Breads are a fundamental food in every culture and never has there been such a variety under one basic heading. Breads fall into two main categories, leavened and unleavened. Leavened beads can be further divided into quick breads and yeast breads. Yeast breads can be further divided into mass produced, artisan, bread machine, fermented, kneaded and no knead. There may be overlaps. For example, a bread machine bread can be also a fermented bread if it uses sourdough starter however, a bread machine bread while home made is not considered an artisan bread because machinery is used to do the mixing and kneading. Some using stand mixers consider their breads artisan and while they may be outstanding loaves of bread, they really are homemade breads rather than artisan breads.
The artisan category is simple, hand crafted breads made without the aid of machinery. At their purest, artisan breads are hand mixed, hand kneaded and shaped. Any yeast bread recipe can be used to make artisan breads. Artisan breads can be kneaded breads or no knead breads. No knead artisan breads use either a room temperature fermentation (12 to 18 hours) or a cold fermentation (24 hours to several days). It is common for artisan bread recipes to use premium ingredients (eg. organic flours, whole grain flours, raw honey, steel cut oats, sea salt) and great attention is paid to the shaping of the loaf as well as slashing the top properly before baking. Consumers consider artisan breads as gourmet breads and as such these breads bring premium prices. I have seen artisan loaves of bread as high as $7 a loaf!
The average home cook can easily produce artisan breads at home for about 30¢ per loaf and well under $1 even if using premium ingredients or adding additional ingredients like herbs, cheeses, dried fruits, nuts and seeds. No knead artisan breads are particularity easy for any home cook to make as all that is involved is the mixing, fermentation period, shaping and baking. The ingredients can be as simple as flour, salt, yeast and water. Equipment can be as simple as a bread pan or baking sheet. If you want a crispy, chewy crust as in store bought crispy rolls, you will need a cast iron Dutch oven or a shallow, oven proof pan to put water in and put on the rack below the baking loaf. Some have reported good crispy crust results using a regular covered roasting pan.
I have been experimenting with no knead artisan breads both room temperature fermented and cold fermented over the past couple of weeks. I want to perfect my method so we can not only to enjoy wonderful artisan breads at home but also at our vacation home where I do not want to buy specialized equipment to do the kneading for me. I can no longer knead bread to the degree it takes to get a good loaf of bread so use a stand mixer at home. Here's a few things I have learned making the no knead artisan breads:
- fermentation - Fermentation is due to the yeast (living organism) consuming the sugar and starch in the flour producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct which is responsible for the pore formation in the baked loaf of bread. It is a natural process that occurs over time. In kneaded breads, this is often referred to as letting the dough proof (rise until double) or simply letting the dough rise. The proof time is generally for a short period of time usually an hour for each rise and the proofing time really doesn't add much to the flavour of the baked bread. Fermentation takes place over a longer period of time, generally 12 to 18 hours for room temperature fermentation and 24 hours to several days for cold fermentation. Fermented dough shaped into a loaf still requires a rising (resting) period of 40 minutes to 3 hours before baking.
- slashing - Typically the dough is slashed before to aid in the rise of the baking bread. The slash will determine the direction of the spread as the loaf bakes. If done properly, the baked loaf of bread will have raised portions along the slash referred to as ears. The dough should be slashed with a very sharp knife or razor blade at a 30° angle about ¼ - inch deep. If making more than one slash, wet the knife bread after each slash to prevent sticking especially with sticky doughs.
- the crust - The texture of the crust is determined by baking conditions. A regular, soft crust is created when the bread is baked without steam. If you want a softer crust, brush the bread with butter as soon as it is removed from the oven. A crispy, chewy crust is created when the bread is baked with steam. This can be achieved by baking the bread on a baking sheet with a shallow pan of water on the rack below the baking bread or by baking the bread in a covered cast iron Dutch oven, browning lightly after the steam baking process.
- the crumb - The crumb of the bread is basically the pore formation that is determined by the fermentation process and/or proofing. Small, evenly distributed pores as seen in whole wheat breads are caused by a lower rise due to decreased gluten development resulting in a denser loaf of bread. Doughs with a high gluten development will have a higher rise, larger pores and a lighter, fluffier, softer texture.
- experimentation - The baking and proofing times are not written in stone. A dough with a recommended 40 minute proof time may actually take 2 hours to proof depending on the ambient room temperature. Baking times may need to be adjusted to achieve the desired results because ovens can vary. A wide variety of ingredients (eg. herbs, seasonings, dried fruits, cheese) can be added to no knead doughs. Finding the best way to work them into fermented doughs is by trial and error. Baking times may need to be adjusted depending on any extra ingredients added.