Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Nearly No-Knead Bread

I. Made. Bread.


And not just any bread. Good bread.


Bakery-quality...


Crisp-crusted...


Tangy, moist-crumbed bread.


There are those who must be thanked. 1) The Human Vacuum, who gave me a subscription to Cook's Illustrated this Valentine's Day, and 2) the fine people in America's Test Kitchens (where Cook's is produced), who labored mightily to improve the already miraculous No Knead Bread recipe recently popularized by the NYT's Mark Bittman, and succeeded.

If you are, like me, yeastphobic and shy of bread baking, this is the way to begin. First, watch the video of Bittman making his version of the bread, complete with a demonstration of the cool technique where you cook it in a Dutch oven. Then read the article in the Times that explains why letting the dough sit for 12-24 hours works gluten miracles.

And then listen up while I tell you about the tweaks in Cook's Illustrated: The flavor is improved by adding a little beer and a little vinegar. The texture is improved by reducing the liquid and indulging in a smidge of kneading between the first (super long) rise, and the second (shorter) rise. Just 15 quick knead. Also, Cook's offers a handy tip: when you turn out the dough, do it on a piece of parchment paper and then use the paper to lower the ball of bread dough into the already hot Dutch oven. Just leave the paper in there while it cooks and spare yourself burnt hands at all stages of the process.

Cook's Illustrated is protective of its innovations (and rightly so), so I have made a moral compromise and annotated the NYT recipe below rather than copying the Cook's recipe. But you should really subscribe.

***
Here's the Times recipe, with my notes on the Cook's tweaks in itals:

No Knead Bread (or in this case Nearly No Knead Bread)

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery and Cook's Illustrated
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed. I skipped this and just used a little more flour
3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons room temperature water
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons light flavored American lager beer, like Bud
1 Tablespoon white vinegar

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water 3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons room temperature water, plus 1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons light flavored American lager beer plus 1 Tablespoon white vinegar, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal.

Knead the dough 15 times, then form into a ball. Optional: Place on a sheet of parchment paper. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 500 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Lift dough into pan on the sheet of parchment and reduce heat to 425. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

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