Flour, salt, yeast, water, and
I’m in my third week of attempting to make good bread. I’ve always enjoyed crusty bread, but I’ve never found the price of five dollars for a boule to be particularly attractive, so I rarely buy it.
Elizabeth suggested trying a recipe that inspired many food bloggers a few years ago: Jim Lahey’s “No Knead Bread” featured in Mark Bittman’s column in The New York Times. The recipe became so popular that publishers perceived a demand for a book, so Lahey wrote My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method to further explain his method and offer variations. Both Lahey and Bittman emphasize that the process is so simple that a child could make it happen, although I don’t think my mom ever would have trusted me to drop dough into a 450° F stock pot and put it back inside an oven. Sometimes I wonder why anyone would trust me to do that now.
My first effort was not completely successful, nor was my second, but the third was just right. I was skeptical that I could make a loaf of bread worthy of an artisan bakery, but lo and behold, it’s not only possible, but has quickly become one of my new favorite breads. Not only does it look amazing and have a satisfying, crackling crust, it’s also pretty tasty. Now, it’s not the best, most flavorful bread ever, but it does have a faint sourdough flavor of which I am quite fond (on account of the lengthy fermentation period) and it’s fantastic for dipping in soup, olive oil, or as sandwich bread.
The basic recipe is stunningly simple: three cups of bread flour, one and a half cups of water, one and a quarter teaspoon of salt, and a quarter teaspoon of yeast are briskly mixed together in a bowl and then left alone overnight: at least 12 hours, but extra time does seem to yield better results. While the original recipe calls for 1 and 5/8 cups of water, the video on the Web site and also the recipes I found on several other blogs all called for one and a half cups, and indeed that seemed to work well. After the lengthy first rise, the dough is rolled into a ball, allowed to rise again, and then baked in a pot inside of a conventional oven at 450° F. This creates a “fake oven,” as Lahey refers to it in the aforementioned video, meaning that it simulates the steam-injected ovens found in professional bakeries. The moisture of the dough is trapped within the pot and circulates throughout, ensuring a crisp crust.
Note: the recipes I follow are at the end of the post!
For my first few loaves I used Elizabeth’s hard-anodized, eight-quart stock pot. The current thinking is that anywhere from three to five quarts is just about “right” for No Knead Bread. (The original recipe called for a six to eight quart pot.) Combined with our concern that such high temperatures for an hour and fifteen minutes might deteriorate the non-stick coating, I purchased a Lodge five-quart cast iron Dutch oven on Amazon.
However, the sticking point to this bread–literally–is not the equipment needed, but the second rise of the dough. After a few attempts, I believe I’ve found an effective alternative to the original recipe. I offer you my experiences with this bread so that you can learn from my mistakes and quickly get to the point: great bread at a great price with relatively little effort.
Post continues after the jump!
The first time I made the dough, I followed the suggestion of Steamy Kitchen and substituted a half cup of whole wheat flour. I only allowed the dough to ferment for 12 hours, and the resulting dough turned out to be far too watery. However, it was the first time I’d ever made it, and I knew it was supposed to be a very moist dough, so I forged onward. I’m sure that I mis-measured the water, but the shorthand is that if you can’t fold the dough over on itself to make a ball because it’s too goopy and sticky, add some more flour.
Unfortunately, the problems didn’t end there: the recipe calls for allowing the dough to rise a second time for two hours while wrapped in a well-floured dish towel. Note that should you choose to use a towel, do not use one made of terry cloth. The result is that the dough does not fall out of the towel, but rather it’s like the dough realizes that the intention is to deposit it into a 450° F Dutch oven, so it clings to the towel for dear life. I spent far too long trying to pick off the dough from the towel and add it to the clump of dough in the stock pot, and ultimately gave up and baked what I had. The result was almost a flatbread, but it was surprisingly tasty for a cooking failure. So I decided to try again.
Regrouping for Round Two:
The second time around I knew that I needed to use a completely different dish towel for the second rise. I used a plain cotton towel with a fairly smooth texture and–so I thought–thoroughly floured it. In hindsight, when I look at the video of Lahey demonstrating for Bittman how he flours the towel, I think I used too little flour and made the mistake of trying to “pat” the flour into the towel. If this is the method you want to try, I’d suggest making a mound of flour on the towel. Be sure to dust the top of the dough with flour as well before wrapping it up.
