The secret to making easy, artisan bread every single day

Sarah Kieffer

A couple of years ago, Jeff Hertzberg called The Splendid Table to get advice on a dream that a lot of people who love to cook have.

"My question is about how an unknown like me breaks into the cookbook market with a book that I've written about a bread recipe I've taken 12 years to develop," he said. "I'll be a little immodest and I'll say that it is a revolutionary concept ... It produces -- I would describe them as artisan-style loaves, European-style, hard-crusted bread, and it only takes about 5 minutes a day." [Ed. note: The audio of their entire conversation is below.]

With co-author Zoe Francois, Hertzberg went on to write the best-selling Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Designed for the home cook, the book has turned more people into bakers than they could have ever imagined. The latest book from the duo is The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You did it big time. How did you first get the publisher's attention?

Jeff Hertzberg: It was unbelievably lucky. We had that phone call, I laughed about it and I thought about all the things you had said that obviously were never going to happen -- like writing down recipes and testing them over and over and over again instead of just having it in my head. Because this for me was an escape from writing things down, from being a scientist and doing all those things that I do at my day job.

LRK: Because you're a physician.

JH: Right. I'm a physician and I work with computers now. I develop software for health care. I have to write everything down and do it the same way every time. This is a creative outlet for me, and I didn't want to do any of that for this.

We were unbelievably lucky because that little segment was overheard by an editor in New York, a woman named Ruth Cavin. She has since passed away. Ruth Cavin was seen as the mother of the American mystery novel. She also had an interest in cookbooks, and had published some of her own in the 1960s.

When I met her in 2000, she was in her 80s already, still working at St. Martin's Press, which ultimately published all these books. She called your producer, Jennifer Russell, and said, "Can I talk to this guy? Because I want to get a book proposal." You were the gold charm.

LRK: Well, thank you.

JH: She called, and I laughed for a couple of days. My wife and I were hysterical. My wife is an editor, and she said, "Do you want this to happen?"

I said, "Yes, I just don't want to do any of the work." Because I had a day job and we had our second baby on the way.

But I spoke to Ruth, who was a complete pistol, just a hysterical person, an incredible bundle of energy in her 80s. She said, "Well, I want to do it."

I said, " But you haven't even heard ...." I kept it a big secret on the air with you. She said, "Oh no, I trust you." She was the kind of person who would make a decision, then she'd follow through on it.

The other lucky bit was 3 years after blowing off this call with Cavin, I met Zoe Francois, who is a local chef in Minneapolis. She said, "You have a book offer and you didn't do anything about it?" Everybody she went to school with at The Culinary Institute of America would basically be furious to hear that, as would she. She said, "You have to do it."

I said, "I don't have time. But would you do it with me?" We had become friends at this point. There is some convoluted story about how I wouldn't tell her the secret -- I deny all of that -- until she tried it and was sold on the method.

LRK: Let's get to the big secret behind the new book, The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. What's the basic theory behind this?

JH: The thing I started working on when I was a medical resident was could you extend the time you stored dough in the refrigerator longer and longer and longer?

Some simple arithmetic here -- you mix it once, and if you could store a lot of dough, you would mix it once and bake it many times. Traditional bakers and professionals say you can't store the retard phase. It's good to slow it down and put it in the refrigerator.

LRK: That's what develops that deep, delicious flavor.

JH: That's right. It's from the byproducts of fermentation.

The traditional books all say that a day of cold temperature is nice, even 2 days, maybe 3. But beyond that it loses all its rising power and it doesn't work. Nobody would ever challenge that little bit of orthodoxy.

Because I wasn't a professional baker and wasn't yet associated with one, I messed around with that. I'd have mountains of dough in bins in the refrigerator that would basically come over the top of the bucket, in plastic and glass buckets. (If you use glass, don't seal it. It can explode.)

But basically, I extended that resting phase in the refrigerator to up to 2 weeks. Actually, when I met Zoe, initially it was up to a month. But she found that much too strong-flavored.

LRK: It gets sour.

JH: It gets more and more sour. You develop sourdough character without having to go through the sourdough rigmarole of feeding it and keeping it alive.

LRK: Your mixture is salt, yeast, water and flour. You're making a very sloppy dough, right?

JH: It's just wet enough that it would hold a free-form shape like you see on the cover of the book, but not so solid that you couldn't do the trick.

Because the key to the trick was that it had to be pretty wet dough or it turns into a semi-solid sponge that you can't then manipulate and shape -- it becomes much too dense. There was a perfect level of liquid.

A lot of people had played with no-knead, by the way. This is not a kneaded dough.

LRK: That's what I was wondering. Five-minute bread was usually the no-knead method that Mark Bittman had printed, developed by a baker named Jim Lahey in New York.

JH: The first book on no-knead in the U.S. was a book called No Need to Knead in 1999, almost a decade before any of us started, by a woman named Suzanne Dunaway out in L.A. She is a wonderful baker, and she took the traditional Italian method of no-knead, high moisture.

None of us invented -- including Suzanne -- no-knead. Suzanne's book, like Jim's, because it's mixed once, baked once, didn't really change the way bakers were able to use it at home. Because it's too much work for most people; you mess up the kitchen, you get flour everywhere.

The key to time-saving in ours -- actually, I'm surprised nobody else has tried to write about it -- is that you mix it once, store it with the right hydration and you can bake it over 2 weeks. That's what's unique about our book.

Refrigerator-Stored Artisan Boule with Whole Grains
Recipe: Refrigerator-Stored Artisan Boule with Whole Grains (Photo: The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day)

LRK: You can keep scooping into that dough. You don't do anything else. You shape it properly and it goes into the oven.

JH: It has to rest again, and that's passive time and it doesn't count into the 5 minutes a day. The passive time is short if you do a flatbread; it can be zero for a pizza. But for a tall loaf it can be 40 to 90 minutes.

LRK: You're also doing a chapter in this book on gluten-free bread?

JH: We do. All of our books, except for the very first edition of the current book in 2007, have had a gluten-free chapter. People came on the website and said, "Can I just swap gluten-free flour for your all-purpose flour?" The answer is no, it's not going to work.

LRK: The system is the same for gluten-free?

JH: Yes. You mix it once, it's pretty wet but not too wet or it won't hold the shape. Then it goes into the refrigerator. The gluten-free storage is not quite as long. In fact it's 10 days at most.

LRK: That's not bad.

JH: It's pretty good. I've always got something in the refrigerator.

LRK: That means, really in a short time, you can make bread every day.

JH: I do it every day, every morning or every lunch.

When my kids were taking lunch to school, their typical bread for school lunch was a whole wheat pita flatbread. I would take it out of the refrigerator, roll it out -- it didn't need any resting time -- and it went into the oven. I had that on a timed preheat so when we woke up, it started preheating. When we came downstairs, the bread went into the oven.

LRK: They had fresh-baked bread to take? That's showing off.

JH: It is showing off. It's true. I don't know if the kids saw it as a status symbol. I'll have to ask them.

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