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I am a wife, mother and grandma who enjoys the many aspects of homemaking. A variety of interests and hobbies combined with travel keep me active. They reflect the importance of family, friends, home and good food.
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Friday, April 05, 2013

No Knead Crusty Bread

I bake a lot of bread, averaging now about three loaves a week but when the kids were still at home I averaged more.  Over the years, I have developed some of my own bread recipes and we do have our family favourites.  The one bread that has always eluded me is crusty bread.  A good crusty bread has a crispy, crunchy crust with chewy interior.  It is one of the very few breads that I resorted to buying because I couldn't make it.  Crusty bread is not so much about the recipe, it is about the baking method which involves steam.  I was showing my new Lagostina cookware set to a couple of our kids and our daughter said, you know you can bake bread in the cast iron Dutch oven.  Well, my interest was peaked especially since steam would be created if the lid were in place so I reasoned this may be a way for me to get that elusive crusty bread.

An online search quickly brought up several references to Jim Lahey's  no knead crusty bread recipe and method of baking in a cast iron Dutch oven that originally appeared in The New York Time's Minimalist column.   His method is based on fermentation much the same as a sour dough bread to develop the flavour.  He used little yeast (on 1/4 tsp) and a lot of water to make a sticky, wet dough that was then allowed to ferment 12 to 18 hours before being shaped, proofed and baked in a Dutch oven with the lid on.  Several folk have modified his basic recipe, adding a bit more yeast or decreasing the amount of water and the various additions like sharp cheddar cheese take the basic artisan recipe to the artistic level.  The flour can be entirely unbleached or it can be a combination of whole wheat or rye and unbleached flours.  There is even a gluten free version using brown rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch!  Jim has a video on YouTube (Speedy No-Kneed Bread Revisited)  to modify the fermentation period to only 4 hours but I don't mind the longer fermentation period for flavour development.  So the possibilities for this bread once you learn the basics is endless.  I will warn you now, there are a lot of pictures for this post because I wanted to show you each step I did.

scruffy dough ready for proofing
No Knead Crusty Bread
(modified Jim Lahey recipe)

3 c unbleached flour
1¾ tsp sea salt
½ tsp instant yeast
1½ c luke warm water

Mix ingredients together to form a shaggy dough.  Cover bowl with plastic wrap.  Ferment 12 to 18 hours.  Shape into round on floured parchment paper.  Let proof 30 minutes while Dutch oven pre-heats at 450°F.  Place loaf on the parchment paper into Dutch oven.  Cover and bake at 450°F for 30 minutes.  Remove lid and continue baking for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Place on rack to cool.

The dough takes less than 5 minutes to make.  There is no kneading at all.  Simply mix and set aside for fermentation.  The dough will be quite sticky and it certainly does look shaggy in comparison to other bread doughs that are smooth and elastic looking.  I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and set it on the counter to ferment overnight.

dough sponge ready for second proofing
I started my dough at 8:30 PM figuring it would be ready for baking at 3:30 PM the following day.  The following morning at about 9 AM the dough was nice and bubbly, ready for baking.  This is exactly what the dough should look like before moving to the next step.  I decided to go ahead and make the bread then even though my fermentation period was only 12 hours.  Once the dough is at the bubbly stage, if left too long it can fall because all of the starch and sugar in the flour has been consumed by the yeast.  This commonly happens when making sour dough sponge if left too long so it is important to move to the next stage once the sponge is ready.   If the sponge falls, the fix is to add a bit more flour to feed the yeast.  Once the sponge returns to bubbly, then use. 

I placed about a cup of water in my Dutch oven, put the lid on then put it into the oven at 450°F for 30 minutes.  Some folks are not adding water to their Dutch ovens for this pre-heating but others are as their brand cannot be heated empty.  I decided to err on the side of caution.  After the pre-heat period, the water was completely evapourated so next time I will add more water then empty just before putting the dough in.

shaped dough on parchment paper covered with plastic wrap
While the Dutch oven was pre-heating, I floured a piece of parchment paper then shaped the dough into a ball on the parchment paper and covered with plastic wrap to proof for 30 minutes.  Some folks do not use parchment paper but others find getting the loaf into the hot Dutch oven is a lot easier if using parchment paper.  The paper goes right into the Dutch oven along with the loaf of bread so the loaf itself is not disturbed while being transferred.  With such a sticky dough, the less handling the better for a nicely shaped loaf.  I found the parchment paper method extremely easy and fool-proof.

