This past year I have discovered the joys of “fermentation” in the guise of yogurt-making and bread-baking. At the start of the year, I dusted off a yogurt maker that had been long forgotten at the back of the cupboard, and have been keeping all of us (including the dogs, who love it) supplied with this probiotic-loaded, highly nutritious food, you can find the directions to make your own here. I put a spoonful of it to top off the dogs’ meals, or let them lick it right off the spoon.
And, despite living in one of the country’s artisan-bakery hubs, it’s now been over a year since I’ve bought bread. And I must admit I always was a die-heart bread fanatic. So when I heard about the ease of baking your own bread that came via Jim Lahey from the Sullivan Street Bakery (NYC) and his able acolyte, Mark Bittman of the New York Times, I was intrigued.
With my very first loaf turning out great, I was hooked and have been busy baking our own whole wheat, country-style bread using his “no-knead” method, a trend (ahem) rising in kitchens everywhere.
For as long as I can recall, when it came to bread making, the need to knead was my downfall, so the idea of “no-knead” was an enticing come-on. I couldn’t be more thankful for what this simple recipe has given us. Not only does it fill the house with the nothing-better-than aroma of freshly baked bread, it also provides the crunchy delight of olive-oil-laced crouton snacks for our pups and abundant, tasty breadcrumbs for their turkey meatloaf.
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Lahey’s basic white bread recipe, which started this craze, can be found here. But whole wheat bread is not only better for you, but one that I especially am fond of, so I was pleased to see that he also has a great cookbook, aptly titled, My Bread, that goes into detail about “pane integrale” whole wheat, rye and many other varieties. This recipe is so simple, not only is there no kneading, but you don’t have to “test’ the yeast, or punch down the rising loaf.
So I suggest that you view the video to learn about the basic technique, but recommend you try the whole wheat version first. The basic difference with the recipe for the white bread version (featured in the video) and the whole wheat (or rye) one is that instead of using 3 cups of bread flour, you use 2 cups of bread flour (be sure to use bread flour and not all-purpose) and 1 cup of whole wheat or rye. I’ve adapted the recipe slightly, so I combine 3 different flours—about 2/3 c of whole wheat, a couple of tablespoons of rye and topping it off with spelt flour (all 3 different types together equal one cup). I also add another tablespoon or so of water, to the 1 1/3 cups of water.
Whole Wheat bread recipe:
(Adapted from Jim Lahey)
2 c bread flour
1 c whole wheat (or a mix of whole wheat, spelt, rye) flour
1 ¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp instant or active dry yeast
1 ⅓ c (plus a scant tbsp.) cool water
Put all dry ingredients into a medium sized mixing bowl, and using a wooden spoon or your hands, mix all the dry ingredients, making sure that the flours are well integrated. Then pour all the water into the bowl, not in one place but over the top of the flours to cover as much as you can. Then mix that it all with a spoon or your hands. That should take only 30 seconds or a minute or so. Cover the bowl with plastic and let rise for 12 to 18 hours at room temperature. It should double in size. (The warmer the room the less rising time, but 12 hours is always the minimum amount of time for the bread to ferment slowly—an important aspect of this recipe.)
After the dough has gone through that first rise, generously flour a surface (like a cutting board or counter top, use white flour for this) and your hands, and remove all the dough from the bowl. It might stick to the bowl, but be sure you get it all out in one piece. You can also use a plastic bowl scraper, but you want to remove all the dough in one piece. With your well-floured hands (to keep them from sticking to the dough), shape the dough by folding and refolding (a few times) and then forming it into a round form (it will be around 6 inches in diameter in a nice round ball form). Gently move the dough unto a well-floured tea towel (do NOT use terry cloth, and you can use cornmeal, or bran instead of flour), cover with either another tea towel or the edges of the towel. Let the dough rest for 1 to 2 hours in a draft free spot. The dough is ready for baking when, after a gentle poke with your finger, it leaves a slight impression. It if doesn’t, wait another 15 minutes and test it again.
Here’s the important part of what makes the magic of this simple baking method work—Lahey’s “oven within an oven” discovery. You will be baking the bread in either a heavy covered 4 ½ quart to 5 ½ quart pot, like an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, or a 5-quart Lodge cast-iron pot. I like the clay ware La Cloche cooking bell best because I find it easier to place the dough loaf onto it, instead of “flinging” the loaf into a higher sided pot. It is very important that whatever pot you use, that pot stays covered during the preheating and the first part of the baking process. This is the "oven within the oven" trick created by Lahey and, as he describes it, “It accomplishes what classic domed brick ovens do: it completely seals in the baking process so the steam escaping from the bread can do its work to ensure a good crust and a most crumb.”
