How to Make Epi Bread (Wheat Stalk Bread)
This rustic looking loaf is called epi bread or wheat stalk bread. Individual rolls can be broken off for easy passing around the table, perfect to serve with any holiday meal.
- Skill Level: Advanced
- Techniques Used: Pre-Ferment (Poolish), Stretch & Fold Method for Bread Making
Have you ever heard of epi bread, pain d’epi, or wheat stalk bread? Epi bread is a French baguette that has been shaped to resemble a wheat stalk. The cuts made into the dough result in a perfectly shareable pull-apart bread.
This rustic bread looks so beautiful on a dinner table and is perfect for sharing during the holidays.
What makes epi bread so special?
- Epi bread is an impressive addition to any gathering and can almost be a centerpiece all on its own.
- This artisan-style bread is a popular picnic staple in France. Individual yeast rolls can be torn off and passed around without crumbling the rest of the loaf.
- The wheat stalk resemblance of this loaf makes it even more special than a classic baguette shape.
How to Make Epi Bread
Epi bread is essentially a French baguette that is shaped to look like a wheat stalk.
MIX THE POOLISH
This recipe utilizes a poolish, which is a French pre-ferment that has a high ratio of water to flour. The advantage of adding a poolish to the dough is that it greatly improves the flavor and texture of the dough. Mix the poolish together at least 6 hours (and up to 10 hours) before making the dough. I recommend making the poolish the night before making the bread.
MIX THE DOUGH
After the poolish has fermented, combine it with the rest of the dough ingredients. Epi bread is a lean dough, meaning it only contains 4 ingredients: water, flour, yeast, and salt.
Start by stirring all of the ingredients together. Once it becomes difficult to stir, go in with a clean hand and start squeezing and massaging the dough all over until all of the flour is hydrated. It will seem like there isn’t enough water at first, but be patient – the dough will come together. Do not add more flour or water. At this point, the dough will look shaggy – do not knead it after all of the flour is hydrated.
THE STRETCH & FOLD
Epi dough is a very wet (high hydration) dough. Because of this, we do not knead the dough (as we do with many other bread doughs). Instead, the dough slowly ferments with a series of brief stretch and folds.
The stretch and fold technique serves three purposes: re-distributes heat within the dough, puts yeast back in contact with its food source, and layers the gluten to build the gluten structure within the dough.
The dough will ferment for 2 hours total, with 3 rounds of brief stretch and folds every 30 minutes. To stretch and fold the dough, lightly dampen your fingers (to avoid dough sticking to them) and pull up on the side of the dough and fold it back down on itself. Turn the bowl 90° and repeat. Do this until you have stretched and folded all 4 sides of the dough. Turn the dough over, cover, and allow it to ferment for 30 more minutes until the next round.
PREPARE THE OVEN
For epi bread, you’ll need a surface to bake the loaves on (a baking stone or baking steel) as well as a surface to create steam. If you do not have a baking stone or baking steel, use a sheet pan turned upside down. Position the baking surface on the middle rack of your oven.
To create steam in the oven, preheat a cast iron pan, roasting pan, or other oven-proof skillet on the very bottom rack. The skillet should be so hot that when you throw ice cubes into it, they immediately start evaporating and create steam. Steam helps with oven spring and the texture of the bread.
Preheat the oven (with the baking surface and skillet inside) for at least 30 minutes before baking so that every part of it is extremely hot.
PRE-SHAPE AND REST THE DOUGH
After the dough has fermented, divide the dough into two equal pieces. Next, pre-shape the dough. Pre-shaping the dough starts creating tension in the dough so that it rises up instead of spreading out while it bakes.
To pre-shape the dough (working one half of dough at a time), pat the dough into a rectangle and pull out on the short sides. Bring the short sides into the center and press with your fingertips to seal. Then bring the long ends into the center and press to seal. Allow the dough to rest for 10 minutes to let the gluten relax before the final shaping.
SHAPE THE DOUGH
After the dough has rested, shape the dough by folding down on the long sides and sealing in the center several times until a tight log forms. Keep your fingers damp while doing this to prevent the dough from sticking.
With the seam side down, roll each log of dough into 14 inch (35 cm) long loaves. Transfer the shaped loaves, seam side down, to a lightly floured lint-free cloth or baker’s couche to rest. Push the cloth up and around each loaf to create folds that will help the dough hold its shape.
