Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Late to the party, but still well-bread

You think this bread is good?  This is all that's left of a loaf I baked yesterday.  I have more rising now.
About six years ago, Mark Bittman published a recipe for bread that requires no kneading and yet comes out amazingly good.

It's not so much skipping the kneading that makes this bread what it is:  it's the increased water, the reduced yeast, and most of all, baking the bread in a hot, covered pot.  The smaller amount of yeast means that the bread can make a very long, slow rise, which develops texture and flavor.  The high water content means that the bread expands quickly when it's baked, giving the characteristic big holes that you get with artisan bread.  And the covered pot, combined with the steam that the extra water provides when it heats, gives a hearty crust.

I finally found this recipe about six weeks ago, and I think I've baked at least eight loaves since then.  They've all been terrific.  I've made a few slight modifications, so I'll give my formula:

2 cups bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (or you could use all white flour if you prefer)
1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon dried yeast
1-2/3 cups warm water
(for the rising loaf, wheat bran as needed)

You throw everything but the wheat bran into a bowl and stir it until it forms a very loose dough.  (Be sure you incorporate all the flour into the dough--don't leave any lurking under the dough at the bottom of the bowl.)  Put it in a glass or plastic bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it sit in a draft free place for at least 12 hours.  You can let it go up to 24 hours; I would say I usually let it sit for 14 - 16 hours.  (In other words, you do this in the afternoon or evening and plan to bake it the next day.)

When it's risen fully, it will be bubbly on top and will smell a bit like beer.  That's good!  It's the yeast doing its work.  Turn it out of the bowl onto a floured surface.  It will be a bit of a mess, but don't worry.  Work in a little more flour if it makes it easier to handle, but just knead it gently until it forms a ball.

Set the ball of dough on a clean linen towel (not terrycloth--you don't want fuzz in your bread) that you've generously sprinkled with wheat bran.  Sprinkle some bran on top of the dough and fold the towel over the dough to cover it (or use a second towel).  Let that sit someplace safe for a couple of hours.

Half an hour before you want to bake the bread, set a Dutch oven with its lid into the oven and turn the heat to 500 degrees (I like this better than the 450 in the recipe).  The Dutch oven will get very hot, which is exactly what you want.  When you're ready to bake, take the Dutch oven out (use good oven mitts!) and set it on a heatproof surface.  Dump the dough into the pot (bran will fly everywhere, which is why there are brooms), and then shake the pot gently to distribute the dough evenly.  Cover the pot tightly and put the whole thing into the oven.  Bake for half an hour, then uncover the pot and bake for another 10 - 15 minutes to brown the crust fully.

When it's done, slip it out of the pot onto a rack to cool.  Then try to fend your family off while they run for the hot bread.

Bittman later published a modified recipe that takes less time.  I haven't tried it yet, but I'm sure it too would be good.

It only took me six years to find this recipe.  Now I'm baking a loaf more or less every other day, because we like it so much.  Better late than never, as they say.

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