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Sunday, January 30, 2011

No-knead bread: our take on a new classic

By Chris Siciliano

My first loaf ever
Since learning the ins and outs of no-knead bread, I’ve become for this recipe a kind of unofficial ambassador, exclaiming its exceptional flavor, simplicity and ease to anyone who will listen.  I don’t know how many people I’ve turned on to no-knead bread (or tried to).  More than a few anyway.  As such, I’m old hat by now in my explanation of the method, describing who knows how often the ways and means of making really wonderful bread without a lot of work.

If you’ve never heard of it, the no-knead method was developed by New York baker Jim Lahey as a way to make extraordinary, rustic bread with a true economy of effort.  It takes time, yes, but little actual labor. You, the baker, simply combine the ingredients in the right-sized bowl, mix (don't knead) until well incorporated, cover with saran wrap, then leave alone for 12 to 18 hours, during which time you’re free to go about your daily business. Go to work. Go to sleep.  Reinvent the wheel. Whatever. Meanwhile, all sorts of delicious reactions and chain reactions and fermentation will happen in the dough. Briefly (and unscientifically), starch becomes sugar becomes food for yeast becomes flavor for you. CO2 is produced and trapped by the developing network of gluten, thereby giving volume and strength to your previously underwhelming bowl of goo. After eighteen hours: shape, let rise, bake (in a preheated Dutch oven or cast-iron pot).  Simple. Efficient. Easy.

Far be it from me to presume I could improve upon a recipe such as this. I could not. Rather, my goal here is to compile the resources that I’ve found in the past two years—videos and how-to pages tracked down on Youtube and the wider net. These are the resources from which I learned this method and, as a result, the same resources to which I have often directed my friends and family. Watch the videos, read the directions, follow the tips (a few of my own included). You’ll be making wonderful bread in no time.  Questions or suggestions? Please let me know.

Two Dutch-ovens, two finished loaves, same amount of work

·        This first link (here) is to the original NY Times article in which food columnist Mark Bittman helps Lahey introduce to the world his revolutionary No-Knead bread method. (For just the video, go here.)

·        Go here for the recipe as spelled out by the NY Times. The actual numbers, directions, and such.  Go here for some additional thoughts from Mark Bittman about no-knead bread.

·        Go here for an excellent demonstration of the No-Knead method produced by the fine folks over at Breadtopia.com. You’ll find breadtopia.com a fantastic resource for baking in general. I really like what they do there.

·        Jim Lahey released his first cookbook, My Bread, not too long ago. I own it and like it. There are some interesting variations on the standard no-knead formula, including, of all things, a recipe for peanut butter and jelly bread.

A beauty.
Doubtless there are other fine resources available if only you go looking for them. But these few links are enough to get you started.  In fact, if it’s just the basics you’re after, these links are probably all you’ll ever need. For what it’s worth, I include below a few tips of my own, developed from my experience and humbly submitted for your approval.

Tip #1: Pay careful attention to the videos in particular, as these will show you how to handle such a sticky dough. Above all, don't get frustrated if at first the very, very wet dough seems too hard to handle. You'll get the hang of it eventually, and so long as you somehow get the blob into the cast-iron pot, the bread will taste great!

Tip #2: I adjusted the recipe slightly and the adjustments seem to work well for me. I use about one pound of flour and twelve ounces of water (454 grams flour, 336 grams H20), a slight increase from the given recipe. Also, I'm locked in at about 2 teaspoons of KOSHER salt, maybe 2.5 teaspoons if you like saltier bread, 1.5 or less if you're watching your sodium intake. Keep in mind that Kosher salt has hollow crystals and therefore takes up more space than regular table salt (less salt overall to the average teaspoon). This is to say, if you use regular table salt, you'll want to back off slightly on the total amount. Anyway, just experiment. If you weigh out your ingredients with a scale—by far the best option—disregard everything written about salt and teaspoons. Just use 8-12 grams salt/loaf, depending on taste, regardless if it's kosher, sea, or table salt. (Editor's note: My current preference is for exactly 11 grams of salt per loaf of no-knead bread.)

Tip #3: The trickiest part about this bread is transferring the dough from the cotton towel in which it rises to the cast-iron pot or dutch oven in which it bakes. You may want to forget the towel completely and use parchment paper as a substitute. It’s what I do.  Since parchment paper can withstand high oven temps it can go directly into the pot with your dough, making the whole process that much easier. (For a discussion on parchment and higher oven temps, go here.) 

The process for substituting parchment is as follows: Once your dough has fermented for 12-18 hours, and after you form the dough into a ball, simply plop it down on a square of parchment and then cover with a big mixing bowl to keep away the drafts and dust. When the dough has finished rising, drop the whole shebang, parchment and all, into your preheated pot. Simple as can be.

Tip #4: If you opt to go the parchment route, you can make your bread more aesthetically pleasing by sprinkling flour over top the fully-risen dough.  Again, it’s what I do.  Sprinkle liberally, then, just before dropping the dough into the pot, score the loaf in a pattern of your choosing. This is to say, use a razor blade, a really sharp knife, or even a serrated tomato knife to make slashes on the dough’s surface about a quarter or half-an-inch deep.  As the bread bakes, the slashes will open and spread and crust-up to pleasing effect. Until you get the feel for it, scoring or slashing can seem difficult, especially with dough as wet as this. But rest assured, poor scoring has no effect whatsoever on flavor.  Anyway, if it tastes good, who cares how weird it looks.

Baked feta in olive oil, sliced no-knead

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