Thursday, 17 February 2011

Hermitcraft: Hermit Bread

(UPDATE: If you landed here looking for the recipe for Scottish Oat Bannocks, it's here. Gasshō.)

This is hermit bread. It's a sourdough recipe with ancient antecedents, among them the skillet bread dear to my Old Settler ancestors; Canadian bannock; Scottish scones; Australian damper; focaccia; and even pizza. (Pizza was originally soldier bread, baked by the campfire by Roman legionnaires. They took to topping it with whatever they could find, so as to add a bit of variety to their dinners. Eventually the toppings got more limelight than the bread, and the rest is pizza.)

All you need to bake hermit bread is a sufficient heat source. It's easiest in a proper oven, but can be made on a range, near a fire, or in a fire. It's the oldest part of my monastic routine, actually predating my vows by several years. This is the food I take on the road, and what I grab when I'm hungry and need something now. It has become as sustaining to my morale as to my body, a physical manifestation of my vows.

As ever with monastic practices, each stage and feature of the production of this stuff has taken on Deep Meaning over the years. The pre-cut pieces emphasise the fact that it's sojourner bread ("Incola ego sum apud te in terra / Et peregrinus sicut omnes patres mei" Psalm 38, verse 15). They also honour my Scottish forebears. I could also find great Buddhist significance in the number 8, but one has to keep a close eye on one's compulsive Zen tendencies. So for the time being, it just reminds me of the Union Jack. Rule Britannia.

Hermit bread is also hands-down the most popular part of my practice with my friends. I once baked it for an old high school classmate who was visiting with her children. When she asked what it was, I said, "It's just monk bread." Today, fresh-baked "monkey bread" has become one of her kids' favourite treats.

Nothing boosts a sagging spirit like hot hermit bread and tea. For all that, it's ridiculously basic, and easy to make. And it still rolls out a great pizza dough.


2 cups sourdough starter.
About 2 cups flour
1 tablespoon oil
Flour for kneading
1 tsp soda mixed with 1/4 cup flour

Liberally oil a 10-inch cast iron skillet. (Number 8, in traditional sizes. You can use a cake pan or cookie sheet, but cast iron gives the best results.)

In a large bowl, beat the flour into the starter with a wooden spoon. Switch to a butter knife when it gets too stiff to stir and continue cutting in flour until the dough balls easily and is almost dry enough to knead.

Cut the flour and soda mixture into the dough, then knead it thoroughly in the bowl, adding any flour necessary to prevent the dough from sticking to the bowl or your hands.

Pat the ball flat, place it in the skillet, and pat it down some more until the edges touch the sides. Turn the skillet upside down, catch the dough as it falls out, and put it back in upside down, greased side up.

Poke the handle of the wooden spoon into the dough systematically, all the way to the pan, until the loaf is well-dimpled. Then cut it into eight pieces.

Cover the skillet and leave the dough to work, 30 minutes minimum. (An hour is even better.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. When the dough has worked, uncover and bake it in the middle of the oven for 15 - 20 minutes, or until lightly browned on top and dry in the middle.

When done, unpan the loaf or flip it upside down in the skillet to let it cool and harden up for a few minutes. Eat as-is or with any topping. (Butter, jam, herbed oil, sugared berries, etc.)

Traditional baking methods:

Place the skillet over slow coals until the bottom of the loaf is browned. Prop the pan up near a hotter part of the fire to brown the top, or flip the loaf, return the skillet to the coals, and brown the top that way. (Same procedure for range-top baking.)

Or flour the ball and smack it onto a clean rock at the fire's edge, turning to bake evenly.

Or place the ball in a Dutch oven and bury it in the coals.

Or drop the dough ball directly in the coals and bury it. (Works in wood stoves and fireplaces, too.)

Or roll the dough into a rope, wind it around a stick, and toast it over the coals.

You can 'wave a chunk of cold hermit bread for 30 seconds and it'll taste like it just came out of the oven. (Split the piece first and reassemble it before warming; it will be too soft to work afterward.) You can also reheat it on a plate in a covered skillet, with a little water added to make steam.


