Shortcut Bread: One of America's best bakers tells how anyone can make stunning loaves.

Reading Chad Robertson's gorgeous new cookbook, Tartine Bread, left me with one question: Is there an easier way to make loaves as exceptional as his? At San Francisco's Tartine Bakery, Robertson relies on a levain naturel—a mix of flour and water that's alive with wild yeasts and is commonly known as a starter. But maintaining a starter is a commitment. Indeed, as Robertson recounts in the book, one of his testers actually brought hers on a weeklong trip so she could regularly "feed" it flour and water.

Robertson says there is a simpler way to make bread that's close to his ideal. Instead of a starter, the recipe calls for a pre-ferment—a small portion of flour and water that is mixed with just a pinch of packaged yeast and left to ferment and develop flavor overnight. The baker then mixes it with more flour and water to make dough. The bread, baked in a heavy Dutch oven or lidded skillet, becomes fantastically crusty. Best of all, you don't need a starter sitter when you go on vacation.

Crust Tip

Robertson's recipe calls for a cast-iron casserole or a heavy skillet with a lid. A great choice: Lodge Logic Combo Cooker ($35;

Flavor Tip

To make a chunky bread, fold in 2 1/2 cups toasted sunflower seeds, 5 cups soaked and drained dried currants or 6 cups walnut halves in Step 3, after folding in the salt water.

Measuring Tip

Measure ingredients by metric weight using a scale, such as the Oxo digital scale ($50; Measuring by volume is less accurate.

Plus: Fantastic Ideas for Bread

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