Sunday, October 23, 2016

Making Really Good Bread is Really Easy!


OK,  I have been meaning to do this post for almost a year now. In April 2016, I organized a workshop, and had dinner with four out-of-town colleagues afterwards. They asked if I was happy with how it went; I said that I was very happy with the workshop, but I mentioned that I was also happy because the previous week I had finally managed to make a loaf of bread that I was truly pleased with. All four were quite interested, and I thought I should put together a post about it.

That rolled around in my head for a while until in April I decided to do a demonstration using only equipment that most people have in their kitchens.  So  I made some videos, but I got distracted and then let it sit until now.  I have some subsequent posts in mind and we'll see how long they take.


The difference between this recipe and the bread I was so happy with is that this one is made with commercial yeast rather than natural leavening, also known as sourdough starter (or, in France, levain). It's not particularly sour, but it is more flavorful than this bread.  This bread is definitely good, but a bit flat in comparison. I am planning on doing some subsequent posts for folks that get you excited about baking bread, but I will warn you that the later posts will all involve weighing ingredients. If you want to follow those you will need a decent kitchen scale, but I will post some recommendations for inexpensive scales.

This recipe is from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, who pretty much started the no-knead bread movement after his recipe was popularized by Mark Bittman in the New York Times. I had some problems with this and other recipes because the dough would often be too sticky, and instead of being able to manipulate the dough I would end up with my fingers covered in a sticky mess. The bread can come out tasting good but I was doing a lot of swearing and not having a very good time. The watchword for dough is "tacky, not sticky."

The Lahey recipe is on the Time website. I found it very helpful to watch the video there to get a sense of how to handle the dough and what it's supposed to look like, and that's part of why I wanted to make my own videos for this post. Interestingly, the Times recipe on the web page is a bit different from the one that Lahey gives in the video. The dough is slightly wetter and there is an extra step where the dough "rests" for 15 minutes. I am following the recipe in the video.

Fancy bread ovens have steam injectors, which is how you get great crusty bread. The key element of the Lahey recipe is to bake the bread in a Dutch oven or other suitable pot.  Not everyone has one, and fancy enameled ones are quite expensive, so I'm not doing it that way in this recipe. Instead, I'm using the method I learned from Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François's Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, which involves pouring water into a pan—I use a metal roasting pan, which works nicely—in the oven to make steam.  As you will see, it works very well.  Other than that, the recipe here is largely copied from the New York times page, but I have simplified it in a few ways (e.g., using flour instead of cornmeal).

Although this bread takes only a few minutes of hands-on time, it needs some advanced planning because it rises for 18 hours (OK, 12 will do but Lahey says 18 is better) before "shaping," and then rises for another two, before baking for half an hour or more.  So if you mix up the ingredients at 6pm on Friday, you can shape it at noon on Saturday and have a great loaf of bread in the mid-afternoon.

I am a little over-obsessive about measuring and other things. But honestly, bread is very forgiving, and if you do something approximating this and get it in the oven, it will look less and less messy as it bakes, and it will probably taste great no matter how it looks.

So, without further ado, here's the recipe. When I made the recipe I also weighed the ingredients so that I could give them here, since one of the people at dinner was from the Netherlands.

Ingredients:
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour (500g), more for dusting
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast (1 ml)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt (8g)
  • 1 1/2 cups Water (340g or ml)
  • another cup or so of water for the steam (250 ml)

Step 1: In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add the water, and stir until blended; the dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees F (a little over 20 C). I put it on top of the refrigerator, which seems to work even in winter. When it's ready, the surface of the dough should be dotted with bubbles. If you are determined to use a stand mixer (like a Kitchen Aid), you can, but it is no problem to do this with a spoon or even with your bare hands, and there is a lot less clean-up.

Step 2: Using a rubber spatula and just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or to your hands, move the dough from the mixing bowl to the work surface. Flour your hands to avoid sticking (you can also use water or oil on your hands). Gently fold the dough over on itself to make a roundish shape; in the video I make four folds, one from each side. The folding makes some "seams," which are now on top; the bottom side of the dough, in contact with the work surface, is smooth. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, placing the "seam side" down. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise, again in a warm place.


You will notice in the video that I have my dough scraper handy but I don't use it. If the dough sticks to the work surface, use a scraper (or a  knife if you don't have a scraper) to pry it up, and dust with a bit more flour. You want enough flour on the outside to get a "gluten cloak," a dull-ish surface that is not sticky, and you want to be careful not to tear the gluten cloak. (See the end of this post for some explanation of why the location of the seams makes a difference.)

Step 3: After about an hour and a half—half an hour before the dough is done rising—prepare the oven. Put a metal roasting pan on the bottom shelf; you will be putting water in it to make steam. Put a baking pan (cookie sheet) on the shelf just above it, and preheat the oven to 450 F (230-235 C, I have no idea how european oven settings work). I think I may have lightly oiled the cookie sheet, I can't remember. A non-stick cookie sheet is not a bad idea.

Alternatively, you can use a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic), but be a little careful of sticking. The first couple times, you may want to lightly oil the bottom of the pot, or sprinkle some cornmeal or flour in there just before you plop the bread in.

Step 4: After another half an hour (two hours of rising), the dough should have just about doubled in size.  Using a little more flour for your hands and the top of the dough, remove the dough from the oiled bowl and transfer to the baking sheet, flipping it over in the process so that the seam side is up.

Pour about a cup of water into the roasting pan, being careful not to burn yourself on the steam. Close the oven and don't open it for at least half an hour. If you are using a glass or pyrex roasting pan you might want to use very hot water.

If you're using the pot, cover it.


Step 5: Check the bread after half an hour. In the video, mine was probably done at that point, but I gave it about 5 more minutes. It gave a satisfying "thud" when I tapped on it, and the color was a lovely deep brown. Because the cookie sheet clangs, you can't really hear the hollow thud until some point in the second video.



If you are using the pot, uncover after half an hour and cook for another 15-30 minutes, "until the loaf is beautifully browned."

Transfer your loaf to a wire rack to cool. At this point the inside, or "crumb," is still cooking, so it is important to let the bread cool for a while. The experts seem to want you to let it cool completely. In my house it never makes it that far, but it is probably good to let it go for 20 minutes or so before you slice into it.

Here's a video of how mine looked at the end:


Happy baking! Let me know how it goes for you!

If you are still reading, here is the explanation of why we are so concerned about where the "seam side" goes. As the bread cooks, the volume expands faster than the surface area, creating pressure on the surface. If the seams are up, they come apart a bit to relieve the pressure. If the seams are down, the weight of the dough keeps them from opening, and the loaf may tear. Most bread recipes have you put the seam side down, because the irregular seams don't look so nice, but then you have to "slash" the top (making cuts), to allow the bread to expand. If you look at artisan-style loaves, you will see the results of slashing... it's not just for decoration. But even if your loaf tears, it may look a little funny but it will still taste great


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