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Sunday, November 23, 2008

 

Catching up with Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread


by Larry Geller

It seems that almost everyone on the planet has tried Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread. The original recipe was in the New York Times article of November 8, 2006, The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work (recipe here), and there’s a video which will explain the whole thing to you (although Bittman’s recipe differs from the video, it’s close enough):

I’m guessing that if I lived in New York, nearly every neighbor would have already tried this shockingly simple way to make great bread. Here in Hawaii, not so. So I don’t feel so bad being a late adopter.

Martha Stewart pot Why didn’t I try it right away? We didn’t have the necessary heavy pot. At Executive Chef, it would cost $280 for a Le Creuset enameled cast iron pot that might work. As the economy tumbles, however, there have been some great sales, and a similar pot appeared in a Macys one-day sale ad for $49.95. It was a 5.5 quart Martha Stewart enameled cast iron pot with a lifetime guarantee. It was not quite as heavy as the popular brand, but affordable. We picked up a metal Le Creuset knob for the pot just to be sure it could survive in the oven at the high temperature the recipe called for. The smaller pot is also a change from the video, made after Bittman adapted the original method to suit his own preferences.

So I did try it, at last. I made some mistakes along the way, and yet, strange thing, the bread turned out great! It had an incredible crackly crust as described. The inside was slightly underbaked but when the bread was reheated (we quarter the loaf and freeze the unused portion) it was perfect. I’ll fix that next time (the oven was not warm enough).

For me, kneading bread is something I look forward to. I used to bake frequently, but these days, with the availability of Bale bread at the KCC Saturday Farmers Market, I got lazy. I have a sourdough starter in the fridge that’s been neglected so long that I can’t remember when I last tended to it. Although I like to knead, I’ve been intrigued by the possibility that the whole ritual is, well, unnecessary. It’s something like my attitude to shifting a manual transmission in a car—why bother? Isn’t that why the automatic transmission was invented? So why knead, if great bread can be produced without it?

I tried the recipe as given in Bittman’s followup article, No Kneading, but Some Fine-Tuning.

My first mistake was that the dough was too wet. I used Bittman’s weight measures since we have metric scales. It was so wet that it stuck to the Silpat mat I let it rise on. It stuck to the plastic wrap. It was a mess. But I threw it into the oven-hot pot anyway, put on the lid, gave it the 30 minutes recommended and then 30 minutes with the lid off.

My second error was that I was impatient with my oven, which had probably not warmed to the correct temperature.

Amazingly, a perfect boule emerged at the end of this process.

(There’s another, more recent article here and here, but I find it a bit confusing. For one thing, Bittman talks about a loaf pan but the pic shows the same cast iron pot).

Soon I’ll do it again, probably with part whole grain flour, and following that I’ll try a refrigerated dough as described in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Imagine taking a lump of dough out of the fridge, letting it sit and rise awhile, then throwing it into a hot pot—and voila! fresh baked bread for dinner, the lazy way.

 

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