For the last several months, I’ve been taking steps toward perfecting my bread baking skills. From the dough mixture, to rising times, to cooking methods, I’ve tried to experiment a bit with all of these factors to come up with a truly great bread. And, while I am certainly no master baker yet, I have figured out a thing or two about bread.
First off, there are two major points of discussion, the dough and the cooking method. Let’s start with the dough. For this recipe, I kept it super simple, and used the following ingredients:
1 cup fed sourdough starter
1/2 – 1 cup warm water
3 cups flour (I used 2 cups white flour and 1 cup wheat for this bread)
1 1/2 tsp salt
Cornmeal for baking
When making a kneaded bread, the kneading physically smashed the gluten together to activate it, and causes the dough to form inner bonds. But, the beauty of no knead bread is that the same bonding will occur naturally over time. Instead of several rounds of kneading and rising, the no knead method just requires some extra time. Many no kneads do not use sourdough starter, and will include yeast. This is essentially the same thing. A sourdough starter has active yeast in it. The only difference is in the proportions of your ingredients, as the starter will also have flour and water, whereas the yeast alone will not. If you are looking for a non-sourdough version, try here.
So, start by mixing up all the ingredients. If there is anything I have learned from making dough from scratch with my hands, it’s that you must start with the wet ingredients incorporated into the starter or sponge, then slowly add your dry ingredients and incorporate. I cannot stress this enough. If you add the dry ingredients all at once, a mess of a dry dough ball will form and you will have to work your dough so much that the gluten will lock up on you and create a round brick. Save yourself the heartache and just add things slowly. Remember, baking is a science and it requires patience. Do not try to rush.
A quick word about food processors and mixers. While I love these tools, I genuinely do not use them for bread making. Mostly because over time you can train your senses to feel the dough and know about it. Using a mixer or food processor doesn’t allow you to get to know your dough by touch, and you may not be able to tell if there is a problem. That said, if you are more comfortable with a mixer or food processor, by all means use it, just know that you will more likely get better results over time by using all your senses. Convenience is not always a good thing.
Digression aside, let’s go back to the recipe. Once your ingredients are all incorporated, you should have a think shaggy dough. This is where the 1/2 – 1 cup water comes in. You may need more or less, especially if you plan on using a portion of wheat flour as I did. Just make sure your dough is dry enough to remain in one piece, yet still shaggy and damp.
Now, put this all in a bowl and leave it alone for 12-18 hours. I cover my bowl with plastic wrap, and set it on the counter, away from where I am tempted to fiddle with it. This time allows the dough to rise and the gluten to activate. This is crucial to the no knead method. So, mix up your down one evening and plan on baking the next day.
After 12-18 hours, take your dough out and turn it onto a well floured flour sac cloth or baking couche. You are going to simply fold the dough over itself several times. Let it relax for 15 minutes, then place it in a bowl (seam side down from the folding) in the flour sac cloth. Again, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for 1-2 hours.
Now onto the cooking method.
Bread reacts to different methods of cooking in various ways. I’ve tried many things, the spraying with water method, the water in the oven method, no water, convection baking, conventional baking, low heat, high heat, you name it.
The secret is none of these things on their own, but transfer of energy. Bread does best when the transfer of energy from the heat source to the dough is achieved quickly. So far, the best way I have found for this is using a Dutch oven (for boules) or a baking stone for other shapes (like baguettes). Since you will be placing your dough directly on a heat source which retains high levels of heat, the overall transfer of energy to your dough is much higher than if you simply placed the dough in the over on a baking sheet.
So, about 30 minutes before you plan on baking your bread, heat your oven to 475 degrees with your Dutch oven inside the oven. I usually put it on the lowest rack in the middle with the top on. You can use cast iron (which is what I use) or enamel (like Le Creuset), either way you want this vessel to get very hot.
Once heated, open the oven, slide the rack out, remove the top from your Dutch oven, sprinkle some cornmeal into the bottom, gently place your dough on the cornmeal, slash the top, and replace the top. Close the oven, and begin a timer for 30 minutes. Very important, since we are taking about heat retention and energy transfer: Do not open your oven while this is cooking. We want to oven and the vessel inside to retain as much heat as possible.
After 30 minutes have gone by, remove the cover from your Dutch oven and continue baking uncovered at 475 degrees for an additional 15 minutes, or until the top of your bread is nice and golden.
After about 45 minutes, your should have a nice beautiful bread. Let the bread rest and cool for at least an hour before you slice into it. You can tell if the energy transfer was good by looking at your slashes. If there is visible oven spring you have done it correctly. Oven spring is the quick rising of the bread in the oven from air, and you can see how the crust rose at the slashes in this bread.
Compare these two breads (both sourdough):
The bread on the left is the one I just made in the dutch oven which has clearly experienced some nice oven spring and has a very nice crusty outside. The breads on the right, also sourdoughs, were baking in a regular oven (on a baking sheet) using the method of capturing steam in the oven by spraying water just before closing the door. These clearly did not come out the same way. While the breads on the right were very tasty, they didn’t have a thick crispy crust and no oven spring.
As I mentioned, a baking stone (or pizza stone) operates much in the same way. While the Dutch oven does keep in steam while baking, and keeps heat all around the dough, the baking stone, because it heats to high levels and retains that heat, will transfer energy to your dough quicker and more efficiently than other baking method.