You know that George Harrison song I've Got My Mind Set on You? It goes something like, "It's gonna take time, a whole lot of precious time / It's gonna take patience and time / To do it, to do it, to do it right." I may have left out a few "to do its," but you get the idea. The point is: Harrison may as well have been singing about bread.
So how long should bread take? There's not really a right answer, but generally speaking, Adam Leonti, who runs the Brooklyn Bread Lab in Bushwick, says more time means more flavor, starting with a process called autolyse.
What Is Autolyse?
Autolyse is a fancy French word for combining the flour and the water and letting it sit without stirring. Leonti suggests about 45 minutes. During the autolysis (which roughly translates as self-splitting), the enzymes in the flour convert the starch to sugar and the protein to gluten. Put another way, you're letting the ingredients do the work for you — which means less time kneading.
In fact, during the course of the bread-making class I took with Leonti, the actual kneading time was about three minutes and consisted of grabbing a piece of dough, lifting it up, and putting it down in the middle, and repeating until the dough became more difficult to grab a hold of.
The First Rise
After the autolyse and the brief kneading, the next step is to let the dough rise until it has tripled in size, about 12 hours. At this point, you can bake it or you can shape it, and let it go for a second rise.
As with kneading, you want to avoid overworking the dough when shaping it. Remember, you've been letting the dough do the work for you!
The Second Rise
Cover your dough with plastic wrap and let it rise again, again for about 12 hours, or until the dough has doubled in size.
Letting Your Bread Cool Off
The actual baking of the bread is the shortest part of the process — it takes about 25 to 30 minutes at 500°F — and when it comes out looking all crusty and golden-brown, you're going to want to cut into it straight away.
Resist! It's still cooking, and if you slice in too early, you'll end up with doughy, wet insides. To quote British novelist Violet Fane, "Good things come to those who wait."