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.