Saturday, September 25, 2010

No-Knead Bread

I know that I'm way behind to be blogging about no-knead bread in the fall of 2010. The phenomenon peaked a few years back, and I was there, making no-knead bread along with every single other reader of Mark Bittman's article in the New York Times. I didn't have a blog then, and to tell the truth I wasn't that thrilled with the result. The rustically misshapen loaf didn't taste so different from the other breads I made, and as I've always enjoyed kneading, there seemed to be no good reason to give it up. However, here in Tokyo I don't have a good place to knead, so when I received a package of Kawakami Farm's home-grown wheat flour, I decided to give no-knead bread a second chance.
No-knead bread is a simple recipe and a simple preparation, as you'd expect from a column by The Minimalist. The original recipe calls for 3 cups of flour and 1 5/8 cups water, a teaspoon of salt, and a quarter teaspoon of instant yeast, which are all stirred together and left to ferment for 18 hours. I didn't follow the recipe exactly, but tried to stick with the ratio of flour to water. I accidentally added sugar, thinking it was salt, so my bread had a teaspoon of both. And as I wasn't sure whether my yeast was instant or not, I put in about half a teaspoon instead of a quarter. The photo above shows what it looked like once I'd stirred it all up: a wet, loose batter. I let it sit at room temperature until I went to bed, about three hours later, at which point it looked like this:
Clearly, the yeast was working. I started to worry that it would rise too quickly and maybe even overflow the bowl if I left it out all night. I've often let dough rise in the fridge so I felt more comfortable doing that than following the instructions meant for dough made with half the amount of yeast I'd used (sugar also makes yeast work harder). Into the fridge it went. The next morning, it had big bubbles and was thicker:
When I stirred it, it clung to the sides of the bowl with tenacious strands of gluten. This is what normally happens through kneading, but according to the no-knead theory, 18 hours of rising will accomplish the same thing.
After stirring it down, I divided the dough in half, to bake part today and let the rest stay in the fridge another day or so to develop more gluten and flavor. It was very sticky and difficult to separate, and the bit of flour I sprinkled on my hands to cut down on the gooeyness didn't do a bit of good. But I managed to get it into separate bowls. The green one went back into the refrigerator; the pink one stayed out at room temperature to await its date with the oven.
Two hours later, it had risen all the way up to the rim of the bowl:
To bake, Mark Bittman advises preheating both your oven and your cast-iron casserole at 450 F. My little convection oven only goes up to 220 C, and I'm not sure that's hot enough. In any case, I put my cast iron pot inside and cooked it for ten minutes, then took it out, sloshed some olive oil around in the bottom, and plopped in the dough. It didn't make a nice sizzling sound, so maybe the pot wasn't hot enough - but in any case, I covered it, baked for ten minutes, uncovered it, and baked for another 30 minutes. It did develop a rustic crack and a nice golden crust...
...but the loaf remained disappointingly flat.
Still, there were plenty of air bubbles inside, and the texture was chewy and moist, not at all like the dense hockey-puck loaves I used to make when I first started baking as a teenager. The nutty taste of the wheat was delicious, and perfectly complemented by a thin smear of butter and my homemade grape jelly. I'm curious to try baking the second half of the dough in a few days - I wonder if it will rise any higher, or if this high-liquid no-knead dough in my convection oven is always going to be on the short side?

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