Sunday, December 09, 2007

Almost No-Knead Bread

November 9, 2007

Remember last year about this time when Mark Bittman's No-Knead Bread swept the country? It was easy to make, it made a beautiful loaf with a fabulously crispy crust, and it was endlessly adaptable? Then, after the initial enthusiasm, remember the nay-sayers, who pointed out that, with all its virtues, the no-knead bread was not the tastiest bread on the block?
Even if you don't remember this, J. Kenji Alt, does, and in this month's Cook's Illustrated, Alt set out to discover if he could make a better-tasting no-knead bread. Cook's Illustrated, as you probably know, is the magazine from America's Test Kitchen, where the food testers helpfully (some might say obsessively) work on a particular recipe, going through dozens of variations until they believe they have come up with the best possible result. This is a magazine that appeals to the kind of person who, say, decides to bake all the breads in a certain cookbook in one year or, say, writes a novel in a month. As soon as I saw the article entitled "No-Knead Bread 2.0," I knew what this week's bread would be.
Alt's theory is that the lack of kneading in no-knead bread kept the proteins in a "semi balled-up state," thus making the bread "overly chewy." He was aiming for a more flavorful bread with a more airy texture. He decided to add a brief period (15 seconds) of hand kneading after the first long rise, which he decided was crucial for both shape and taste. He made a few other variations as well.
He wanted the complexity of flavor that you get from a sourdough starter, but he didn't want to use one because, after all, that would kind of defeat the purpose of the simplicity of the no-knead bread. So he added a tablespoon of vinegar. I had my doubts about this because, as the bread was baking, the vinegar smell was very pronounced, and I was afraid I'd end up biting into a piece of bread that tasted like salad dressing. Fortunately, I couldn't taste it in the bread. Since I have a starter, however, the next time I make this bread, I'll omit the vinegar and add a dollop or two of starter.
He added another flavor enhancer, as well--beer, and in a side note, he explains why beer improves bread's flavor, and why the beer should be a light lager and not a darker, richer beer. All you need is three ounces of lager for a loaf of bread, which leaves most of a bottle of beer for some other purpose. I personally don't care much for beer, but Jim was happy to drink the rest of it.

Alt's other modifications involved slightly less hydration, to make the bread easier to handle and easier to shape, and a much simpler method of transferring the dough into a very hot Dutch oven. He suggests doing the second rise in a ten-inch skillet which has first been lined with a big piece of parchment paper. When the bread is ready to go in the Dutch oven, you just pick up the parchment by its edges and transfer the dough, along with the parchment, into the preheated Dutch oven.
Jim was entranced by this bread, which he pronounced the best-looking one I'd ever turned out, and took dozens of pictures. When we cut into the bread, we were also very pleased with the texture, the crust, and, most importantly, the taste.

We were going to eat it with some cheese, but decided that we really didn't want to mask the flavor with anything. The article includes several variations, including an olive, rosemary and parmesan loaf, a cranberry-pecan loaf, as well as rye and whole wheat variations. I'll probably end up trying them all.
If you're looking for a basic, easy loaf of bread, this is probably it. It is tastier than the original no-knead version, and prettier too. It's not the absolutely most delicious bread I've ever eaten, but when I woke up this morning and remembered that I could have a piece for breakfast, I felt happy. You can't get a much better review than that.
Almost No-Knead Bread
3 c. (15 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 t. instant yeast
1 1/2 t. table salt
3/4 c. plus 2 T. (7 oz.) room-temperature water
1/4 c. plus 2 T. (3 oz.) mild-flavored lager
1 T. white vinegar

1. Whisk flour, yeast, and salt in large bowl. Add water, beer, and vinegar. Fold mixture until shaggy ball forms. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 8 to 18 hours.
2. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and knead 10 to 15 times. Shape dough into ball. Transfer dough, seam-side down, to parchment-lined 10-inch skillet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until dough has doubled in size, about 2 hours.
3. About 30 minutes before baking, place 6- to 8-quart heavy-bottomed Dutch oven on lowest rack, and preheat oven to 500 degrees. Make one slash along top of dough. Take preheated pot out of oven and remove lid. Pick up dough by the edges of the parchment and ease into pot. Put lid back on and place in oven. Reduce temerature to 425 and bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove lid and turn pan 180 around for more even browning. Bake another 20 to 30 minutes, until loaf is deep brown. Transfer to wire rack and cool.


Melinda said...

It turned out lovely! Glad to hear that the taste is improved.
Now, don't get your knickers in a twist, but would you send the recipe to me by email? (For heaven's sake don't lose your post this time!)
I don't have access to ATK recipes.
Thank you, Marie. Mmwa, Mmwa

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I loved that no knead because it sang to me! And I was really wild for the crust. The taste was underwhelming but ok.
I do really enjoy CI and test recipes from time to time. I stopped subscribing to the magazine and just get it on line now but I kind of miss the paper in this case.
Your bread is beautiful and yes that's a great review.

jpsam said...

