Friday, December 06, 2013

No-Knead Bread

Jim Lahey opened the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York in 1994. In 2006, Mark Bittman in the New York Times did a story (with video, no less) about his revolutionary no-knead approach to bread making.

I'll let you watch him discuss it, but the basics of the technique are simple: rather than kneading (by hand or machine) the dough to create gluten (the stringy, gluey protein founds in wheat), you can create long, thick strings of gluten by simply leaving the dough out to rise for a significant amount of time (12-18 hours). Obviously, you're trading time and planning for the strength of your arms, but I've found the results to be nothing less than amazing.

Of course, Lahey wasn't done. Not only did he publicize his near-effortless (seriously, go type "7 year old makes bread" into YouTube) recipe for the bread, but his ingenious technique for baking it in a cast iron dutch oven, rather than a regular oven.

In order to get the hard, crispy crust that you find in expensive artisinal bread (think Europe or Whole Foods), you need a moist, steam-laiden environment for the bread to bake in. Previously, there were only two ways to do so: either buy a commercial-grade oven with mist-injectors (incredibly expensive), or try some technique involving pans of water in your oven (rarely, if ever, effective). However, the use of the dutch oven finally allows you quality results without the high price--it holds in the steam released by the dough itself during baking, and gives you an amazing crust.

I had tried the basic recipe a number of time, and then received a copy of Lahey's "My Bread" for Christmas a few years ago.

He includes the basic recipe, as well as a few simple variations before getting into some more interesting stuff (I'll definitely have another post up about his amazing pizza). Somehow we ended up referring to the whole wheat recipe as "Abby Bread," and the rye as "Michael Bread." Still not sure what Amelia's is going to be, but we have time. Not only is this a great recipe, but you're only limited by the size of your oven:


bread flour - 300 grams
rye flour - 100 grams
table salt - 8 grams
active dry yeast - 1/2 tsp
cool (55 - 65 degrees F) water - 330 grams


1. In a medium bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours. 

This stuff will be sticky--be warned. Gloves are good; otherwise, I'd really recommend a wooden spoon or the like to mix it up. Lahey's original recipe calls for just 300 grams of water, but I found my own doughs coming out too dry for that. 

2. When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out in one big piece. Using lightly-floured hands or a bowl scraper, lift the edges of the dough in towards the center. Nudge and tuck at the edges to make it round. 

More stickiness--I'd recommend using the thinnest-edged scraper or spatula you have. You really want to try and keep the dough together and separating it from the bowl. Be sure that the surface is generously dusted with flour--otherwise the dough will stick to it and will be a pain to handle. 

3. Place a tea towel on the work surface and generously dust with rye flour. Gently place the dough on the towel, seam side down. If the dough is tacky (which it shouldn't be), dust the top lightly with rye flour. Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 - 2 hours. 

Don't make it too tight--you're trying to keep it moist while it rises, not wrapping up a packet of lembas bread for Merry and Pippin. If you make it too tight, it won't properly rise. 

4. Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with a rack in the lower third, and place a covered dutch oven in the center of the rack. 

As strange as this may sound, make sure that your dutch oven can handle the temperature. I have an older-model Lodge Logic with a plastic knob that can't go above 450 (I believe), so I unscrew it before making this bread. I cannot emphasize this enough: do not skip this step in the process. If you put the bread into a cold dutch oven and then into a hot oven, the bread won't have time to rise before the outside it set, and you'll end up with a thin, flat, dense disc of dough--not what we're looking for here. 

Also, this is one of those times that you're going to be glad that you invested in a second oven thermometer--if your oven runs hot, you're going to end up with a singed bottom of the bread. On top of that, the crust will probably set too quickly, which will make the final bread shorter and heavier than it should be. 

5. Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel and quickly but gently invert the dough into the pot, seam side up. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes. 

Try to move quickly in this step, but don't go nuts with it--that's a very hot oven and a very hot dutch oven you've just pulled out. Don't hurt yourself.

6. Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly. 

When you take the lid off, get yourself a quick look at how browned the crust looks. If it's already pretty deep, you might want to dial back the temperature a good 25 degrees and check on it early. However dark it is on the top, it's going to be moreso on the bottom. The first time you make this, make sure to first check it after only 10 minutes--if it looks chestnutty but not too dark yet, that's time to take it out.

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