Last weekend, my complicated, high-maintenance bread baking project was saved by the ultra-simple no-knead recipe. After a week of messy twice-daily sourdough starter refreshing, I was ready to bake some naturally-leavened bread. Although my past loaves have been lackluster – dense and a bit too sticky – I hoped that this time it would be different.
My starter seemed strong — resilient, lacy webs of gluten and a wonderful aroma — and I possibly had a breakthrough idea to improve the fermentation and proofing. This breakthrough was inspired by a post from Sam Fromartz at Chews Wise, which gave me the idea that my previous bread failures were caused by too-low temperatures during the rise and proof. The weather in Berkeley, my apartment’s layout, and my attitude towards using the heater means that my apartment is generally in the low to mid 60s (Fahrenheit), while the best temperature for rising is in the mid 70s. So I rigged up a better rising place by putting some towel-wrapped warm bricks into a cooler, adding the container full of dough, then shutting the lid to obtain a cooler temperature in the mid 70s.
Alas, this good idea was hampered by mistake I made in the dough-making process. I chose to try a recipe from Maggie Glezer’s Artisan Baking (“Thom Leonard’s Country French Bread”) that involves giving the starter a final feeding the night before the dough mixing and kneading. Something went wrong, and the starter was too watery and seemed almost lifeless the day before. But since it had some bubbles and a good aroma (and since I wouldn’t get another chance to bake for another week), I kept going. Then, when I mixed and kneaded the dough, it was very soft, which was somewhat indicated by the recipe (“This should be a soft, sticky, and extensible dough”), and a previous experience with a soft dough where the dough seemed hopelessly soft yet the bread turned out fine (this was the ciabatta recipe in the same book, which I posted about previously and included a link to the recipe published by the L.A. Times).
But after hours of rising and several “turns”,” the dough was still to soft to hold a shape. Should I give up?
Fortunately, the answer was “no,” because when I was turning on the oven, I had an idea: use the baking technique in the famous no-knead bread recipe,* baking the loaf inside of a heavy, preheated pot, as the soft dough would be held in place by the wall of the pot.
When the oven and preheated pot were ready, I carefully slid out the rack and poured the dough into the hot pot. I put the cover on, slid the rack in again, and closed the oven door. About 20 minutes later I took off the lid and let it bake for 25 more minutes. In the end, it was a stunning loaf: perfectly shaped and with a deep golden-brown hue. Inside the loaf, however, although there was a good variation in bubble size, the bread was somewhat gummy (but still tasty when toasted).
I’m starting to think that I should always bake my bread in a pot. The method gives the loaf a gorgeous color, excellent crust and near-perfect shape. And I think I “owe it one,” as it prevented my week of effort from going into the city green-waste bin.
* The no-knead recipe was created by Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York and became a major trend when Mark Bittman wrote about it in the New York Times. Eventually Lahey used the technique as the basis of a book called My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method.