I have been baking Jim Lahey's NK Bread at least once a week for the last year. I use RL Beranbaum's protocol for feeding a stiff starter. I feed my starter at least every week. If I don't have other plans for, it I use the 75g. of starter in Rose's Baby NK recipe and it is just right! In addition to added flavor, I think it increases "shelf life." It's just so easy!

breadbasketcase said...

I meant to add the recipe, but I forgot. I'm so glad I didn't lose the post this time, or I would have to give up blogging entirely.

I'd forgotten about the singing! This loaf didn't sing. There's probably a scientific explanation for it, but I have no idea what it is. Also, this crust may have been a little less crispy than the original no-knead bread, but I think you'd like the flavor better. If you give it a try, let me know what you think.

Wow--that is really faithful bread-baking. I really had forgotten how easy the NK bread is until I tried this variation. You probably get about the same result with the starter.

TNelson said...

We baked a loaf of this yesterday and I have to say it's much improved over the original recipe. We cut into it too soon so it was a bit gummy but that's our fault not the bread's. We will be making this in other forms as well.


Greenie Gardens said...

I gotta give this a try. It is a beautiful loaf of bread!

evil cake lady said...

BBC, that's a beautiful looking loaf of bread, and I'm glad to hear it turned out so well!

Please pass on to Jim that the first photo in this post is really lovely too--the lighting, the detail, excellent!


breadbasketcase said...

I'm glad to hear that you tried it too--the recipe says to wait for two hours before eating, but who can wait that long?

Yes, do give it a try, and let me know how you like it. I think I'm going to try another version of it next week.

So glad you said that about his photo--he loved the top crust, especially the razor slash, and took many pictures of it. He will be happy to know that someone appreciates his art!

Doughadear said...

Thank you for posting the recipe! I made up a half recipe last night using 40 gr. of old sourdough starter instead of the vinegar and I must say that the taste is superior to that of the original NKB. Because of the smaller loaf (I only have a 5qt. dutch oven, hence the smaller loaf) I shortened the baking time. Next time I will leave it in longer as it was still somewhat moist on the inside even though it reach 209 F. Nevertheless a good tasting loaf. Yours looks wonderful inside and out as usual!

pinknest said...

how very interesting! i personally thought the original no-knead bread recipe was mighty fine indeed. but i'll have to try these variations now! your bread looks bouncy and lovely.

breadbasketcase said...

The vinegar is a clever idea to give bread a hint of tanginess without starter, but I'm sure starter is better. I think I'm going to try the cranberry pecan loaf this weekend, but I'll use my starter this time.

I love all the scientific explanations for why things work the way they do, even though I can never remember them two minutes after I read them. I don't believe anyone has ever called my bread bouncy before--thanks. (You have such an excellent vocabulary).

Anonymous said...

Here is a comparison of the NYT/Lahey/Bittman bread and the Cook's Illustrated from a side-by-side cookoff.

breadbasketcase said...

Thanks for the link--very interesting. A side-by-side testing is probably the only fair way to compare. I've adapted the no-knead 2.0 by adding starter instead of vinegar, and I prefer that. Adding the starter to the original no-knead would probably give that one a flavor boost too.

Marty said...

A link to an article about a new no knead book "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day".
They keep the dough up to 14 days and lop off a piece as needed. I think the cool storage may add to the flavor, which I found lacking in the NY Times recipe. The CI improvements sound good. Marty

breadbasketcase said...

Jim was going to get me that cookbook for Christmas, but it's been such a big hit that all the local bookstores were out. I know a couple of people who have tried it, and they've been very enthusiastic about it.

Greenie Gardens said...

Tried this and I like the way it turned out. How would you add sourdough starter to this? What adjustments would you make to the recipe to allow for the additional flour and moisture of the sourdough? Did you find that it baked quicker than the time on the recipe showed? I semi-burnt the bottom of mine and I still had time to go on the timer!

breadbasketcase said...

Greenie gardens,
I usually measure very precisely with bread recipes, but I literally did just add a few dollops of sourdough starter--maybe about 1/4 cup. My starter is somewhere in between liquid and firm, and the substitution of that much starter for the vinegar was just right. Since you knead this bread a little bit, it's easy to correct if it doesn't seem quite right.
Mine didn't burn, but when I use the convection oven, I find that it often takes less time than the recipe specifies, so I check it early.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to why numerous sites recommend a "mild lager", I've substituted all of the water for a full bottle of Guinness Stout which made oh, so yummy bread!