When Mark Bittman wrote about Jim Leahy’s “no knead bread” in the New York Times in 2006, it caused a frenzy in the blogosphere, leading to hundreds of posts about attempts to make the bread. I tried it myself and deemed it to be bimbo-esque: beautiful but shallow.
I recently started baking another kind of “no knead bread,” but I really doubt that it will be sweeping across the blogosphere, even if Mark Bittman writes an article about it in the Times food section. This no knead bread is a German-style rye bread called Kornbrot or Vollkornbrot, (meaning “kernal bread” or “full kernal bread,” respectively). Unlike the 2006 Leahy blockbuster, this bread takes a lot of effort, including several days of preparation, a strong arm and a lot of patience.
An Early Start
Unlike the batter-type starter I used for the La Brea Bakery sourdough, this recipe uses a stiff starter with a consistency of soft bread dough and an incredible stickiness and elasticity. The photo to the right shows the inner structure of the starter 12 hours after it was fed. Starting out as an airless blob of dough, it rises to become a lacey network of gluten strands. It smells like a loaf of classic sourdough bread.
The starter requires a few days of feeding before the bread baking day. I keep my stiff starters in the refrigerator when I’m not preparing to bake, so I removed one of them and began the refreshment process. Twice a day over the next few days, I combined 10 grams of starter, 25 grams of water, and 45 grams of bread flour, kneaded it into a smooth mass of dough, and placed it in a covered container.
I have been following a recipe from Maggie Glezer’s “Artisan Baking Across America” (also sold as “Artisan Baking”). The bread is mostly healthy whole-grain ingredients: rye flour, cracked rye kernels, whole rye kernels, and sunflower seeds. The balance of the ingredients are the refreshed starter, water, salt and commercial yeast. Yes, the bread contains yeast in the form of sourdough starter and commercial yeast. Although sourdough starter has been a critical part of rye bread for centuries (see the “Bread Science Note” below for details), sourdough starter is in this recipe to improve the bread’s flavor.
About eight hours before baking, I start preparing some of the ingredients. The whole rye grains are mixed with hot water. Cracked rye is mixed with lukewarm water. The refreshed starter is mixed with water and cracked rye (to create a “rye starter”).
No Knead Doesn’t Mean No Effort
Putting all of the ingredients together is where the “no knead” part comes in. The first step is to combine all of the pre-mixed ingredients from the night before (or from that morning) with rye flour, water, yeast, and sunflower seeds. Then it’s time to mix — not knead — the dough. Glezer instructs to
…mix this stiff, heavy dough for as long as you can with a wooden spoon. Cover the dough and let it rest for 15 minutes. Stir the dough again for as long as you can and let it rest again for 10 minutes. Stir the dough again for as long as you can. When the dough looks pasty and is quite sticky, the mixing is complete.
Strictly speaking, there is no kneading involved, but I can testify that it is almost as much work as kneading a ball of dough. The Kornbrot dough is thick and viscous — it has more in common with stiff oatmeal or cake batter than bread. For example, after scraping the dough into a bread pan, you actually use an offset spatula to smooth the top before letting it rise.
The dough rises for about one hour after mixing, then is baked for about three hours at 300 F (150 C). Some of the patience I referred to above is required after the bread comes out of the oven. Glezer recommends letting the finished loaf rest in a plastic bag for twelve hours before eating.
I have baked this bread four times, with better results each time. Sliced thinly, lightly toasted, and smeared with butter, orange marmalade, or gruyere cheese, the bread is delicious. The combination of whole grains, cracked grains, and sunflower seeds provide interesting texture, while the matrix of sourdough starter and rye flour offer structure and hearty rye flavor.
I have a few blegs related to this bread that I hope can be answered by my readers:
- If anyone knows where I can buy “cracked rye” (rye kernels that have crushed so they look like bulgur wheat) in the Bay Area, I’d appreciate a tip. I resorted to mail ordering the cracked rye from Bob’s Red Mill, an easy enough process but one that almost doubles the price of the product (and requires additional planning ahead).
- The top crust of the loaf has been too hard and generally inedible. Could I improve the result by covering the loaf with aluminum foil for part or all of the baking?
- The recipe calls for a firm starter, but Glezer says you can use any kind of sourdough starter. How could I convert the recipe to use a batter-type starter? Is there a simple formula that adjusts the water content to account for a different type of starter?
- Can you recommend another Kornbrot recipe? I saw one in Peter Reinhart’s latest book but haven’t studied it to know what is required.
Bread Science Note
It turns out that the sourdough starter is a critical ingredient in breads that made from rye flour and kernels. Rye has been grown for millennia in northern and central Europe. The cool and wet weather of that region can cause rye kernels to sprout while in the field or just after harvest. Sprouting causes an increase in the enzyme alpha amylase, which breaks down the starch in the grain (these smaller sugars are more easily used by the sprouting seed). Too much alpha amylase will cause the loaf to collapse and be gummy and inelastic. By using a sourdough starter, the pH of the dough is lowered (i.e., made more acidic) and the alpha amylase is deactivated. The rye that is sold in American stores is grown in drier climates (probably the plains of Canada), so the sourdough isn’t a necessity for making an edible loaf, but it gives the bread a more complex flavor, longer shelf life, and moist texture.