (which makes it a bit crustier), but I left it round because I liked the way it looks.
semolina or cornmeal for the baking pan (about a tablespoon or two)
Put the yeast, sugar, salt, water, and flour into the bowl of your Kitchenaid mixer. Mix for about 30 secnds to one minute on speed 2 using the paddle attachment. When it's done, it should pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a ball of dough.
Swap the paddle for the dough hook and knead for 3--5 minutes on speed 2. The dough should be smooth and elastic, and bounce back when you press down on it.
Remove the dough from the bowl. Grease the same bowl with a bit of canola oil (I use about a capful). Put the dough back in the bowl and turn it over and around until it's coated with the oil.
Cover the bowl with a plastic bag and put it in a warmish spot or in a cool oven (heat to 200 degrees for 10 minutes, then turn it off).
Let the dough rise until it doubles in size (1-2 hours).
Gently push down the dough. Keep it round if you like, or shape into a long oval (like Italian bread).
Put that in a shallow baking pan or baking sheet sprinkled with semolina or cornmeal. This helps keeps it from sticking and adds a bit of extra crustiness.
Let it rest for 45 minutes, covered. When it's risen enough, the dough will no longer bounce back when you press on it.
Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Slash the top of the bread, and spray (a plant sprayer will work fine) or brush (use a pastry brush) it with warm water.
Place in the middle of the oven and bake the bread for 25-35 minutes.
If the dough is too shaggy (meaning it looks a bit furry), add more flour. If it's too hard, add more water. You'll get a better idea of how the dough should look and feel as you bake more loaves.
If you want the bread to be extra-crusty, remove it from the pan, and turn the oven off. Put the bread back in the oven, right on the rack, and let it rest, with the oven door slightly ajar. Let the bread cool as the oven does.