05/28/2008: "Artisan Bread"
Several years ago my sister Ann gave me a bread maker. Honestly, at first I was inclined to reject it outright: bread makers were for yuppies who wanted to say that they liked to make bread, but didn't want to dip their hands in the flour. My initial attempts with the bread maker confirmed my worst fears: it was an extremely easy way to make really lousy bread! I didn't give up, though; I tinkered with the recipes given, trying to reproduce the artisan bread sold at the local Grand Central Bakery on Hawthorne. But I never got very close; from casual conversations I had with the employees I learned that most of their breads were from a sourdough sponge, and they used special steam-injection ovens to give their bread that lovely, hard crust. The Grand Central crust took me back to childhood memories: I remember that my grandfather used to insist on buying a rye loaf of bread from a special German bakery on Western Avenue in Chicago, and it had a marvelous crust that was almost carmelized in flavor.
Eventually, my bread maker recipe evolved into a utilitarian whole-wheat multigrain sort of loaf, with a toothiness that came from using cracked wheat, corn meal, and steel cut oats. It was good enough, but not exciting, and certainly not very close to artisan bread. I've used that recipe in my bread maker for many years now, but a recent recipe I ran across has rendered the bread maker obsolete: I know how to make artisan bread at home now! And you can, too. It's easier than you might think.
It all began as I was chasing down the source of a podcast. I listen to various spoken word programs on an MP3 player when I cycle in to work most days. One of the regular podcasts I download is Deconstructing Dinner, a Canadian production out of Nelson, BC (available for download at Global Public Media, too). A recent Deconstructing Dinner episode featured a compilation of radio programs originally broadcast in Idaho under the name "Bucky Buckaw's Backyard Chicken Broadcast." Since we are backyard chicken enthusiasts, I set out to find the original source of Bucky Buckaw; I eventually tracked it down to the Sagebrush Variety Show on Radio Boise. As a matter of curiosity, I clicked on the associated blog for the Sagebrush Variety Show, and ran across this entry featuring a No-Knead Bread Recipe.
I was intrigued: could it really be this simple? The two innovations that the recipe has are:
1) a slow rise time (12 to 24 hours, which appears to eliminate the kneading step - this makes total sense, as I've never seen anyone kneading bread at Grand Central!)
2) baking in an enclosed, preheated container (which gives a fabulous crust, because the enclosed container traps the steam from the baking, mimicking the steam injection oven used by professional bakers)
So, I tried it. And it really does work! I use an aluminum Dutch oven, and the crust rivals anything I've ever bought at Grand Central. The amount of work is really not much greater than I was doing for the bread maker, though I'm more involved in the baking step. But the results are so incredible that I'm sold on the method. The only fussy part is getting the water content in the dough correct: if the dough is too wet, it is a bear to get the sticky dough out of the towel and into the hot Dutch oven. And if it is too dry, the dough seems to rise more slowly, requiring the full 24 hours. But after three loaves I'm pretty well zeroed in on the right balance, and even the first two loaves, which were too moist, turned out great in the end.
So, here's the recipe I'm using:
Mix thoroughly in a large bowl:
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (I use medium grind for more toothiness)
1/2 cup rye flour
1/4 tsp yeast
1/2 tbs (or 1.5 tsp) salt
Add a little less or a little more than one and a third cups water, mixing as you go. You want it stiffer than pancake batter, but still a bit moist and "slumpy." Then set aside at normal room temperature for 12 to 24 hours with a towel over the top of the bowl. The photo below shows the mix from batch number two, a mix that was a little too moist:
After rising is complete, flour a work surface, dust your hands thoroughly with flour, and turn the dough out onto it. Fold it over on itself a couple of times like an envelope - don't knead it. Spread your towel out again, and put a thin layer of corn meal on it. Place the loaf on the corn meal with the seam up. If the loaf is a bit sticky still, pat some flour or wheat bran onto it to keep from sticking, then fold the towel gently over it and let it sit another two hours. 20 minutes before the second rise time is done, preheat your oven with the empty Dutch oven (or other ovenproof container) in it to 475 degrees F. When the 2 hour rise is done, the oven should be ready; open the oven, remove the Dutch oven lid carefully, place the risen bread gently in the Dutch oven seam side up, and put the cover back on. Bake with the cover on for 30 minutes, then remove the cover and bake another 15 minutes. Remove the Dutch oven from the stove oven, and pry the bread out with something that is oven-proof (I use a BBQ spatula). Let cool on a wire rack before cutting.
It's probably worth reading the original New York Times interview with baker Jim Lahey. You can even watch a video of him making bread on that page as well.
To all my friends and family: yes, I know I sent you all this recipe already via email, but no one's written back to say "Wow, thanks!" yet. So, I had to write it up for the blog. Now get to work!