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Lazy, patient baker gets delicious loaf

April 29th, 2009 · 4 Comments · Food preparation, recipes

loaf2

When it comes to bread-baking, many paths seem to lead to the same destination. Some of those paths might leave you a little off-target, but with flour, water and yeast, you’ll wind up with something like bread in the end.

Through my own efforts, your comments and the words of assorted experts, in fact, I’m willing to say only three things for certain about bread:

  • You need lots of practice to get a consistent result.
  • You need to weigh your flour (versus measuring by volume) to get consistent results.
  • You need to have a controlled environment in terms of temperature and humidity to get consistent results.

Seeing as I have none of the above, I’ve had and expect to continue to have inconsistent results. (OK, I do have a kitchen scale, but I don’t think it’s very accurate and I haven’t used it to weigh flour.)

All else varies

Everything else seems up for debate, whether it’s the type of yeast (fresh, active dry or instant/quick rise), the quantity of yeast, the temperature of the water (as long as it’s below the temperature at which it will kill the yeast, let’s say 120 degree F and higher), the rising time, the rising temperature…well, you get the idea.

The one bread recipe I’ve used a lot, for Tuscan bread, always produces two loaves of bread but the quality varies. My recent efforts to make a satisfactory all-whole-grain bread have produced, shall we say, unsatisfactory but edible results.

I therefore have decided to focus on 50% whole wheat bread (which everyone agrees is easier) and one that requires scant physical effort due to aging wrists and thumb joints and laziness. Even though my first effort didn’t proceed exactly as I expected from reading the recipe (dough was too wet to handle), it was delicious. It had a crispy crust, a beautiful brown color and a nice crumb and flavor. Yes, it’s that loaf at the top of this post as well as here, fresh from the oven:

loaf

Here’s how it went. It’s based on Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread in How to Cook Everything (10th Anniversary Edition). The recipe as it appeared in the New York Times is here.

Slow crusty 50% whole wheat bread

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon vital gluten
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 cups warm water (about 80 degrees)
  1. Mix the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, vital gluten, salt and yeast in a mixing bowl. Add water, and stir until ingredients are well-combined. Dough will follow the spoon and clean the sides of the bowl as you stir but will be fairly soft and sticky.
  2. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and put someplace to rise and ferment. It’s ready for the next step when the surface is bubbly looking. (My photo efforts were no good.) As to the rising time, my first time out, I let it rise about 20 hours on top of the refrigerator overnight. It was pretty cool in the room, maybe 66 degrees, and it needed that long rise. Second time out, I put it in the same place, but room was about 75 degrees, and the dough was bubbly within about 5 hours. In other words, unfortunately, you’re going to have to wing it unless you have a well-controlled environment, which my house most definitely is not. If you need to arrest the rising until you have more time, put it in the refrigerator. (More on this in a minute.)
  3. balldoughDeflate the dough by pressing down with your hand or a spoon. Turn onto floured surface, dust top with flour and form into a ball. (That’s my first “ball” at right.)
  4. Place ball on well-floured, smooth kitchen towel (not terry cloth) or silicone mat. Cover again with plastic, and let rise an hour or so, until pressing the surface with your finger causes the dough to yield and not spring back. (It’s risen too much if the dough has become really squishy, where putting your finger in it isn’t too far different from putting it in, say, whipped cream.) If you aren’t going to bake it in an hour or so, put the dough into the refrigerator, then bring it out later and let it warm up and rise until it meets the no-springback-but-not-squishy test.
  5. Preheat a heavy Dutch oven with lid in your oven set at 450 degrees for about a half hour. Then, push, shove, drop or do whatever you need to do to get the dough into the dutch oven. (I seem to need to push, shove and drop to get the job done.) Cover with lid.
  6. Bake 30 minutes, then remove lid. Bake 20 minutes more or until golden brown.
  7. Remove bread from Dutch oven with mitts or tongs (or just upend the pot), and allow to cool on rack 30 minutes or more before slicing. Yum!

