Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Bread Recipe

This recipe is a variant of the popular no-knead bread cooked in a crock pot recipe but has undergone a lot of tweaking to get consistent results and optimum crust, following a few months of experimentation.

I'm not in the habit of posting recipes on the internet, but I get asked for this recipe a lot, so I can just point people here when they come asking.

The original recipe as invented by Jim Lahey and propagated by Mark Bittman can be found here.

They call for 3 cups of flour, but cups are not a reliable measure and the hydration level matters here.

They call for 1 5/8 cups of water. Fine, but measuring to 1/8 cup in normal kitchen measuring jugs isn't easy.

The show 'America's Test Kitchen' did a segment on this bread. They claimed it was hard to get consistent results, so they reduced the hydration a bit and added vinegar and beer for flavour. To compensate for the lack of hydration, they had to knead the dough a bit after the first rise. Unfortunately, this messes up the glorious crumb texture, killing the random big holes that make the crumb so perfect. They also suggested heating the pot to 500F then reducing the oven to 425 when you put the dough in. That bit works perfectly.

I merged the two recipes and did a bit of pre-mixing to easily get the consistency of results that ATK stated is hard to get.

The Rules...

The pot
Use a big Le Creuset Style pot. Do get the metal knob. Le Cruset sell them. I don't think the brand matters. Steam is steam and dough is dough. Neither cares what brand the pot is.

The same dough in a smaller Le Cruset will not work out the same. It probably reduces the rate at which moisture gets out, because there's less volume of air above the dough and the dough is more spherical and climbing the walls, so there's a smaller volume to surface area ratio. The risk is that you get a grey, over moist, tasteless crumb. I get around this by leaving the smaller pot in for five more minutes than in the larger pot. Experiment to be sure.

The Ingredients
  • Weigh your flour and liquid. Don't measure by volume.
  • 15 oz of bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar.
  • ~3 oz light beer
  • Enough water to make the liquid up to 13 oz with water.
  • 2 teaspoons of Kosher salt.
  • 1/8 teaspoon of yeast.
All other recipes call for instant yeast, but good luck finding it in your local supermarket. I use Bob's Red Mill Active Dry yeast. Yeast lore suggests that a smaller amount of instant yeast == a larger amount of active dry yeast and the active dry needs to be proofed. Whatever the truth of that, 1/8 teaspoon of Bob's active dry works great. Keep the yeast in the fridge. Mine's going strong a year later. In this bread, less yeast really is more. You want the stuff to grow slowly, giving time for enzymatic action to have a go before the yeast gobbles up all the food.

The procedure
This probably could be described as the - "measure by weight, assemble like Lahey, ingredients like Americas Test Kitchen but keep the full hydration" - method.

I follow these steps and get consistent results.

  • Put the dry goods in your biggest bowl and stir it up. I use a whisk. You want the yeast and salt to be well distributed before you start the sticky phase. This is one of the important steps that leads to consistent results.
  • Pour in the liquid and mix it up with your hand until it is well integrated. Try not to get dough on the rim of the bowl, if you do, wipe it off. You need a clean edge for the cling film.
I use a spatula to clean off the dough club hand and scrape the sides of the bowl down to the dough and push the edges of the dough in, making a more spherical shape.
  • Cover the bowl tightly in clingfilm and leave in a warm place for 18 hours.
The typical recipe says leave it in a warm place. My kitchen isn't warm at night and I don't have a bakery where it is warm. So the bowl goes on the counter on top of the dishwasher and the dishwasher is started. The heat from the dishwasher is just right to make the yeast happy. You will thank me for this, because it not only guarantees a rise, but you're sure to have a clean bowl for your Wheetabix in the morning, since you've just run the dishwasher.

You then need to shape it and put it in a proofing bowl.

Spill out the dough onto a heavily floured surface. Other recipies say 'lightly floured' I don't know what they are thinking. The dough will stick to anything. Be generous with the flour underlay if you want to to go easy. Spread it out a bit. Use your fingertips and try to avoid degassing it. Fold in the four sides. Try to pull and stretch a bit as you lift an edge to fold it. The original video shows it well at around 2.23 into the action.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13Ah9ES2yTU .

Here's where the America Test Kitchen version comes back in. Lahey messed with cloths and polenta which seems messy and the polenta burns. America's Test Kitchen lined a proofing bowl (a skillet in their case) with a square of parchment. I just use the bowl I did the first rise in (for less washing). So I do this..
  • Spray the parchment with some pam.
  • Line the bowl with the parchment, pam side up.
  • Dump in the dough to rise for a couple of hours. 3-4 hours rise won't do any harm and will give a bit more lift.

The genius here is you can use the parchment paper to lift the dough into the scorching hot pot and use it to lift the bread back out again when its done. This is a lot better than fiddling with oven gloves.

I had experimented with a range of temperatures and landed on 425 as giving the right crispy, chewy crust while avoiding the over dry, slightly burnt edge. But the lift wasn't perfect. ATK solved this. They suggested heating the pot to 500F, putting in the dough and reducing the temperature to 425 to bake. The initial higher heat gives a better lift. The 425F bake gives a good crust. So do that.
  • Heat the pot in the oven for 45+ minutes to 500F.
  • Remove the very hot pot from the oven.
  • Take the dough from the proofing bowl and put in the very hot pot by lifting it on the parchment. Lower both the parchment and dough into the pot. The parchment acts as a lining to stop it sticking.
  • Put the lid back on on the pot and return it to the oven.
  • Reduce the temperature to 425 F.
  • Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on.
  • Bake for another 20 with the lid off. 25-30 if the pot is small.

Do dump in the dough with the parchment and all. If you don't do that, at least put a bit of lining parchment in the bottom. I was happy to find that the bread didn't stick to my shiny new Le Cruset. I was less happy to find that it stuck hard to my less than shiny Le Cruset after I had used it a few times resulting in a torn and non pretty loaf.

Once you have the loaf out and on a cooling rack, do not cut it before it has cooled. Leave it until tomorrow preferably. If you take a loaf out hot and cut it right away, it will be grey, over moist and tasteless. The carry over is important.

The pitfalls...
Here are the things that I can confirm from personal experience, will make your day worse:

Too much water/Too little flour == Wet nasty bread. Do weigh your ingredients.

A small pot runs the risk of over wet crumb. Do use a bigger pot, or leave a smaller pot in longer.

Too much yeast == a small, hard loaf with less flavour. The excess yeast chomps down on all the available food and then runs out. The action is over before any enzymatic action came in to improve the flavour and by the time you get to the dough 18 hours later, it has risen and deflated again.

Too hot == nasty crust. People seem to like recommending astronomical temperatures. Don't listen. 400 gives you supermarket bread. 425 is much much better. 425 is better than 450 and 500 will give a thick, bone dry, dark, semi burnt crust.

The wrong beer is bad. Don't use your special import Theakstons old Peculiar. Do use some lightweight, light coloured larger/pilsner thing from the local supermarket. Quality beer was never intended to be baked.

No lining in the pot == A torn loaf the third time you try, because it sticks to the inside of the pot.

Dead yeast. It's dead. It won't rise your dough. By some quality yeast from your local Whole Foods store. I like Bob's Red Mill Active Dry. It's magic.

The Summary
There's quite a bit of stuff there, but once you've done it a couple of times, you'll find it's just 5 minutes assembly in the evening. Then five minutes operating the oven the next day, with lots of waiting in between. So it's not a lot of effort to produce better bread than you can buy.

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