Bread, yum! It’s been a while so today I finally decided to make some and I’ll comment on the process. Can you smell it?! Nothing better. Yet so simple to make as I’ll explain, even for an incompetent baker like me. You can probably find thousands of posts on bread but here’s my twist on it.
For much of my adult life I wanted to bake bread. I like good bread and when I lived in the Bay Area it was easy to find. But here in the heartland peoples’ tastes are different and bread, even from bakeries, is not to my liking. So I had the incentive to try baking again.
Now for someone who’d never baked a single loaf of bread I had a huge library of cookbooks on the subject. I kept telling people I wanted to bake and naturally that interest became a gift items, even some of the specialized cookware came my way. But no attempt. Why? Well the more books you have the more mysterious and difficult the process seemed. Too many complex things to get right, no easy way (other than a bread machine) to start.
Then I saw a Mark Bittman article in the NYT about Jim Lahey’s No-Knead bread making technique. Lahey’s book, My Bread, quickly joined the other books on the shelf but this time I actually tried doing it. The results were amazing, bread I made on first try, almost as good as the best I’ve ever had. That success got me over the hump and now I’ve tried all sorts of breads and recipes. It’s not as hard as it seems, but most books somehow want to create all these mystery and mystique rather than inviting the novice in.
There are basically two tricks to Lahey’s approach:
- slow fermentation (that’s right, we’re making some booze when we make bread)
- high temperature sealed baking
Now while my oven is heating up to 475F and my loaf is resting, I’ll try my hand at explaining these two things.
Bread, at least leavened types, needs CO2 produced by the micro-organism yeast to rise and more importantly produce all those irregularly shaped holes one sees in artisanal breads. Yeasts eat sugars in the dough, burp out CO2, pee out ethanol, excrete some other wastes (some tasty, some not) and reproduce like crazy. Normally in making bread people are in a hurry and so use enough yeast in the dough so it only takes a few hours for the buggies to go through the cycles. That works, but doesn’t make very good bread because yeast alone is somewhat bland.
But there are some other buggies naturally occurring in your flour beside the yeast you add. And they’re hungry too, when they get activated by the water, and they munch on some of the sugars and they produce waste products, including themselves since the baking heat turns them into crispy critters. So it’s a whole zoo in that dough but the yeasties are the big dog on the block and mostly suppress the other buggies. That’s Lahey’s trick – give those other buggies a head start by delaying the takeover of the neighborhood by the yeast.
So instead of using the typical 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast (the typical little packets you buy) you use only 1/4 teaspoon. That means it will take the yeast a few more generations before they take over the place and thus the other buggies get a chance to secrete their waste (that’s the good taste and complex flavors into your dough, even though it sounds icky). When those other buggies are a particular species, this is known as the wonderful delight, San Francisco sourdough. Yep, those other buggies are souring up your dough. But with the right balance of buggies and amount of time the effect is good (too much fermentation and you have awful bread, too little you get bland, and flat!).
So that’s the first trick, the reduced amount of yeast and slow fermentation. You might think slower fermentation is a bother, but the cool part is it is so slow you can whip up the dough the night before you want to bake and then bake sometime in the afternoon, not really a delay at all.
Now the Lahey formula also avoids all the kneading. For me that is a minor thing, I kinda enjoy the kneading, but for a lot of people it is a selling point. But the cool part is the dough making step is very quick and doesn’t require a good mixer and dough hook or lots of upper body muscles. I can now make the dough in under five minutes. But, note, mix the dry ingredients very well before adding the water since there is so little yeast in there. And the salt – you can reduce it a little if it spooks you, but some salt is needed for the bread to hold its texture. Cut your sodium intake somewhere else, if you’re going to eat bread at all it should be good bread.
Extra trick: Get the King Arthur Dough Whisk. It’s a weird looking thing that works really well and is really quick to clean up. It’s not required but it is convenient.