  1. I can vouch for your recipe! It's great! Now if I could just figure out how to make it gluten-free with the same consistency...Linnea

  2. Well, gluten (wheat) is the definition of bread, so you can't make bread without it. But there are a lot of bread-like things that don't call for wheat. Best of luck with your experiments; there must be something out there you can feed your sourdough pot with.

  3. Nice Heritage Recipe. I posted a link to my blog @ Heritage Food Network. Some requested a recipe for Hermit Bread and in doing research for that, I found yours to be the best and the background on it is exactly what Heritage Food Network is all about. Thanks for posting this!
    Chef Monty Austin

  4. Thanks, Monty! It really is a "heritage" recipe. My heritage, for starters. I've found this bread all over the world. In the Australian outback, for example, it's called "damper", but made exactly the same way.

  5. We made bannock bread way back in grade 1 I think it was. It might have been slightly different, though, as I don't think it had the sourdough starter. We cooked in on the stove top. I still remember it tasting really good!

  6. Bannock bread these days is usually made with baking powder, relieving Canadian outdoorsmen of the need to maintain and carry a sourdough pot. Same with Australian damper. But the old way (which hermit bread essentially is) has a lot more flavour, and is more nutritious.

    Interesting side note: when baking powder first became available at the turn of the 20th century, there was a rumour among country folk that it was reverse Viagra, and he-men refused to touch the stuff. Into my childhood, "you baking-powder-eating sonuvabitch!" was still sometimes heard in accusations of weakness or cowardice.

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  8. How's that sourdough starter keep with no fridge?

    Deeply inspired,

  9. Hi Aj!

    Sourdough starter isn't generally refrigerated. The exception is when you "put it to bed", i.e., when you won't be able to use it for awhile, in which case you can feed it, wait overnight, and then put it in the fridge. It'll keep for a few weeks like that, but it won't prosper. I also refrigerate mine in very hot weather, when it works too fast for me to keep up with. Normally I use my pot 1 to 2 times a week, which is enough to keep it healthy at room temperature.

  10. Please help me with sourdough starter. I have tried twice recently to start one and within two days it smells AWFUL. Definitely not like sourdough; more like my teenage son's closet. What is your recipe and process for starting one?

  11. By golly, Cyn, you commented just in time. I've been meaning to do a blog post on that. So I'll upload it tomorrow.

    In the meantime, I can think of two possible issues you might be having: 1. Somehow your starter is getting infected, in which case you should eliminate possible sources of invasion (bad water, dirty utensils, whatever else you can think of that it might be). Microbial invasion usually has an off colour as well, normally red or grey.

    Or, 2. Is it possible that the smell of sourdough starter just _is_ bad to your nose? Some people just don't like it. It can be kind of a spoiled-cheese, sweat sock smell to some noses. I love the smell of a healthy starter, but I know others who don't.

    Anyway, watch this space. I'll go live with that tomorrow.


  12. Thank you, Robin. I have been distracted and haven't checked for your response until today. (I did see the recent post on proper procedure. Thank you for that too!)

    #1: Yes, my stinky starter was a sickly grey color, not that healthy creamy tan color. I hadn't thought to sterilize the container and spoon right before mixing. I just pulled them out of the cabinet where they had been for a while since they were last washed.

    And in answer to the #2 point: I absolutely love the smell and taste of sourdough. There's something deeply comforting and calming in that yeasty, slightly acidic smell.

  13. Be aware, Cyn, that a new potato water starter will be in fact be a bit greyish for the first week or so; that's the potato starch. And it may not smell "good" per se during that time, but it shouldn't smell bad, either. At any rate, once you've used it once and re-fed it, it should look and smell like any other starter. Let me know if you have any further problems.


  14. Love cooking in cast iron and I'm going to have to try your bread recipe. I'd also like to try it inside my woodstove. I've been doing baked potatoes in the woodstove and they are wonderful.

  15. Agreed on all points. Cast iron is absolutely the best cookware, in most every sense.


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