LET THE DOUGH RISE
Cover the dough and let rise until about doubled in size. This should take about 45 minutes.
TRANSFER & CUT STALKS
Once the dough has risen, transfer the loaves onto a parchment lined pizza peel, flat un-rimmed baking sheet, or sheet pan turned upside down. This way, you can slide the parchment right onto the hot baking surface.
To transfer the dough, use a baguette board or a small cutting board. I have a small wooden cutting board that I use. Working one loaf at a time, flip the loaf onto the board by pulling up on the towel and flipping it back onto the parchment paper.
Use a clean pair of scissors to cut the dough, starting at the bottom and working your way up. At a 45° angle, cut a piece of the dough about ¾ the way through and lay it to one side. Continue cutting pieces in the dough laying each piece to the opposite side of the one before it. Make sure you do not cut all the way through.
Each cut piece of dough will become an individual roll that can be broken off from the loaf. For larger rolls, aim for about 7-8 pieces per loaf. For smaller rolls, aim for about 10-12 pieces per loaf. Repeat the cutting process for the second loaf.
BAKE THE EPI BREAD
Fill a bowl with about 2 cups of ice cubes and set it near the oven. You will need to work quickly and carefully.
Open the oven and slide the parchment with the loaves onto the preheated surface. Pour the ice cubes into the hot skillet and quickly close the oven door. Bake until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped.
Let the wheat stalks cool on wire racks slightly before serving. As with all fresh bread, these loaves are definitely best enjoyed fresh.
Why is it called Epi Bread?
In French, “Epi” means wheat stalk. While some people think the loaf looks like a tree, it was originally meant to resemble an ear of wheat.
Can I use active dry yeast instead of instant yeast?
I prefer to use instant yeast (also known as quick-rise or rapid rise yeast) for epi bread because it increases oven spring and creates a beautiful texture. However, you can also use active dry yeast with a longer fermentation period – see the notes at the bottom of the recipe.
HOW TO STORE EPI BREAD
Room Temperature: Fresh bread is best enjoyed on the same day it is baked. If you do have leftover epi bread, wrap it tightly in foil and store it at room temperature for up to 2 days.
Freezer: Let the baked epi bread cool completely, then place in a zipper freezer bag and freeze for up to 3 months. If necessary, cut the loaf to fit in the bag. To refresh the frozen loaf, wrap it in aluminum foil and place into the oven at 400°F / 205°C for 6 – 8 minutes until warmed through.
MORE RECIPES FROM BAKER BETTIE!
If you enjoyed this tutorial, you might like to try these other homemade bread recipes.
For the Poolish
- 90 grams (¾ cup) bread flour
- 90 grams (90 milliliters) filtered water, slightly warm (about 90°F/ 32°C)
- ¼ teaspoon instant or quick-rise yeast *see note below
For the Final Dough
- 270 grams (2 ¼ cups) bread flour
- 163 grams (163 milliliters) filtered water, slightly warm (about 90°F/ 32°C)
- ¼ teaspoon instant or quick-rise yeast *see note below
- 1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt
- Make the Poolish: The night before making the epi bread or at least 6 hours before, make the poolish. In a large mixing bowl, combine the bread flour (90 grams/ ¾ cup), warm water (90 grams/ 90 milliliters), and instant yeast (¼ teaspoon). Stir the mixture until all the flour is absorbed.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a shower cap (my preference) and let it stand at room temperature for at least 6 hours, but preferably 8-10 hours.
- Combine the Dough: Add the rest of the ingredients for the baguette dough into the bowl with the poolish this includes the bread flour (270 grams/ 2 ¼ cups), warm water (163 grams/ 163 milliliters), instant yeast (¼ teaspoon), and salt (1 ¼ teaspoons).