Now the baking. These is the other trick and where a vitally important piece of cookware comes in, the clay baker. Bakeries have very fancy steam-injecting ovens and home bakers go through a lot of trouble trying to replicate these (or you can just be rich and have a baker’s oven built into your McMansion). This is a pain and the instructions in all those books can be tedious and this scares off novices and the blast of steam when you spray your oven can actually be dangerous. The baker solves all that.
High baking temperature is critical for good crust. But if the crust forms too quickly (duh, the outside of your loaf gets hot first) it becomes rigid and while the yeasties haven’t yet still be fried you’ve got all that CO2 in your loaf. If you get a crust too soon you’ll get small and uniform holes, fine for sandwich bread, but not to imitate good sourdough. Now the outside of the bread has to delay getting its crust. That’s what the steam does in the bakers’ ovens. And that’s what the ceramic baker does, esp. when wetted before pre-heating. Lahey’s formula involves baking part of the cycle with the lid on (while the bread is still rising) and part of the time while the lid is off (when the crust is getting nice and brown and chewy). Note: adjust the second phase of baking too your liking, i.e. how brown you want the crust to be.
His round loaf, the first one I tried, calls for a round pot with ceramic lining and heavy lid. That worked and hooked me on baking but it wasn’t my favorite. So I switched to the King Arthur loaf baker to make the recipe Lahey calls stirato. This is a versatile shape and has a good ratio of crust to big-holed interior.
Now here’s another vital hint. Get either a welder’s glove or a silicone glove because there is a dangerous part. You see you pre-heat the baker to 475F and the only way you’re going to get your dough in their is take that baker out, quickly toss in the dough, put on the lid, and put the whole thing in the oven; and later in the baking you’ll have to remove the lid. 475F is very hot and without substantial protection your poor little fingees are going to get turned into painful crispy critters. I use two silicone gloves and still cringe every time I handle the hot baker, but I’ve never been burnt yet.
Now actually I’ve been writing this post during the preheating and final loaf rise (see how little work the bread making really is, a lot of waiting, but not much doing), so I think I’ll go get the baking done, save this draft, and then come back and pop a quick picture of my prize in the post. Later – lid is off, smell is wonderful, I’m drooling.
Hint: Everyone’s oven is a bit different so you may have to adjust the times. This recipe is so easy I’ve done it so many times I have my own formula (also my own preference, Jim likes really crusty and almost-burnt crust, I prefer a little lighter – this is the fun part, do it your own way). So I use 17 minutes covered and 12-15 minutes uncovered (with heat turned down to 400F although my oven cools very slowly so there probably isn’t much difference between off and 400F, but just in case, I don’t want it too cool).
btw: Most baking books call for using unbleached bread flour (high gluten). I actually found bleached or unbleached are indistinguishable and there is just slightly better crumb (the internal texture) with bread flour. But, one critical requirement for an ingredient that matters is do not use tap water. It has just a bit of chlorine left and that kills the buggies you’re trying to grow. We don’t use any fancy water, just plain old tap water we buy in bulk from a plant to does reverse osmosis and so cleans up the water a little, esp. the chlorine; so any cheap but clean water will do. And as for the yeast, active dry seems a little better than instant, but basically that doesn’t matter either. The Lahey approach is so foolproof you’ll get a good result with almost anything you do as long as you do the critical steps right (long fermentation, high temp in a baker). I also add “dough enhancer”, a natural preservative available many places online. Home-baked bread goes stale fast (not a problem since we usually gobble it down before it can go stale) so the dough enhancer helps.
Bulk: If you get sold like I did you can buy flour and yeast in bulk. The yeast goes in the freezer and quickly saves money over the packets. We actually get 25lb bags from Costco. So the electricity to bake the bread probably costs more than the ingredients and you probably can’t even buy a single roll at Whole Foods for what a whole loaf costs.
p.s. Down on white flour? Well Lahey’s book has other recipes with similar approach but different flours. I’m not that keen on rye but the results were great (now if I could just find some really great pastrami).