In Search of the Perfect Loaf: Sam Fromartz's stirato makes the cut

Sam Fromartz, a Washington, D.C. author, writer, editor, and passionate home baker, spent four years traveling the U.S. and Europe on a quest for great bread.

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The result? A dazzling new book, In Search of the Perfect Loaf, a Home Baker’s Odyssey.

As with any account of an odyssey, the book is as much about the journey as the destination; in the end, Fromartz selects just nine exquisite recipes to detail. But if you’re a bread lover, you must read this book: it’ll speak just as eloquently to your heart as to your mind.

Recently, deciding to go on my own mini-odyssey, I opened the book at random and started flipping through the pages.

The first recipe I came to was Stirato, which Fromartz describes as “like an easy-to-make baguette.”

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An easy-to-make baguette with a five-page recipe, that is. But if you love yeast baking as much as I do, it’s like diving into a great novel; the details are there to drive the story, and this bread tells a wonderful story by the time it’s done. Crunchy and chewy, with great “bite,” each long, skinny loaf is filled with those large, irregular holes all of us home bread bakers strive for in our baguettes and country breads.

I’ll share a simplified version of Stirato here, with just enough information that you can experience the kind of great bread Fromartz features among his nine recipes. When you read the book, you’ll find MUCH more detail. Trust me: if you can read, you can successfully bake this bread.

The odyssey is about to begin – let’s travel together, shall we?

Here’s what you need; Sam uses strictly metric measurements, but I’ll give volume measurements that are as close to the original as feasible.

500g unbleached all-purpose flour (4 cups + 2 tablespoons, measured by fluffing the flour and sprinkling it into your measuring cup, then sweeping off the excess)
375g water, 80°F (1 1/2 cups + 2 1/2 tablespoons)
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon sourdough starter (optional)
10g sea salt (2 teaspoons)
semolina flour, for dusting the loaves (and your work surface)

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Yes, 80°F. Do what the man says. A digital thermometer helps.

As does a scale. Fromartz’s recipes all use metric weights, for utmost accuracy.

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First, combine the flour, water, yeast, and starter, if you choose to use it. I’m using it because I have a jar of starter in my fridge at all times. Remember, I’m a breadie.

Make a little well in the center of your soft dough, and put the salt in the well, along with an additional tablespoon of water. Don’t mix it in. Cover the bowl, and let everything rest for 20 minutes.

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After 20 minutes, uncover the bowl, and get to work.

Now, you’re not going to knead so much as fold the dough over on itself; a bowl scraper works well here. Use the scraper to loosen one edge of the dough, and fold it into the center. Turn the bowl 90°, and repeat.

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Do this stretching/folding for about 1 minute, then cover the bowl, and let the dough rest for 20 minutes. It’ll relax and settle into the bowl.

Do this stretch, fold, and rest-for-20-minutes process three more times.

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By the third or fourth time, you’ll notice you can set aside the bowl scraper and actually grab the increasingly elastic dough with your fingers. It becomes subtly smoother as you go through the process.

After your fourth stretch-and-fold, cover the bowl and let the dough rest at room temperature for 6 to 7 hours, until it’s about tripled in size.

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My schedule can’t handle completing this bread all in one day, so I break up the process. I settle the dough into my bowl (actually my Emile Henry stoneware crock, which I use interchangeably as a baking vessel and mixing bowl), cover the crock…

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…and let it rise for 4 hours. Then I stick it in the fridge overnight (yes, covered).

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Next morning, holy mackerel! Big air bubbles. The yeast is obviously happy.

I leave the dough warming to room temperature while I hit the gym. This takes a couple of hours.

Next: shaping and baking the loaves.

Preheat your oven to 470°F with a baking stone on the middle rack. Don’t have a stone? You’ll bake these on a pan instead.

Make sure your oven is truly up to heat by the time you’re ready to bake; most ovens will take at least 30 minutes, maybe more. Fromartz recommends preheating for a full hour, which gives the stone a chance to get nice and hot.

Put a metal or cast iron pan onto the floor (or lowest rack) of your oven. This will be your steam generator.

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Flour your work surface with flour, or with a 50/50 mixture of semolina and flour, which is what I choose.

Flour a piece of parchment basically the same size as your baking stone (assuming you have a baking stone), and put it on an overturned baking pan. This will be your baker’s peel.

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Gently turn the dough out onto the floured work surface. Try not to deflate it; this is not the kind of dough you “punch down.” Jeesh; I don’t know why you’d ever want to punch dough, anyway. If you want to deflate it, a squeeze is sufficient!

Pat/shape the dough into a 10″ x 16″ rectangle. Don’t make yourself crazy; these are approximate measurements.

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Divide the rectangle into four longer, skinnier rectangles, using a “thick, dull tool.” I’m using a wooden ruler here. Fromartz explains that, rather than cutting the loaves, you want to simultaneously divide them and compress their edges to seal.

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Your loaves will look entirely unprepossessing; flat and saggy. I could make a joke about late middle age here, but it would be hitting too close to home!

Let the loaves rest, lightly covered, for 20 minutes.

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Place two of the loaves onto your homemade peel. They’ll want to stretch as you handle them, so do this quickly.

Get 1/2 cup water ready; you’re going to make steam.

Transfer the loaves with their parchment to the baking stone. If you’re not using a stone, just put them, on their pan, into the oven.

Add the water to the hot pan down below; close the oven door quickly.

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DO NOT open your oven door for 18 minutes; you want to trap that steam.