Half way through this second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees. To accommodate a large pot or a La Cloche you will probably need to remove all the racks from the over, except for one on the lower third portion that you’ll be using. I start the preheating ½ hour after the loaf was shaped, so even if it does take 2 hours for the dough to be ready, at least the oven and the pot are nice and hot.
When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven, making sure not to place the pot on a cool surface (especially if using a La Cloche), remove the cover, then working quickly, gently flip the loaf over into the pot, so the “bottom” of the dough becomes the top of the loaf. You might have to flour your hands to do this, to avoid the dough sticking to your hands. Don't worry if the “bread,” at this point, looks flat and blob-like. Cover the pot, and again, working quickly, place it on the middle of the oven rack.
Bake for 30 mins., at 475 degrees, the first blast of heat causes the fermenting dough to become “bread” in what is called “over spring.” After 30 mins. remove the lid from the pot and bake the bread for another 10 to 20 minutes. At this point it will definitely look like a loaf of bread. The time depends on how hot your oven is, and how dark you like your crust. By this time your kitchen will be drenched in that lovely, fresh bread aroma, savor it as your loaf cooks.
Remove the loaf from the pot and cool on a rack—while it should be easy to remove it from the hot pot, you might need to use a spatula to gently pry it up from the bottom. I know it is irresistible, but do not cut into the loaf until it is fully cooled, it is still “finishing” the baking process even out of the oven. The bread is said to “sing” at this cooling period, but the “singing” is evidence of the last phase of cooking.
A couple of things to note about storing bread, never ever store it in plastic, it is best just to place the loaf, once you slice it, on the cut side down on an enamel plate. You can store it in a paper bag but do NOT seal it. Or you can use wax paper too.
Yeast: It is more affordable to buy it in bulk instead of in those little packets, so I’ve been buying the 16 oz instant yeast, “Saf Red instant” from King Arthur Flour—it is only $5.95 and that makes a lot of bread. This yeast is the one most recommended by bakers and it has never failed me.
I just bought my second one-pound purchase, the first one lasted almost a year. Make sure to store yeast in the refrigerator. I place a smaller amount into a little glass jar and then store the rest of the yeast in a larger container.
Bread flour: I use King Arthur’s but there are many other good ones—you must use bread flour, all-purpose does not have the protein content for bread.
Whole wheat flour: There are a few great brands, some of them from local millers. The hard red winter wheat flour (In California) from Community Grains is great, so too is the organic whole wheat high protein flour (made from Northern spring wheat) from Giusto’s Vita Grain. King Arthur Flour also has a good whole wheat flour but I urge you to see what your local milling companies have to offer. It really is quite the discovery to learn about how vibrant that sector has become.
Even though “no-knead” was invented by Jim Lahey there are many others who have interpreted this method very successfully. I have also used the recipes from Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois’ Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day—I especially like their brioche. There are oh so many videos showing methods and recipes, including Breadtopia.com.
Just go to YouTube and search for “no knead bread,” you’ll be amazed at how many others have been baking bread, so hopefully this will inspire you to start baking your own. Send us photos when you do, would love to see your “loaves.”
Uses for leftover bread:
For croutons, I use whatever is left over as I bake the next loaf (I bake about 3 times a week), slice the bread into small cubes (or whatever size you prefer), place in a bowl and add olive oil mixing the oil well on all the cubes, then place on a cookie sheet and cook at around 350 for 15 to 30 mins.—the baking time depends on how crunchy you like them. I give them to the dogs for extra special treats, sometimes spreading a little homemade peanut butter on them. (I also just started to make peanut butter, another extremely simple thing to whip up.) For the bread crumbs, I heat up some day old (or older) bread, cut it into larger cubes, place in a blender or food processor, and pulse a few times until is the consistency you desire. Some people then bake the crumbs in the oven for a few minutes, but if you heat the bread first you don’t need to do that. You can freeze the bread crumbs if you aren’t going to use them soon.
If you don’t have a good bread knife you will soon be wanting to get one, I found that the Victorinox model 47547 works really great. You should be able to find one for less than $40 (considering that I was looking at knives arranging from $200 to $300, this great find, recommended by Chow, was a bargain).