Friday, February 22, 2013

No-Knead Bread: Almost too Good to be True

No-Knead Bread, fresh from oven
The original No Knead Bread was started by Jim Lahey. Jim learned bread baking in Italy in the 1990s but developed the no knead process much later. In 2006, Mark Bittman of the New York Times was invited to witness the ease of making this bread at Laheys Sullivan Street Bakery. The rest is history.

This history was all new to me in the summer of 2011. I went to the local farmers market and bought a loaf of what was called Mark Bittman's No Knead Bread. I love artisanal breads, with the crusty exteriors and plenty of chewiness on the inside. I did know of Mark Bittman, having watched "On the Road Again, in Spain" starring Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Bittman and Claudia Basols. I was curious. I bought the loaf and brought it home, tasted it and fell in love. I looked online to see if I could find this recipe and saw that it was available everywhere. I did not find out the recipe was from Jim Lahey until much later. 

Recipe Comparisons

Mark Bittman's recipe differs from Lahey's in some slight nuances. I have used the recipes both ways and can say that I prefer the Bittman version, at least in my home oven. Lahey adds less water and uses a 500 degree oven. Bittman uses a little more water and a 450 degree oven. The matter of water is a choice. With 2 tablespoons more water, the result is an interior with far larger holes. Using less water the interior grain of the bread is more even.  The bread is still plenty chewy made either way and the oven temperature and time are easily adapted. Both recipes say that once the lid is removed, to bake for an additional 15 to 30 minutes. I do not like blackened crusts, so I stuck to the 450 degrees and only 10 minutes once the lid is removed.

My Experiences with No Knead Breads

Jim's Brown Bread
I made Mark Bittman's version of the bread for over a year, sometimes 3 times a week, when guests were around. I then got curious and went to the local library. I checked out the book "My Bread" by Jim Lahey and discovered another new world of bread flavors. To the same basic No-Knead recipe, Lahey added things for flavor. I made a few of these breads and all were marvelous. One had the addition of walnuts and raisins and was just delightful. One was called "Jim's Brown Bread" and was a take on Irish bread, using Guinness Stout and buttermilk in the dough. Another recipe had ½ pound of cubed cheese added in. Yet another had chunks of fried bacon added. Every recipe was just delicious. The bacon bread was nearly a sandwich all by itself.

Cheese No-Knead Bread, using Fontinella cheese
If you have not jumped onto this bandwagon yet, I urge everyone to try. The one requirement is a very heavy duty pot that will withstand oven temperatures of 450 to 500 degrees. This means an enameled cast iron pot, a clay baker with a lid, or a Pyrex glass baker with lid. The size must accommodate 6 to 8 quarts in order to contain the bread as it bakes. The handle on the lid of the enameled cast iron pots should be metal. The reason for this type of lidded pot is so that steam from the very wet dough is trapped inside. I did not own an enameled cast iron pot when I decided to try this bread, so I borrowed one from my sister-in-law. It had a resin knob on the lid. Twenty minutes into the baking process, I heard a very loud clang. It was the knob that had exploded! Those kind of knobs are oven safe to only 400 degrees. If you have a resin knob on your enameled cast iron, invest in a new metal knob as a replacement before starting.

Bacon Bread
The bane of any home baker when trying to create that artisanal crusty exterior is the inability to trap enough steam to accomplish that end. When the dough is inside a small, closed environment, and in high temperatures, the pot accomplishes the steam needed for the perfect crust. When removed from the oven, the bread literally "sings". The bread snaps, pops, wheezes and makes many interesting sounds as it cools and is a delight to hear. Jim Lahey in his book mentions the  amazing sounds when at his bakery they have taken many multiples of loaves out of a very hot oven.

The recipe is found all over the internet, and my favorite method is the one by Mark Bittman. He has now come out with some more interesting nuances on making this bread, but I have the time at home to work with it, so I am not looking to make this a shorter process. In fact the entire process, which takes about 16 to 18 hours, requires a total of about 15 minutes of actual attention. Mix up the 4 ingredients the night before (takes about 3 minutes), cover and let it do its thing overnight while you sleep. Turn out onto a surface in the morning (takes about 10 seconds) cover and let stand for 15 minutes while you prepare breakfast. Form into a loaf and set to rise (takes about 1 minute). One and a half hours later, place the empty pot in the oven to heat for a half hour (takes about 10 seconds). Take out the pot, toss in the risen dough, put the lid back on and bake (takes less than 1 minute) for 30 minutes with lid, then another 10 to 30 minutes without the lid, depending on your preference. In between, you can accomplish a host of other household activities. Try out this recipe, because it does not disappoint.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.