After 18 to 22 minutes, when the loaves are a deep, golden brown, remove them from the oven, and transfer them to a rack to cool.

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Repeat with the remaining two loaves.

Pat yourself on the back.

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You’ve made four stunning loaves!

Oh, and remember those large, irregular holes?

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Why, it’s ever so nice to see you! The perfect loaf, indeed.

As Sam notes, this is an “easy-to-make baguette.” Interested in a more traditional baguette? Sam’s your man for that one, too. Check out his classic baguette.

And check out his blog: ChewsWise, Musing on Food, Farming, and Bread. If you’re a bread “apprecianado,” you’ll want to bookmark it. You never know where he’ll take you next!

Looking for a printed recipe for the Stirato above? Check out Sam’s book – your local library may have a copy, or find it at any major bookstore.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Pete Conelli

    I tried this recipe and it seemed to be going very smoothly. Followed all the same directions. The dough was raising perfectly. I placed it in the refrigerator over night due to time restrictions. The next morning the dough deflated. Where did I go wrong.

    Pete C

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Pete! The loaf over-proofed. If possible, next time we’d recommend making it closer to bedtime so it isn’t in the fridge for as long. In the meantime, you should be able to reshape, let it rise at room-temp as shown in the blog article linked above, and bake it. Annabelle@KAF

  2. CJ

    I have wanted to try this recipe for quite some time now, but I have a bit of a hurdle here! I don’t have a full size oven, maybe it’s 3/4 the size of a regular one and I only have 1 rack. I don’t have a baking stone, but I do have a 3 loaf baguette pan. I have been using my Le Creuset 7 qt. dutch oven to bake larger loaves which is great, but I would like to make baguettes once in awhile. I could mist the loaves with water, but would that be enough? I am in the process of ordering the KA Artisan Bread Flour along with a few other flours. Would you recommend the Artisan flour for this particular recipe? Thank you for your help!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi CJ. All-purpose flour works beautifully in this recipe. As for the steam, if you’re able to put a cast iron pan on the bottom of your oven (below the rack) let that preheat with your oven and add about a cup of boiling cup of water to it right as you put your loaves in the oven. Close it right away to trap as much steam as possible. If this isn’t an option, spraying the loaves just before putting them in the oven and then again about 10 minutes into baking time is the best way to go. Annabelle@KAF

  3. Val Lombardo

    Thank you so much! This recipe is perfect and brought back so many delicious memories of meals we shared with friends and family in Italy! Grazie mille!

    Reply
  4. Gina

    On Fromartz’ site there is another recipe, using a bit of Barley Malt Syrup and a bit of spelt flour, and using the dough mixer, and I happen to have all of those handy, so I’m going to try that one and combine it with part of your method. Fingers crossed!

    Reply
    1. Drew458

      I tried this today with mixed results. I used Hecker’s AP and scaled the ingredients exactly. Ok, I dissolved the sea salt in the hot water and let it cool to 80F and then mixed it in, instead of your salt in the crater method. 1 minutes worth of S&F is 12 or 13 folds for me, so call it 50 total for the 4 kneads. I let it sit 7 hours in the proofing box, 77F, at which point it had surface bubbles the size of peaches. I found the dough to be very wet and sticky, even after adding a tbl or 2 of flour at the 4th S&F. The stretch and pinch method of dividing the dough didn’t work well for me; I wound up with dog bone shaped loaves because I stretched them too much and there was no snap back at all. I think cutting the dough into 2 or 4 parts after 3 or 4 hours, gently shaping them into logs, and finishing them off in a couche would make much more even loaves. All that being said, the bread had a fantastic open crumb, even if it was nearly scorched from the 470F baking stone. Very little oven spring, especially in the thin middle parts. Crust is really crisp; I’m leaving them out on the counter to see how they fare overnight. The flavor was nice, although mild. I’m a big sourdough baker, so 1 tbl of starter seemed like nothing. For that much flour, I usually use 1/3 cup. I’ll try it again soon, a little less water, 3 loaves finished in a couche, and try a 460F oven. 470 is too hot, although I have a large thick stone that holds massive amounts of heat. It’s always an experiment, which is what makes it fun.

  5. Al

    Has anyone tried putting the shaped dough onto a Silpat silicone baking mat, and then transferring that whole with the dough on it, onto a baking sheet or heated baking stone? I imagine it wouldn’t be a problem going onto a baking sheet. I’d be slightly more concerned going onto a hot baking stone. Wonder if that’s been done.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Al, we use this approach but with parchment paper instead of a silicone baking mat. We tend to save that tool for baking delicate cookies or sticky baked goods. Our parchment paper is safe up to 450°F, so it’s fine for most artisan bread recipes. A silicone baking mat would likely insulate the bottom of the loaf from the direct heat of the stone or baking sheet, preventing the bottom from becoming crispy and brown. Kye@KAF

  6. L. Bickford

    I received Sam’s book as a gift and have been enjoying the read immensely. I immediately tried the stirato as it seemed within reach of a beginning baker. I made three loaves rather than four and baked them on a KA baguette pan (the holey kind). Wow! Fantastic loaves. Not quite as open a crumb as your photos show, but I may have been too hard on the dough when shaping.

    Sam — thanks for writing this beautiful book. Hope this blog will lead others to read it as well.

    Reply
  7. John Adams

    Just made these loaves! They turned out great! My wife likes salty bread so I changed the recipe a little but kept the techniques. Thank you so much for this! We are now reading Sam’s book.

    Reply

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