Note: You could probably skip the vital gluten, especially if you use bread flour instead of all-purpose flour, but I had the gluten so I used it and probably got a little boost in structure as a result.

firstbake

Bread in pan right after lid is removed

Refrigeration and timing

I’ve come to the conclusion that the refrigerator is the key to making this work if your schedule isn’t entirely predictable. The second time I made this bread, it rose quickly, and I’m not sure what might have happened if I let it ferment overnight as planned. Maybe the yeast would have died or maybe I’d have wound up with so-called flabby dough, as it would have lost some of its oomph from excess rising. I don’t know. Not an expert here.

In any event, when my dough rose much faster than expected (maybe I accidentally used more yeast?), I moved the covered bowl into the refrigerator until lunchtime the following day. Then, I took it out, deflated it, formed a ball, covered it and put it back into the fridge, because I wasn’t going to be able to bake it until evening.

I was surprised when I pulled the dough back out a few hours later and found that the dough had risen somewhat. I set it on the counter to complete its rise, which it did in about 30 minutes. How did I know it was ready? Yes, it was nearly double the size of the original ball, and it didn’t spring back when touched but wasn’t squishy. The dough was cool still from the refrigerator. Undeterred, I baked it as described and got a loaf even better than the one I got the first time. Yea!

Lesson learned: Go by the descriptions, not by the time when trying this exercise. And stick the dough in the refrigerator to slow or arrest rising.

The Dutch oven

I’ve been the lucky owner for some years now of a couple of Le Creuset enameled iron pots. (I got them as gifts, lucky me!) I love cooking in them, but the one I used most (naturally) for mysterious reasons had a nonstick lining. Enamelware is so easy to clean, I don’t know what they were thinking with that lining. Anyway, the lining degraded and took to flaking off in whatever was cooking. Although I read that that isn’t a health hazard, it’s certainly unappealing.

So I was delighted to buy a significantly less expensive and similar pot with the Rachel Ray label. I apparently didn’t read something, because I learned too late that its cushiony silicone handle wasn’t supposed to be used in an oven above 350 degrees F. Uh-oh. Funny sounds and unpleasant smell revealed a problem, as did the crack in the handle and black stuff from it that cooked onto the lid. I proceeded nevertheless but figured I’d better replace the handle.

I replaced the RR handle with a $2 Bakelite handle from the hardware store, and it works great. (No hardware store? replacement knobs are also available at Amazon.com.) The New York Times story about the bread method says baker Jim Lahey used a Le Creuset pot and a heavy ceramic pot, and writer Mark Bittman says he has used cast iron, so those are other options.

Lesson learned: Find out how much heat your pot’s knob can handle before you heat it to 450 degrees.

The big lesson learned

The big lesson learned, however, is that heck, yes, I can bake a good loaf of bread that isn’t quite as good as but has many of the same qualities as a good loaf from WheatFields Bakery and at a significantly lower cost.

And I got a bonus when I baked the second loaf:  I also baked a dessert and a giant sweet potato from Rolling Prairie. True, I wouldn’t have baked those two things at as high a temperature if it weren’t for the bread, but I just kept an eye on them, and they were perfect without spending an extra penny for the heat.

Yes, I can make a good loaf of bread. I’ll bet you can do it too.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Meryl

    Every once in awhile I try to make bread. It’s usually good, but never as good as Wheatfields! ;)

  • Jennifer

    Mmmm, in my dream life, I’d own a bakery, bake maybe one loaf of bread a day, but mainly just sit around and bask in the oh-so-delicious smell of rising dough. It’s almost(!) better than eating the results. I’ve read numerous positive reviews of this recipe, but man, if I’m going to make bread, I want my house to smell like it, not just my fridge!

    And re: the RR pot; that’s just stupid on the manufacturer’s part. Enameled cast iron is meant to go in the oven, not just on the stovetop. Duh.

  • Janet Majure

    Well, Meryl, that’s why they’re professionals and we’re amateurs.

    Jennifer, I recommend just hanging around a bakery and sniffing. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the pot. True, much of what you’d cook in it in the oven would be slow braises, but still.

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