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All you knead

(article, Ellen Jackson)

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I’ve felt comfortable in the kitchen as far back as I can remember. Weekend mornings as a young child were often spent manning the griddle from a stepstool, flipping pancakes made from a dog-eared page in my personal bible, the 1965 edition of [%bookLink code=0764526340 "Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls"]. 

[%image starter float=left width=300 caption="The gooey starter dough for No-Knead Bread."]

There’s no question that I gravitated to recipes calling for butter, flour, sugar, and eggs — perhaps a foreshadowing of my career as a pastry chef — but I was careful to balance my diet of sweets with the occasional Bunny Salad (pear half, cottage-cheese tail, almond-sliver ears, and raisin eyes, perched on a bed of lettuce) or loaf of Swedish rye bread, speckled with anise and fennel seeds and plenty of orange zest. That bread opened a delicious window into bread baking.

I was a bit older and living on my own when I first heard the call of “serious” bread, the sort of loaf one might slice thickly and serve with soup for lunch or as toast for breakfast. I wasn’t religious about practicing my new craft, but I was definitely hooked. I even maintained a starter for a time, until the refrigerator in my tiny Brooklyn apartment conked out and I ended up feeding the starter to the dumpster.

[%image reference-image float=right width=350 caption="Bread dough, ready to be baked."]

If you’ve never experienced the aroma of bread baking in your own kitchen, the crunchy crust and squishy middle of the heel, surreptitiously sliced from a too-hot loaf, you haven’t lived. Period. It’s pure joy.

It’s been almost 18 months since Mark Bittman published Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread recipe in the New York Times. To say that this recipe took the home-baking world by floury storm would not be an exaggeration. We all know someone who’s tried No-Knead Bread; maybe we even know someone who makes at least one loaf a week. Few of us need to bake at home these days for our daily bread, and yet many of us have fallen in love with this reliable and resilient loaf.

The principles behind the bread’s success aren’t revolutionary: With a simple list of four ingredients, minimal handling, and a new method of ripening the dough over an open-ended period of 12 to 18 hours, you, too, can turn out a tangy, flavorful loaf of bread with a texture that boasts artisan-like big bubbles and a chewy crumb. The recipe is great because it’s both simple and delicious.

[%image bread float=left width=300 caption="The final, crackly result."]

No kneading, special equipment, or experience is required. All you need is time — time that can be spent asleep in bed or working at the office — to allow the dough to develop texture and flavor. 

An extremely wet dough and a long, slow rise accomplish in hours what kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules together, maximizing their opportunity to bind to each other for a strong, elastic texture. The high proportion of water in the shaggy, gooey dough allows those molecules to move quickly and efficiently, and is partly responsible for a crust that crackles and shatters like an artisan loaf. (The steam created by covering the pot during the first 30 minutes of baking is the other crust factor.)

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After I’d made the original No-Knead Bread a dozen times, I began to experiment, making little changes here and there. I substituted small amounts of cornmeal, whole-wheat, and semolina flours for the same amount of all-purpose flour, and warm dark beer for some of the water. I added honey and barley malt for extra interest and depth of flavor. I stirred in toasted nuts and dried fruit in search of different flavors and textures, and bread that would stand up to my breakfast topping of choice: crunchy peanut butter with a drizzle of honey. Lately I’ve been adding grains and seeds for extra flavor, crunch, and nutrition; I think this is my best experiment to date. 

If you tucked the original No-Knead Bread recipe away, try a twist on it tomorrow. Take five minutes while you’re preparing dinner to stir the ingredients for the dough together. You’ll be pulling a loaf from the oven by lunch or dinner the next day, and waking up the next morning to warm toast, slathered with peanut butter. 

p(bio). Former pastry chef Ellen Jackson is a food writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.


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