I guess you could say I am a competent baker. I have been cooking since I was six and baking almost as long. Some of the pastries I bake are elaborate and complicated, while some are very simple like biscuits, which I make well. But for many years, my ability to make a truly wonder French bread loaf eluded me. I would try lots of different recipes, but none had the qualities I sought.
What was I seeking? I wanted a good crust, crunchy and golden, a gelatinous crumb that was slightly transparent but not gummy, and a nutty flavor. Most of all, I wanted it to have holes. Some recipes would give me one of the criteria and some recipes another, but none would give the four I sought in one loaf.
I was always experimenting. For years I faithfully maintained my sour dough starter both in the fridge and the freezer as backup. I got new starters from folks who had bread with the taste I wanted. I tweaked and fussed over them, but to no avail. I wasn’t getting the crumb or the holes.
I tried bigas and chefs, but to no avail. These are similar to starters, made up to several days ahead to give nutty flavors and increased volume. No holes though.
I had almost given up when I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on “No Knead Bread.” I didn’t hold out much hope for the method, but it had been touted in many books and online. I hadn’t tried it. It does have several variations, but I now stick, pretty much, to the one from the workshop. My only modification is to reduce the salt. Their bread was way too salty for me.
Gimmicky methods of cooking do not generally interest me and this one did sound a little gimmicky. How could something that required only minutes of my time and no work kneading be the bread I was seeking. Sure enough, when the instructors bread came out of the oven….no holes. I was sorely disappointed. The taste was good except for too much salt. I could amend that when I made the bread. The crumb was exactly what I was seeking. The loaves were also too small for what I wanted…I could double the batch.
I went home and started the batch. I used the flour I had on hand that I usually used for bread. I reduced the salt and then pretty much followed the directions with the exception I will note below. (This is the double batch)
No Knead Bread
6 cups flour—bread, all purpose etc, but not cake or pastry flour
1 teaspoon salt (my reduction)
1 teaspoon yeast—I use Safer Instant Yeast
3 cups water—not tap water that contains chlorine
Put the flour, salt and yeast in a bowl and combine. Be sure the bowl is large enough to hold the risen dough, large.
Make a well in the center and add the water.
With a rubber spatula stir until just combined. Don’t overmix, the mixture will look rough.
Cover with plastic (I use a plastic shower cap) and set aside for 24 to 36 hours. It can be in a cool room in summer and in a modestly warm location in the winter. The mixture will be very wet. You will NOT be able to knead it. It is sloppy.
After the allotted time, the dough should have risen and fallen again. The original recipe is baked in a Dutch Oven or a large pan with a lid. I spray the pan with oil spray, but if it is a well seasoned pan that isn’t necessary. I spray the lid as well.
Remove the plastic from the top of the bowl and sprinkle generously with flour. Take a rubber spatula and go all the way around the bowl trying to turn the whole lump of dough floured side down without disturbing it too much. Then turn the whole thing into the prepared baking pan. The flour, which is on the bottom now, will release the dough into the Dutch Oven.
I let the whole thing sit while I wait for the oven to come up to 500 degrees. I think this is the trick that gave me holes in this recipe. If you put it into the hot oven immediately, sometimes there are no holes. The workshop teacher dumped it in a hot pan and immediately into the oven and she had no holes. Said she never had holes. I wanted the texture and taste and crust AND holes and waiting until the oven comes up to temperature, about fifteen minutes, seems to allow the dough to start rising again and creates large gas bubbles which become holes in the bread.
Bake at 500 for 30 minutes with the lid on. Take off the lid and bake until the internal temperature on an instant read thermometer is 200 degrees. It should be brown on top by that time.
Refrain from eating immediately as you will crush the loaf and have a gummy interior. I turn it out on a rack and let it cool, covered with a piece of cheesecloth to keep mold spores from settling on it. Eat with lots of butter!
When you are feeling more adventuresome, try pouring the dough onto a well floured counter, cutting it in half and making two long French bread shaped loaves. I use a board scraper to create the shape. It is a little like herding ducks to keep it from running away. It will take practice, but do not knead it. Roll it gently into shape and coax it into baguette pans. Bake about 20 minutes on 550 until the center is 200 degrees.
Well after having solved the problem of making the perfect French loaf, I am onto more complicated baked goods having already mastered croissants, pita, lavash, and many more. Baking is something I should back off from as I don’t need to eat a lot of it, but it is something that I like to share with friends. Things like the fourteen layer ganache cake I just served to a friend for his birthday!