Sunday, August 24, 2008

No need for no knead

It's once again time to bake some bread and I was planning on giving my standard no-knead recipe another try despite its reliably good-but-not-great results. But before I started I fell into rumination--why am I using this recipe? am I really that afraid of kneading? Well, yes I am. I've been traumatized by too many awful results any time I try to work with yeast whether baking or brewing. On the other hand, I do own a mixer with a bread hook so maybe there's another way.

As I see it, there are three benefits from the no-knead recipe. Most obviously, the lack of kneading means you can't get that part wrong. Second, the long rest lets the dough's flavor develop some complexity. And third, baking in an enclosed vessel contains steam and gives the bread a lovely crisp crust.

That third is entirely ancillary to the not-kneading bit and can be done with any recipe if you don't mind one big freeform loaf. It's not really much of an innovation to jump from the traditional French cloche to the dutch oven more common in American non-baking kitchens. My dutch oven has plastic handles that can't take the heat so I use a clay cooker. I don't know how much of my not-great results that's responsible for so I'm going to deal with that later and concern myself with the kneading today.

The traditional way to develop flavors in dough is to mix a portion of the recipe's flour with all of its water and the yeast and let it sit for 8 hours or more. In it's simplest form it's called a sponge. Saturday mixed 1 1/2 cups of bread flour, 1/4 cup of rye flour, 2 1/2 teaspoons of yeast and 1 1/4 cups water and let it sit for a while.

The next morning, I added another 1 1/2 cups of bread flour, 1/4 cup of rye and 1 Tablespoon of kosher salt. Then I attached the dough hook and let it go at it on a medium-low speed. My judgment of these matters is suspect at best but the dough seemed too wet and sticky so I added a Tablespoon of flour and then another. And a few extra minutes of machine kneading to compensate for the pauses while I fretfully peered and poked into the mixing bowl attempting to judge appropriate moisture content.

And it turns out I judged correctly, as after I scraped the dough out of the bowl and onto a floured cutting board it formed a tight elastic ball with no trouble. About a quarter cup of dough stuck to the bowl. I'm saving that to put into the next batch of bread for some extra flavor.

There's a lot of yeast in there so it took only a half hour to double in size. I punched it down, rerolled it, turned on the oven to preheat, and let it sit for a second half hour to reinflate.

After that I followed the standard no-knead baking method. I dumped the dough into the pre-heated clay cooker--and please note that it didn't stick or wilt on contact as my doughs often do--turned the heat down from 500 to 425 degrees, closed the cooker, gave it a half hour in the oven, removed the lid and finished with another half hour.

Here's the result:

I'm not sure it got quite up to 210 degrees inside as I don't trust my thermometer at the top end of its scale, but the top was beginning to burn so it was coming out anyway. Those are sesame seeds I sprinkled on top, but the dough wasn't sticky enough for them to stay there long.

And here's it sliced open:

The crumb's pretty dense but there are uneven bubbles, some quite large; that's good. Fairly thick crisp crust; not as good as the no-knead recipe gave, but not bad. An intense flavor with both the rye and the aging giving a bit of sourness. And it's got a substantial firm chew without toughness. Overall, a darn good loaf of bread. I think I've found my new standard method.


kat said...

looks pretty darn good there! i use a no knead recipe too all the time these days but the artisan bread in 5 minutes a day version, maybe i should try kneading again.

billjac said...

I've been curious about the 5-minutes-a-day style of baking. I've heard both good and bad reviews and I've got the impression that how it works depends on your particular oven, refrigerator and regional microflora.

In my past bread-making ventures I've aged portions of dough and I found the flavors moving from rustic to funky as it waited for me to get around to making another loaf. And when it didn't it gave the same flavor every time and I do like variety. For me it's better to have a fresh start each time. The calculation may come out differently for you, though.