Some bread doughs can tolerate a heavy hand when shaping but I used a lighter touch to shape this loaf.  I did not notice any remarkable increase in size of the dough during the 30 minute proof although the dough itself did not look quite as shaggy.   Once the dough had proofed for 30 minutes it was time to put the loaf into the heated Dutch oven.

prepared dough in heated Dutch oven
I removed the Dutch oven from the oven and the plastic wrap from the dough.  Then I carefully brought up each corner of the parchment paper to form a sling.  Holding the four corners together, I carefully transferred the dough into the Dutch oven.  I trimmed the corners of the parchment paper so they would not stick out of the Dutch oven or over the dough when baking.  I put the lid on the Dutch oven and put it back into the heated oven.  I let the bread bake at 450°F covered for 30 minutes then removed the lid and baked the bread for an additional 12 minutes rather than the 15 minutes others were using.  The initial bake is what gives the interior of the bread that nice chewy texture.  The final bake turns the crust a golden brown with that wonderful crunchy, crisp texture.  Oh my gosh, did it ever smell heavenly baking!

baked bread in Dutch oven just out of the oven
I had the light on in the oven for the final 15 minutes so I could remove the loaf before it darkened too much.  Ovens vary in temperature so it is always best to monitor the progress carefully during the last few minutes of baking.   I found that the loaf looked quite lovely after a final 12 minutes of baking. 

I carefully lifted the loaf of bread and parchment paper from the hot Dutch oven.  The Dutch oven itself, was still clean as if nothing had ever baked in it!  On the other hand, properly baked yeast breads usually do leave the baking pan quite clean.  Still, the loaf of bread looked good just out of the oven.

With anticipation mounting, I set the loaf of bread on a cooling rack, anxious to cut it for the final taste results.  The loaf of bread was gorgeous with a lovely rise, beautiful golden brown crust and tantalizing aroma.  The piece de resistance was the crust cracking as it cooled.  This is the ultimate sign of a good crusty loaf.  I was so excited that I even took a video to capture that cracking sound.

The loaf had a lovely rustic quality.  I really wanted to cut into that loaf of bread while it was still hot!  However, the bread was destined for dinner last night so I had to resist.   It was only 10 AM and had I cut into the loaf, it would have been gone by dinner time!

crusty bread wrapped in t-towel
Once you have a nice crusty bread, the secret is keeping it crusty.  If you have ever bought crusty bread from a bakery, you will have noticed it is never packaged in plastic.  Plastic traps the moisture causing the crust to soften and lose it's wonderful crunch.  Instead, crusty breads are placed in paper bags usually with the end open to prevent any moisture from becoming trapped.  The easy home solution is to wrap the bread in a t-towel, in this case one of the bar towels I use in place of t-towels.  This prevents moisture from becoming trapped while preventing the bread from drying out too quickly.  The bread sat on the counter, safely wrapped in the t-towel until dinner time. 

Loaves of crusty bread destined for gift given can be place into a t-towel lined basket then covered with a t-towel.  An alternative method is to place the loaf of bread in the middle of a t-towel then bring up the corners and secure with a ribbon.  As such, the t-towel becomes part of the gift so I like keeping a few new t-towels on hand for this purpose.

crusty bread cut
I used a serrated bread knife to cut the loaf of crusty bread.  The pores formed from gaseous bubbles produced by the yeast were nicely formed, large, open and irregular as opposed to the finer small pores found in store bought white breads.  This structure is a result of a high water content combined with the no-knead method.  The final test before giving this bread two thumbs up was of course the taste test.  It certainly excelled there!  There is less of a yeast more of a wheat flavour.  The crust was delightfully crunchy yet the inside tender and chewy.  Finally, I had made a wonderful homemade loaf of crusty bread!

This no-knead crusty bread is very easy to make and is very versatile.  The dough is simply mixed, covered and set aside until bubbly.  If you want fresh bread the following day, just mix the dough the night before which takes less than 5 minutes.  The following day, it will take 2 minutes to shape the dough, 30 minutes heating of Dutch oven and proofing of the dough,  30 minutes initial bake time and 12 to 15 minutes final bake time for a total of 84 to 87 minutes (1 hr 45 min to 1 hr 17 min).  This really is not bad considering there is practically no prep and the resulting bread is beyond delicious!  While there are a lot of variations from Jim Lahey's original ingredients as far as quantity, the basic recipe consists only of flour, salt, yeast and water combined with a long fermentation period.  The fermentation period allows the dough to develop both rise and flavour so while some are trying to reduce the fermentation period, it will not be something I tinker with.  The reason being, I have made enough sourdough breads to appreciate the extra flavour longer fermentation periods impart to the bread.  Some have added butter or oil and/or sugar taking the bread a step away from the original.  Others have added other ingredients like nuts, herbs, cheese, seasonings, cranberries or raisins.  Some of these combinations get rather creative!   Even the baking method has been altered from using a Dutch oven to using a slow cooker, countertop roaster and make shift covered pots.  Still, a Dutch oven is likely the easiest way to get the crispy crust.  I also saw where some used the no-knead recipe and simply baked as a regular loaf of bread without covering.  This of course would not give the crispy crust and for those of us who use a Kitchen Aid stand mixer for kneading bread doughs, it would not save much in the way of time.  It would save time for those who are kneading by hand.

The bottom line is, this bread recipe and method is a real keeper!  The basic recipe is delicious without any further additions but it can also serve as the basis for a wide range of creative breads.   I will be posting more on some of my creations made using the basic recipe.  In the meantime, if you want a few ideas or to see how others have modified the original recipe, search online with the key words "no knead crusty bread" or "no knead bread".

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