Jim Lahey No Knead Bread
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One of my intentions this year is to master bread-making. It's an art that I began to play around with last year in an attempt to rid the family pantry of preservative-laden breads that are found in the supermarket. Furthermore, I had an ideal of the perfect loaf of bread that I'd tasted in Seattle at Sitka &Spruce that I wanted to replicate at home.

Bread and our health

The obvious assumption is that a loaf of bread contains only the necessary four components: flour, water, salt and yeast, with maybe an additional cheese or spice to kick things up a notch. The reality of conventional bread looks a bit different.
Whole grain whole wheat flour including the germ, water, glucose-fructose/sugar, yeast*, vegetable oil (canola or soybean), salt, wheat gluten, vinegar, calcium propionate, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, monoglycerides, acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, sorbic acid. May contain calcium iodate, calcium carbonate, calcium sulphate, cornstarch, ammonium chloride. *order may change. May contain soybean, milk ingredients and sesame seeds.*
Um, what? The amount of processing that now goes into something so fundamental and so simplistic is mind-blowing. Of course, the relatively long shelf life of a conventional loaf of bread should perhaps be a telltale sign of tampering from the get-go.

One would think that switching to whole wheat instead of white bread would make a huge difference in regards to health benefits. You’d be half right in that white bread is basically a glucose hit to the bod, but supposed whole wheat bread isn’t that much better. Case and point: the above label comes from a loaf of whole wheat bread. In Cooked, Pollan discusses just how much whole wheat flours have changed since we started making bread. It’s an interesting discussion, and one that included many facts that I did not know about the state of our whole grain flours.


I knew that there would be a few loaves that I would be making on my journey to master bread-making. Of course, I had an idea as to which would yield the result that I was after, but that it would be worthwhile to give the other methods a go. My first memory of home-cooked bread (or really, my only memory) came from a bread-maker. We purchased one again a few years back in an attempt to reduce the amount of supermarket bread that graced our table. Next, I took out both Tartine and Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast from the library, more so in the quest for exquisite pizza dough than bread. Nevertheless, I made one loaf with my own starter from each book and received decent results.

Recently, I read Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. His book devotes an entire section to bread-making, and was ultimately the reason why I picked it up in the first place. Everything that could be said about the romanticism of bread-making is said in Cooked, so I'll leave it to Pollan to provide those words. What the book provided me was an excellent starting point in my attempt to understand the science behind the perfect loaf of bread. Pollan writes of his mentorship with Chad Robertson of Tartine Bread and the science behind Robertson's perfect white loaf. That is my starting point. I couldn't agree more with Pollan that most of the literature out there begins with mastering a good loaf of white bread as opposed to wheat, since white bread has been so commonplace for such a long time.

The health detriments caused by white flour and white bread are hard to ignore, and it slightly (very slightly) pains me to begin my bread-making journey there. However, I feel that, much like Pollan, in order to feel comfortable messing around with wheat flours I must first be knowledgeable in the creation of a white loaf. My first experiment of the year came in the form of Jim Lahey's no-knead bread, the infamous no-frills recipe that popped up on the web some years ago and has since gained cult status. Looking back, it seems perhaps a peculiar place to start. Why not a very simple loaf made by the bread-machine? I don't really have an answer for that, except that I was looking for something a little more artisan and Lahey's recipe seemed the perfect fit.

Jim Lahey No Knead Bread

The process

I mixed the dough the night before I planned to cook the bread. Just flour, water, salt and yeast mixed together to form a somewhat shaggy dough with a surprisingly high level of hydration. I covered it with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let it sit for the maximum eighteen hours, falling into early afternoon of the following day. As the recipe suggests, the dough seemed aerated, with bubbles forming on the surface. I turned it out onto the counter (wetting my hands to avoid sticking, as I'd learned in Tartine), gave it a few turns, and allowed it to sit for the recommended fifteen minutes before leaving it for its second rise.

Ah, the second rise. This is the point where the dough is transferred to a bowl sitting on a floured kitchen towel. I had trouble with this process when I made my Tartine-inspired loaves last year, and I had the same issue with Lahey's loaf. The trouble being that my kitchen towel never seems to be floured quite enough, resulting in the dough sticking and ultimately deflating it when trying to peel it into the dutch oven. Furthermore, I'm concerned that at this point I skewed the process a bit by letting it rise longer than Lahey recommended. I left the house for a few hours and debated delaying the second rise a bit by putting the dough into the refrigerator. I didn't, and instead left it on the counter. Instead of a two-hour rise, I'm sure that it was more like four by the time I returned home and pre-heated the oven. 450F, pre-heat for an hour, followed by a half-hour cook with the lid on, followed by anywhere from an additional fifteen to thirty minutes with the lid off to form a browned crust. I cooked mine for the maximum length, hoping that my loaf would resemble one of the Tartinian ones I'd made in the past, only to find that it didn't brown quite the same, or get nearly as dark as I recalled. No, what resulted instead was a crust that I found to be a bit to crusty for my liking (although perhaps the better reasoning is that I need better knives).

After allowing it to cool, the first cut revealed an airy interior. The taste was good, but the scent was better. The slight sourness that comes with anything yeasted lent more to the loaf than the actual taste itself, and thankfully that smell lingered in the house for hours to come. I enjoyed the heel, still warm, with a pinch of butter. The rest I cut up and left to my family for sandwiches. They sang praises, thankfully.

It's easy for me to pick out where I went wrong in the process of making the no-knead bread, although I don't quite understand the science as to why. I have a lot more investigation to do before I come to that conclusion. For now, I suppose that I'll be satisfied with the result. In Cooked, Pollan mentions that he hasn't yet been satisfied with his results and that he has a-ways to go before achieving that perfect loaf. I imagine that for me, my bread-making experience will be a bit like that. The happiness that even a "mediocre" loaf of bread can bring my family is enough to subside my feelings of the need for improvement.

- s



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