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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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".