The day I left the bakery for the last time, I pretty much figured that I would never make bread again. It wasn’t so much that I was sick to death of the whole thing (though I could have reasonably been excused for feeling that way), more that I just couldn’t imagine trying to replicate the results that you get with a professional-grade mixer, temperature-controlled water dispenser, and a steam injected oven with my Kitchenaid and Kenmore. It just didn’t seem worth the trouble.
So you can imagine my shock and joy when I found a perfect bread recipe last week. There is no kneading, minimal shaping, and no need for steaming up the oven. It’s completely GENIUS.
Knowing a little something about the chemistry of baking myself, I was curious about how it worked. Fortunately, Mark Bittman, who was also taken with this recipe (almost exactly at the time that I was selling the bakery, incidentally) has the clout to call Harold McGee of the indespensible On Food and Cooking who had this to say: “It makes sense. The long, slow rise does over hours what intensive kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.”
This is the thing with McGee. He’s fascinating, but in a highly technical way.
The other part of this process, and what makes it super extra genius, is the addition of a covered ceramic pot as the baking vehicle. In the pre-heated pot, the dough steams itself, and produces a great crust. The recipe then calls for you to uncover the loaf partway through baking, but I’ve found that the crust thickens up better if you take the whole loaf out at that point and just finish it up on the rack. This is probably due to the fact that my vessel is small relative to my dough. I’d say that if the dough is not touching the sides of the pot, you probably don’t gain anything by taking it completely out.
My only quibble? I hate using measures instead of weights for baking. I will be experimenting with this until I settle on the best measures for my taste, and will share them with you here.
So here it is – from Jim Lahey, adapted for Mark Bittman’s blog
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.
1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, 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. 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 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. 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.