This. THIS. This is the bread I’ve been looking for.
You might recall that I’ve been trying to make the perfect loaf of bread for some time. I started out decades ago wanting to duplicate the San Francisco sourdough I had gorged on for so many years. It was a quest doomed for failure. I didn’t have a clue about bread making, much less sourdough, and – as is usual for me – had no desire to read instructions first. (If you are like me, then just jump to the recipe!)
I’m like that. I like to learn by doing. Jump right in. This approach to life only works because I’m okay with failure. It’s a reasonable price, in my opinion, to pay for not having to slog through reading (or worse, watching videos of) how to do things the way somebody else thinks is the way I should do whatever it is. I get right into the doing.
Especially with bread. I mean, come on. Humans have been making the stuff for thirty thousand years, give or take a few centuries. Bakers on the go, running from lions and tigers and bears, oh my, didn’t have the luxury of messing around with measuring cups and gram scales. Bakers in medieval kitchens had to churn out dozens and dozens of loaves a day to keep up with the needs of court for trenchers to eat off of. They didn’t have the time to be kneading gallons and gallons of bread dough all day long. Pioneers and prospectors wanted bread to take care of itself while they dealt with the realities of their dreams.
So I concluded that most of today’s bread recipes are modern inventions full of unnecessary and complicated steps that just get in the way of making a simple, ancient food.
Plus kneading bread is boring. I never have figured out how much is too much or too little. My dough has never ever felt or looked like what the fancy recipes describe.
Phase One: Sourdough
After moving to New Mexico and a few years of bread failure, I searched online for a sourdough starter. I had no basis whatsoever for my sole criterion, which was that it was old. Why? I can’t tell you because I don’t really know. It just seemed like a good idea. The starter I settled on supposedly came from the Klondike a hundred or more years ago and ended up on eBay, and what a long distance that was. I read the ecstatic reports from various bakers and of course I had to order it.
It came, a small cellophane package of tan granules that looked suspiciously like commercial yeast. But the package also came with charming instructions, which I glanced through and tossed aside so I could get on with the project
Two problems with sourdough.
First: keeping the starter alive. I reconstituted my eBay find. That involved adding flour to the starter and throwing out some of it. Or maybe the other way around – I forget. But it doesn’t matter which because it was just plain wrong. Innocent yeast was being sent out to the wilderness of my compost pile to die. What a waste. I did not like that at all, but I gritted my teeth and tried my best to make the survivors happy, ignoring the fact that baking was going to kill yeast anyway.
I told myself that regular bread-making would reduce the waste once the starter was up to strength. Regular. That word. It’s the knell of death for anything I am interested in. Keeping sourdough starter alive involves regular attention, which for me is like keeping a prisoner in Guantanamo. It’s ugly. I forgot the regular feeding all the time. I had jars of icky grey liquid floating over water-boarded starter. I became a yeast abuser and that was even worse than throwing starter out.
And then, when I figured the surviving starter was strong enough to make bread, the second problem arose: kneading. Just because this was supposed to be sourdough didn’t mean I miraculously enjoyed kneading, no matter how many other people think it’s wonderful. So what if the yeast was old and supposedly visited San Francisco at some point — that didn’t mean my wrists were happy with slapping dough around. Okay, I know there’s no slapping involved. It wasn’t Guantanamo, after all, but you get the picture.
I kneaded anyway. I baked the first loaf of sourdough and got… yucky, boring bread that had no memory of San Francisco in it. Not a bit of New Mexico or any other sour, either.
Back to Google. Not to carefully read instructions, mind you, but to pick up a few tips that I could experiment with. [Note: the info I used when I started this project was not always the same as what baking experts say today. I’m not the only one who learns more as time goes by]
I’m not going to go through all my attempts at duplicating the tang I remembered. I’ll just say that it was never meant to be. Yeast is not merely a leavening agent. It’s not a chemical like baking soda or baking powder. It is a living organism with its own needs and goals independent of mine. Each of the one-celled life-forms, along with a whole bunch of like-minded friends, eats the sugars in flour and releases carbon dioxide. Um. Farts it out, so to speak. The solid stuff of the flour – gluten – confines the gas, stretching as more gas is produced, and that’s how bread rises.
Don’t ask me how it works with gluten-free bread, I haven’t got a clue.
That said, it’s not the yeast that gives the sourdough its sour, it is the ambient bacteria, or rather the lactic and acetic acids produced by the bacteria that lives in the environment that the dough is made in.
Oh sure, I occasionally made a loaf that approximated the sourdough, but there came the day when I had to face the music. Imagine my shock and dismay to finally realize that I was never going to make San Francisco sourdough unless I made it in San Francisco! Plus it seems that the New Mexico bacteria that live in my house are not into sour.
Phase Two: no-knead
Seven years or so ago my friend Laura sent me an email telling me about an alternative that might appeal to me: no-knead bread. I glanced at the recipe and stored it for later. I was at that time focused on baking bread on top of my wood stove. As if somehow that would improve the sourdough flavor. Mostly I just made hockey pucks for the next two years. Even my dogs wouldn’t eat the stuff, though I tried to convince myself that I liked it. Kinda sorta.
I gave up bread making for a while. I didn’t kill off my yeast, but I did dehydrate it, figuring someday I’d want to use it again.
But the call of bread-making was too much, so a few years after Laura sent that first recipe I Googled no-knead bread. It seemed easy enough, especially since the recipe was illustrated by photos of an eight year old kid making it. And yet… what I produced was boring.
