Sunday, March 21, 2010

Is there an easy way to make great bread?

Whole wheat with spicy olives and walnuts.

I'll be honest, I didn't think there was, but I finally tried the infamous no-knead. It's turned me into a new man. To clarify, I'm a cook, my method is somewhat of a refined improvisation, as opposed to the science required to understand baking.
A good loaf had always evaded me . . . in the kitchen anyways. So I kinda gave up trying a while back.
When I came across this video it gave me hope. It's Jim Lahey (of Sullivan St. Bakery) and Mark Bittman, discussing the process. So I got the cook book "My Bread" and set out to get my bread right. It takes some patience, but the time required develops the gluten in lieu of messy tiresome kneading and in the end the effort is nil, and the product is something to write home about.

NOTE- This recipe calls for using your potentially-expensive dutch oven. The high heat in the recipe can cause permanent discoloration and minor cracking. This won't prevent you from making yummy food moving forward, some people find it aesthetically displeasing. Strait cast iron will do just fine.

First you have to get the basic recipe down.

3 cups bread flour, more for dusting (AP flour will do if you cant find bread flour.)
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cup water
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

***For specific instructions watch the video in the link above.

You simply combine the dry ingredients, add the water and cover. After 12-18 hours of proofing you turn out the dough and fold it over onto itself once. Two more hours proofing and you drop the loaf into a dutch oven that had been heated in a 500 degree oven. What comes out is amazing.
Now I can't say that my first loaf came out perfect, it took a few tries, but once I got it down. . . . well, it qualifies as incredible. I never expected I would be able to bake a loaf like this in my home.
The best part is once you get the basic recipe down, you can add a wide variety of ingredients to spice up your loaves. I made many types, admittedly with varying degrees of success, but some were excellent. The winners were smokey peanut (smoked paprika and roasted peanuts), spicy olive and walnut, whole wheat with cayenne, cashew and curry powder, ham-cheddar-and-dill-pickle and so on and so forth down the line.
The trick is to avoid introducing ingredients that affect the "science" of the bread too much. Something I was slow to pick up on.
Overall the procedure is fun and rewarding. I'd suggest taking it on if you have the baking itch.
If you do, I'd love to hear how it turns out.

Smoky peanut loaf at the end of the first proof. Note the stringy lengths,
indicative of good gluten development.

***Special thanks to Jeremy and Abby for lending me their dutch oven (not pictured) without which this entry would not exist.
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