Part of me has been dreading this post, there is no way to complete it and not feel crumby. Have I become so old and set in my ways - dare I say it: crusty, or perhaps a bit stale? Well, I may come off as a heel, but I think I knead to get this off my chest.
OK. Enough of that.
The topic is the famous no-knead bread. My first knowledge of this, as with most, came from a New York Times article by Mark Bittman in November, 2006. Now I frankly consider Mr.Bittman to be one of the best modern resources to the home cook. It has since been touted by many, including the over-analyzing folks at Cook's Illustrated. I had avoided it mostly because I find kneading neither oppressive nor time-consuming.
Now my wife will tell you that 99% of my bread is no knead anyway. I use the KA stand mixer or the food processor a la Charlie Van Over. (I think that, along with Shirley Corriher I prefer the results from the stand mixer). In either case, I do usually prefer to follow a lesson from my first cookbook dedicated to the making of bread - Beard On Bread - and finish the kneading by hand. In Jim's words:
I rather enjoy taking the dough from the mixer and finishing it off by hand. It seems to me that it gives the bread a better texture, but this may be my imagination.
I think so to, and I like kneading a bit. More importantly, the girls enjoy what they have called "pushing the bread" for years.
So why try this method now? Because the BuffNews just ran an article on it, an article written by my friend Andrew Z. Galarneau of the News. If Andrew found value in the process, it was worth a shot to me.
What you are dealing with in this concept are two separate processes: The development of gluten via hydration, pretty much alone, and the baking in a pre-heated enclosed space.
Look, if you want a detailed description of gluten development you can get it from Alton, or Shirley, or for scientific precision and cool graphics Harold McGee, but in essence there are three ways to develop gluten in a dough: 1) Hydration, 2) Leavening and 3) Physical Manipulation. This process relies primarily on 1 and a bit on 2, but pretty much eliminates 3. Now anyone who has worked with a pre-ferment like a sourdough starter, biga or poolish has seen the development of gluten. It is the basis of the use of autolyse in the bread baking process.
The other concept is cooking the bread in a pre-heated, confined environment - a casserole or Dutch Oven type thing. I find this of interest because the home bread baker spends much of their time trying to recreate a commercial steam-injecting oven. My current practice is hot water in a pan at the top the oven, in a manner best described by Bob del Grosso at his blog (with pictures).
Now I had tried closed environment bread baking with a clay oven, but that needs to be put in a cold oven with the temperature slowly raised. The results were not satisfying. I should say that the use of a pre-heated vessel was intriguing, but also a bit scary. It has not been easy, but I have to a relationship with fire, and playing with getting a slack dough into a hot pan was my biggest concern. Wasn't a problem.
So, to the test. I followed the directions precisely. Measuring was done by the "scoop and level" process - scooping the ingredients and leveling with an icing spatula. The flour was plain old all-purpose; the salt non-iodized table salt, the water Chateau Erie County Water Authority, and the yeast Fleischmann's instant (I buy it in bulk, but it's the same stuff that comes in the brown jars labeled Bread Machine Yeast). The cooking vessel was an enameled cast iron round oven by Nomar, every bit as good as La Creuset, but half the price at a T.J. Marshall's
Mixing was gentle and easy. I actually expected a wetter dough, but I knew that the fermentation process would exude more liquid. The next day proved that right - a loose batter-like dough pocked with bubbles and holes from fermentation - as the girls would say "yeast farts". I love those girls.
Getting the dough into the pre-heated dutch oven was a lot easier than I expected. Just a bit worse than getting a loaf from a peel onto a preheated stone.
Observation #1 - No aroma. Andrew quoted me in an article last month saying: “There’s nothing in the dead of winter that’s more comforting than the smell of soup cooking on the stove, or bread in the oven.” Even when you finally remove the lid, whatever volatile compounds that created aroma had dissipated.
Observation #2 - the crust was as described, and the crackling sounds of a really well made crust cooling were audible throughout the room.
Observation #3 - after cooling, the flavor of the bread was surprisingly bland. It was not as bad as that loaf that I forgot the salt in a few years ago, but there was no character. Salted butter helped, but not enough.
Observation #4 - the texture of the crumb was unusual - my best description is that it reminded me of the interior of a french cruller.
Observation #5 - The recipe warned: This additive-free bread is best enjoyed within 24 hours. I'd say eat it immediately. It was decent as toast the next morning, but just sliced . . .
So was I, as suggested by my wife, looking for this to fail - I have to say no. As much as I love doing things the old fashioned way, I adore new takes that save time while preserving flavor, such as Jacques Pepin's method of "braising" in a pressure cooker in well under an hour.
However, I had heard stories of high failure rates, and problems with the taste. A quick web search turned up comments by the Kitchenmage: It tastes like...not much. It's not even bad enough to be notable. Flavorless, gummy, and an hour out of the oven the crust starts to toughen. Bread to make you believe in the Atkins diet, and David Lebovitz, whose comments disappeared under mysterious circumstances recently (The People for the Ethical Treatment of No-Knead Bread, I am sure) but he replaced it with this comment: I wasn't all that thrilled with the taste, which I found very flat.
This loaf just didn't make the cut, but that doesn't mean I will abandon it. Perhaps a bit more salt, with a longer fermentation to make up for the retarding of yeast action. But Cook's Illustrated in its January 2008 issue also noted problems with the flavor and texture. In their anal way, they tested many possibilities to solve the problems. The texture was solved with a bit of kneading - just 15 seconds.
But they solved the taste problem with the addition of white vinegar and lager beer. All these additives to simulate the flavor or bread made the traditional way?
My conclusion: The part of this process that intrigues me the most is the baking in the enclosed space. So, what if I took a standard bread dough, by any traditional method, and just left it hydrated and slack, but cooked it in a Dutch Oven? Worth trying?
I'll let you know!