I kept making the bread, tweaking the recipes I used, adding rye, whole wheat, more salt, less salt, more yeast, less yeast.
In my poking around the web, trying to figure out how to make the absolute best, yummiest, sourest no-knead bread possible, I discovered a book by the guru of no-knead bread making, Jim Lahey. My library got it for me and I studied it and tweaked my methods even more.
I finessed my technique till I could make the stuff in my sleep. And I made loaf after loaf of beautiful bread.
But oh, so boring.
Then… THIS LOAF! This lovely, crusty, slightly tangy perfect loaf of no-knead bread!
Fast forward to a couple days ago, when out of desperation I Googled “my no-knead bread is boring”. I love Google. You can find out just about anything you can imagine. I was not disappointed in this search, either.
It turns out I was not truly understanding how yeast works. I though more was better, but this is not true for no-knead bread.
Kneading strengthens gluten in flour like doing push-ups strengthens muscles in a human body (not in my body, mind you). But no-knead bread means flabby gluten. You can’t fix it by adding more yeast because that means means more carbon dioxide gets produced all at once. Flabby gluten isn’t up to it. The carbon dioxide leaks out. The dough becomes a flat tire.
The solution is strengthening the gluten slowly – not by kneading, heaven forbid, but by folding. Folding the dough after it has risen a few hours gently stretches and thus strengthens the gluten. Folding 2-3 times during the raising phase instead of kneading is like doing lots of reps with light weights in the gym instead of power lifting 500 lbs.
Yeast also needs to breathe, not just to eat. Just like us, oxygen goes in, carbon dioxide goes out. During long fermentation (long rising time) the oxygen supply gets short and the poor yeast starts suffocating. Yeast abuse! Folding the no-knead dough several times during the rising releases some carbon dioxide and introduces oxygen into the mix and makes for happy yeast.
So folding the dough benefits the yeast and makes for better bread. The gluten strengthens; the yeasts are happy campers because they get to eat and breathe more and longer, and so a loaf develops a nice rise and a beautiful texture, not to mention a perfect, chewy crust.
But wait! There’s more! Let’s not forget flavor!
Remember, my most recent Google search was about boring no-knead bread. The answer wasn’t about yeast and gluten, but enzymes, which break down starches into sugar (yeast food). You’d think it would be the yeast bringing enzymes to the table since they’re the critters eating the sugar, but no. Enzymes come from the flour. Wheat uses enzymes to break down the starch in kernels for energy to germinate. Thrifty world that we have — yeast benefits from that same enzymatic action after the kernels have been ground to flour.
So finally we come down to the heart of the matter: Flavor, lack of. Why, after all this time, after all the experiments, the Googling, and the hockey pucks, was my bread so boring?
Sure, I had proven to myself I could make bread that rises nicely, that has nice texture, and that is oh, so pretty — but what’s the point if the bread doesn’t fulfill that yearning for something to replace San Francisco sourdough?
So here is my final and huge discovery: Less is more. Boring bread happens when the greedy yeast eats more of the sugar than the enzymes can produce.
I did not believe it. I had to try it. So two afternoons ago I started another batch of no-knead bread, but this time I used a laughably tiny amount of yeast. 1/8 tsp. My measuring spoons don’t even come in 1/8 tsp. I had to eyeball it.
A tiny amount of yeast takes a while to get up to speed. It took till the next day for the dough to get half again larger, and then I folded it. It took hours for a second fold and more hours for the third. But by the time the oven was hot and the dough went in to bake, I knew I had discovered something good. It was clear by the texture and the yeasty smell that this was going to be a different bread.
The baking was done at midnight. No-knead bread tastes best cool – talk about frustration, but there it is. I had to wait till morning to try it.
The first morning of the rest of my bread making years to come. A perfect loaf of tangy, tasty bread. Not sourdough, but way-outback-New-Mexico bread. My bread.
I can’t believe it. I think I had better have another slice to be sure. Hey, it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.
No-knead bread Recipe
2 3/4 c unbleached flour
1/4 c whole rye flour
1/8 tsp instant yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/3 c water, room temp
- Mix dry ingredients, then add water and mix.
- Ferment the dough at room temp 12-16 hours covered with plastic (amount of time depends on how your bread is rising). Fold three times during the fermenting (to fold use a wet spatula, scrape from sides, lift & stretch dough to center, rotating around bowl for 8 scrapes each session)
- After 12-16 hours,scrape onto floured work surface, fold 8-10 times, rest 15 minutes.
- Shape dough into a round, place on parchment paper, proof for 2 1/2 hours more.
- PREHEAT oven 450° 30 minutes before baking, including Dutch oven
- Lift dough with the parchment paper, CAREFULLY put it in the VERY HOT Dutch oven and put the lid on.
- Bake 30 minutes covered, bake 20-30 minutes uncovered. Tap the bread — when it sounds hollow it’s done.
- Cool before slicing.
- I measured the dry ingredients by dipping the measuring cup and then leveling with a knife.
- I could find no info on when to do the folds — I just did them when it seemed the dough had risen as much as it was planning to rise.
- This bread is meant to be baked in a Dutch oven inside your kitchen oven. The Dutch oven and its lid need to be preheated along with the stove oven.
- When you take the bread out of the Dutch oven to cool on a rack, put your ear close enough to listen to it crackle and pop. I don’t know why it does it, but it does make those noises.
Past blog posts on my quest for the perfect bread