The resulting loaf was definitely taller than the first effort at No Knead Bread, but I still lost a good amount of dough in the transfer from towel to stock pot. The bread tasted great despite looking a touch demented! However, it still wasn’t large enough to use for a sandwich, so this bread, too, served as a vehicle for butter, olive oil, or other toppings. Normally, if I fail twice in a row to faithfully reproduce a recipe, I give up. But these failures had good flavor, they just looked a bit silly. I decided that for the next (and in the event of failure, final) trial I would circumvent the towel altogether, and look into a way to encourage the dough to remain in a ball during its second rise.
Third Attempt: A Success!
I looked through our cupboards and decided to liberally spray my Oxo 1.5-quart mixing bowl with canola oil and then coat the bowl in a mix of white corn meal and all-purpose flour. I then built an entire layer of flour on the bottom before dropping my shaped ball of dough (seam side down) into the bowl. I then added lots more flour on top, being sure to add some between the side of the bowl and the ball of dough. When it came time to drop this into the stock pot, I inverted it and my heart dropped for a moment as the dough remained suspended in the air in defiance of gravity. Suddenly, and without warning, the dough released in one piece and landed into the pot with a satisfying thunk. Success was finally mine, and the loaf was tall enough that we used it for sandwiches for a couple of days!
There are two recipes I’ve made successfully, and I’m offering them below. The first is adapted from the original recipe from the New York Times in 2006. The second, fuller loaf is from Mark Bittman’s Web site. However, I’m beginning to think of them as starting points; as many other bloggers have already written, it’s easy to substitute some of the bread flour for wheat flour, or even some sourdough starter. But for a reliable platform, start with either of these, the principle difference being size: for one, the smaller loaf is perfect. For two people, the slightly “fuller” boule is better, especially for sandwiches!
|Regular Loaf||Ingredient||Fuller Loaf|
|3 cups||Bread Flour||4 cups|
|1 ¼ tsp.||Salt||2 tsp.|
|¼ tsp.||Instant Yeast||scant ½ tsp.|
|1 ½ cups @ room temperature||Water||2 cups @ 70° F|
Measure the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and stir them together so they’re well-distributed. Add the water, pouring around the sides of the bowl, and then stir until mixed together–about a minute. The dough will be “shaggy” and wet–be sure to mix in any dry flour that may be stuck on the bottom or sides of the mixing bowl. Seal the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for about 18 hours. Since it’s early March in North Carolina, I’ve been setting the oven to “warm” for 2 minutes while I mix the dough together and then placing the bowl inside for its first rise.
After its first rise, the surface of the dough will covered with little bubbles. Because the “towel method” utterly failed me, I suggest you find a small-ish mixing bowl (1.5 to 2 quarts) and spray it with canola or olive oil. Spring the surface with corn meal, all-purpose flour, wheat bran, semolina flour, etc. and also make sure there’s a decent layer of flour on the bottom of the bowl. In preparation for the second rise, turn the oven back to “warm” and flour a work surface and pour the (extremely stretchy) dough out of the bowl. Use a spatula to get errant bits of the wet, sticky dough. With well-floured hands, quickly fold the dough into a ball. Drop the ball of dough, seam-side down, into the oiled and floured bowl and then cover the top and sides with flour. Turn off the oven and place the bowl of dough, covered with a dish towel, inside. Set a timer for an hour and a half.
When the timer goes off, take the dough out of the oven and set on the stove top. Place your pot /Dutch oven (cast iron, enamel, ceramic, Pyrex, etc.) inside with the lid on and set the oven for 450° F and then reset your timer for 30 minutes. The “fake oven” needs that time to get heated up for the dough. Note that you do not need to oil the pot.
After 30 minutes, carefully pull out the pot and open the lid. Stand back as a cloud of steam will rise upwards very quickly! Uncover the dough and invert it over the awaiting pot: after a moment of defying gravity, it should come crashing down with a thud. Give the pot a shake to center the dough within, cover with the lid, and set back inside the oven for 30 minutes. After a half hour, remove the lid and continue baking an additional 15-20 minutes (you want the crust to be a golden brown). Remove the bread from the pot with a spatula or tongs and allow to cool a rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing into it. You’ll be amazed!