- Stir until well combined. It may appear as if there is not enough liquid but as you work it together it will become a sticky dough. Use your hands to pinch the dough together to fully incorporate all of the flour. As soon as all of the flour is hydrated and you have a shaggy dough with no dry spots, cover the bowl with a piece of plastic wrap and let it set at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Stretch and Fold: After the dough has rested for 30 minutes, do a series of three stretch and folds with the dough. With the dough still in the bowl, lightly dampen your hand (this will prevent the dough from sticking) and pull on one side of the dough and stretch it up and then fold it down over the top of the dough. Rotate the bowl 90° and do the same with the next side. Do this again until you have stretched all four sides of the dough up and over on itself. Cover the bowl and let it rest for 30 more minutes. Stretch and fold the dough for the second round. Cover and let rest for 30 more minutes. Stretch and fold for the third round. Cover the dough and let it rest for 30 more minutes. This is a two-hour process from when the dough is mixed to when it is ready to be shaped. Four 30 minute resting periods with three stretch and folds in between.
- Prep the Oven & Other Equipment: During the final resting period, prepare your pans and your oven. Position an oven rack in the very bottom position and another rack in the middle position. Place a cast-iron skillet or another heatproof skillet on the bottom rack. Place a baking stone, baking steel, or a sheet pan turned upside down on the middle rack. Preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C). The oven and pans need to be heating for at least one hour before the bread goes into the oven. Lightly flour a lint-free kitchen towel or baker's couche. This will hold your shaped dough as it rises. Additionally, line a pizza peel or a flat (unrimmed) baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper.
- Pre-Shape & Rest the Dough: Weigh the dough and divide it in two equal pieces with a bench knife (do not tear it). Each piece will be about 305 grams. You can eyeball this if you do not have a scale. On a very lightly floured surface, press one piece of dough into a rectangle and gently stretch the short ends out. Fold each short end into the center and press down with your fingertips to seal. Fold each long end into the center and press with your fingertips to seal, creating a seam in the dough. Set the dough aside and repeat this process with the second piece. Cover the pieces of dough with plastic wrap or kitchen towel and let them rest for 10 minutes.
- Shape into Loaves: With the seam side up, press the first piece of dough into a thin rectangle. Starting at the top left edge, begin folding down the dough about ½ inch (1.5 cm) and sealing it with your fingertips, working your way across the top. Repeat this process, continuing to fold down on the dough and sealing to create a tight log. Once you have a thin, tight log, turn it seam-side down. Using both hands, roll the dough on the countertop, working it into a long thin snake shape. Try to keep the dough as even as possible and work it into about a 14 inch (36 cm) baguette. Move the piece of dough to your prepared towel or baker's couche. Push the towel or couche up on both sides of the baguette to create folds to hold the dough's shape. Repeat this process with the second piece of dough.
- Let the Dough Rise: Cover the pieces of dough with plastic wrap and or kitchen towel let them rest for 45-60 minutes until doubled in size.
- Transfer the Dough & Cut Stalks: Place a baguette board or a cutting board right beside one of the loaves. Gently pull up on the towel to flip the loaf over onto the board. Move it over to the parchment-lined pizza peel or baking sheet. Gently flip it onto the parchment paper, so that the seam side is down. Repeat this to move the second loaf over. Using clean scissors, start at the bottom of the dough and work your way up. At a 45° angle, cut a piece of the dough about ¾ the way through and lay it to one side. Continue cutting pieces of the dough laying each piece to the opposite side of the one before it. Make sure you do not cut all the way through. See the tutorial photos for more clarity. Each piece will become an individual roll that can be broken off from the loaf. For larger rolls aim for about 7-8 pieces per loaf. For smaller rolls, aim for about 10-12 pieces per loaf. Cut pieces into both loaves.
- Bake: Fill a bowl with about 2 cups of ice cubes. Open the oven and carefully slide the whole piece of parchment paper with the epi breads onto the preheated baking stone or sheet pan. Quickly pour the ice cubes into the preheated skillet on the bottom rack and immediately shut the oven door. Turn the oven temperature down to 475°F (246°C). Bake for about 25-40 minutes. It is traditional for epi bread to have a very dark crust. Check them at 25 minutes and decide if you would like a darker crust. Bake for 40 minutes for a dark, almost charred, crust.
- Cool: Allow the loaves to cool before serving. This will completely develop their flavor. Fresh bread loaves are best eaten on the same day.
- Yeast: If using active dry yeast in place of instant or quick-rise yeast, double the amount listed. Also increase the amount of time between each stretch and fold to 45 minutes, for a total of 3 hours of fermentation.
- For best results, use a kitchen scale to measure ingredients.
- When working with this dough, keep your fingers damp to prevent it from sticking. This is a very wet dough - avoid adding more flour to it.
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