So I have been doing quite a bit of bread baking recently. I have been trying in vain to make a perfect loaf of white sandwich bread, the results have been tasty, and have pretty much served their purpose, however, they have not been right. So until I master it, I will keep it under my hat.
My second experiment has been with the famous no-knead bread. I first read about this when Mark Bittman wrote about it in The New York Times. He got the idea, I believe, from Jim Lahey, who has a bakery and a book. I printed out the recipe eons ago, and hadn’t gotten around to giving it a try. Once the sandwich bread started, I was on a tear, and I figured I’d give this one a try as well.
The idea behind no-knead bread is to use very little yeast, and let time do most of the work, which means ideally you need about 24 hours to create your masterpiece, but within that 24 hours, there is only about 15-20 minutes of actual work. You then bake the bread in a covered pot so steam collects and makes the crust beautifully brown and really crispy.
No-knead bread has been done a lot, by a lot of people, and as I was looking to see how it came out for various food bloggers and the like, I came across this article on Culinate that was intriguing. Basically, if you paid a little bit more attention to the dough, you would add about 10 minutes of additional work and lots of delightful holes to the finished crumb. The science behind all this is interesting too, read the article if you get a chance. At any rate, I decided to try it that way.
Really, this bread could not be easier. You start with three cups of flour, I had bread flour so I used it. You add salt, 1/4 teaspoon yeast, and a bit more than 1 1/2 cups of water. Then you stir it up, cover it, and stick it in your bedroom to rise for lots of hours. I suppose you could put it somewhere other than your bedroom, but mine is a sauna, by far the warmest in the house, so I went with it.
Initially the dough is wet and shaggy when you stir it together. It looks like a mess. This is as it should be. I covered it up, and put it away to rise.
I just sat that dough right on the floor in front of the radiator and let it do its thing. I put the dough together at about 9 am. Then, every three hours or so I went in to check on it, and fold it over on itself a couple of times, as they said to do in the Culinate article. Here is what transpired.
Not too impressed, still looking a little shaggy.
By 2:30 it was starting to look like it was doing something. It was puffier at least.
Each of these photos is from before I folded the dough over on itself and punched it down a bit. I also did this at 5:30, but apparently forgot to take a photo, and then totally forgot or ignored the 8:30 shift (it may have been LOST night) so didn’t capture the moment again until 11:30 pm.
That is when I started feeling good about my little experiment. And then I squashed its hopes and dreams by deflating it one more time before bed. The dough and I cohabited in perfect harmony, and I awoke to this:
It was right about this time that I started to think I was going to fail at no-knead bread. It didn’t seem as puffy as it should have been, and the surface wasn’t dotted with bubbles as I had read it would be. There were a few bubbles here and there, but I thought for sure my attempts at a holey crumb had ruined my experiment. But I soldiered forth and punched the air out of the dough with a vengeance, let it sit for a couple of minutes, and then rolled into a loose ball and let it rise for another two hours or so between kitchen towels. Again, I thought this wasn’t going to work out. My dough didn’t really form a ball very well, and after two hours it was supposed to be about double in size, and wasn’t supposed to bounce back if you poked it with a finger. Mine looked like this.
It didn’t exactly bounce back when I poked it, but it wasn’t exactly doubled. I just decided to go with it and see what happened. We had come so far. Incidentally, this was the second time we had reached this point together, my bread dough and me. The last time I did it, the dough met its untimely end when it was smooshed during an evening of revelry. I would like to blame the offender, but I think the real trouble started when I left it to rise for 2 hours and went to a bar for 8. I think it was pretty well gone before the unfortunate incident. There were celebrations to be had, and sometimes that comes with sacrifices.
This time, I had preheated the oven and my dutch oven for an hour at 450 degrees, and I dumped the dough into the pot. It bakes for a half hour with the top on to collect the steam, and then the top comes off and it bakes for another 20 minutes or so to let the loaf get really brown. And oh my gosh did it. Behold.
I practically skipped around the kitchen this was so gorgeous. It was so crusty and such a great color. And it smelled so good. I let it sit on the rack to cool, and I am not sure what was going on, or what the science is behind this, but it sounded like rice krispies as it cooled. It kept crackling. I couldn’t wait for it to cool all the way, so I just went at it. It was unbelievably crusty. Almost too much so. I couldn’t really cut it with my bread knife. I have a crappy bread knife, and I desperately need a new one, but I have never had that experience before. Unbelievable.
Look at the holes! I was so excited (and the light was so lovely, thank you daylight) that I took a lot of photos. Pretty much every time I sliced it. And from every angle.
And then I made a grilled cheese sandwich. And I was happy.
Now, I think next time I am going to add a bit more salt to punch up the flavor. And maybe some herbs or something else. I would like to try olives. Or rosemary. Or olives and rosemary. And I will report back. But in the meantime, if you have some spare time (meaning you are not going away for the weekend or to a bar for 8 hours) and some yeast lying around, give this a try. You will be glad you did.
3 cups bread flour
1 5/8 cups water
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp yeast
Combine flour, salt and yeast in a bowl. Add the water and stir with a spoon until the ingredients come together in a shaggy dough.
Cover the bowl and put aside in a warm place (approximately 70 degrees) to rise. Every couple of hours (I did about every three) fold the dough over on itself a couple of times. This will deflate it. That is okay. I let the bread rise for a total of about 23 hours, and I folded it over on itself four times (accounting for the missed 8:30 fold over, and the time I was sleeping.)
When dough is risen and bubbly, lightly flour a work surface and turn the dough onto it. Fold it over on itself once or twice again, sprinkle with flour and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let sit for 15 minutes.
Using as little flour as possible on your hands and the work surface, shape the dough into a ball. Coat a kitchen towel (not terry cloth) generously with flour and put the ball of dough, seam side down, on the towel. (My dough was not really firm enough to form a ball, per se. There was definitely not a seam. But I just put the “bottom” as I gathered together onto the towel.) Dust the dough with more flour or cornmeal, and cover it with another kitchen towel and let it rise for 2 hours. When it is ready, the dough will be more than doubled in size (I don’t really think mine was) and will not spring back when poked with a finger (this was pretty much true.)
As the dough is rising – a half hour to an hour before it will be ready – preheat oven to 450 and put a 6-8 quart heavy covered pot in the oven as it heats. I used my cast iron and enamel dutch oven. A ceramic or pyrex pot would work as well. When the dough is ready, remove the pot from the oven. Slide your hand under the dough and turn it over into the pot. It is okay if it looks like a mess. (I had a little stickage, so I pulled the stuck dough off the towel and pressed it onto the loaf in the pot. I thought it would incorporate, it didn’t really, hence the craggy crusty rock like formation on the top of my loaf.) Cover the pot with the lid and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid, your loaf will be just starting to brown. Cook for another 15-30 minutes (mine took 20) until the loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack. Enjoy!