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Posts Tagged ‘Bread baking’

sourdough bread, no-knead version

 I’ve always loved baking my own bread.  My journey into the art and science of breadbaking started many years ago as a teenager still living at home, experimenting with recipes and flours, amazed at the flavor and crunch and freshness of a hand-made, fresh-baked loaf. 

Through the years I have tried many methods, with as many failures as successes, but I’ve never stopped making bread.  Mostly I mixed and kneaded dough by hand, the long way, with long proofing and rising times, resulting in bread that took four or more hours from start to finish.  Delicious, but a lot of work.

When Bear and I married, we got a Chefmate bread machine as a wedding gift; one of the first bread machines on the market, I think.  I still use it today, mostly for kneading and rising my multi-grain hamburger bun dough, and for making specialty wheat-free breads when the occasion arises.  I’m not sure why, but the non-traditional doughs mix and knead really well in that little machine.

A few years later I bought my trusty Kitchenaid stand mixer, and I was convinced the dough hook was the easiest way to knead bread ever invented.  I still use the 60-Minute Roll recipe from the book that came with it (simply awesome!)  but I no longer make our daily bread “the long way” as I refer to it now.   Goodness, no.  I wouldn’t be baking all our own bread if I were.

Then one of my favorite magazines, Cooks Illustrated, featured the “almost no-knead” bread recipe in their January 2008 issue, taking the original New York Times’ version and adding a smidge of vinegar and lager beer to boost the flavor and mimic rustic sourdough bread.  I was a convert after the first loaf, and have never looked back.  Being a beer drinker back then, I always had some Sam Adams or wheaty micro-brew in the fridge, and already owned the necessary cast iron dutch oven to bake it in, covered, at 500 degrees, which gives the loaf a rustic crisp crust.

The “no-knead” part is no lie.  The no-secret of it is a process called autolysis, which is a period of rest that allows the dough to relax. After the initial mixing of flour and water, the dough is allowed to sit. This rest period allows for better absorption of water and allows the gluten and starches to align.  Essentially, most of the kneading is done for you by allowing the flour and moisture to work together over the long rest period. 

The original recipe calls for mixing ingredients into a “shaggy dough” which is covered tightly and given an 8 – 16 hour autolysis; I’ve found an overnight session, up to 24 hours, works very well and makes this method quite compatible with a working person’s daily routine.  In other words, I can mix up a batch of shaggy dough one evening, cover and let rest until the next day, and simply shape into loaves in a few minutes’ time and bake the next evening.  The baked loaves are cool enough to slice and bag for the freezer before going to bed.  All in a day’s (or two day’s) after-work routine.

The foray into developing my own sourdough starter eliminated the instant yeast and beer/vinegar additions and greatly simplified the mixing process.   My weekly two-day breadbaking process now typically goes like this:  I pull my starter out of the fridge on Friday morning, feed it with fresh flour and water and cover it with plastic wrap.  Friday evening I mix a shaggy bread dough using the proofed starter, flour, and additional ingredients;  cover, and leave overnight.  Saturday morning, afternoon or evening – the choice is mine – I shape the now-elastic dough into loaves with a few minutes of kneading and a scoop of flour, place on slings of parchment paper in skillets to rise for 2 hours, then bake in cast iron dutch ovens in a hot (500 reduced to 425) oven for 30 minutes covered, 15 uncovered.

A double batch yields two large round loaves that provide lots of breakfast toast, sandwich bread, and supper menu accompaniment for the week.  Perfect for two hard-working, hungry adults. (If I had kids, I would have to make more than two loaves.)  Is the bread perfect?  Well no – though it usually looks like the photo at the beginning of this post, sometimes the loaves are smallish, and a little more dense; sometimes they’re larger and rougher like the one I’ve got proofing right now.  It depends a lot on the moisture content of the shaggy dough, the environmental conditions, and such.  I’m happy when the bread is edible, which is always.

Besides allowing this overnight bread dough to almost knead itself, the autolysis period (moist dough resting long time) and the acidic fermentation of sourdough starter together provide the significant nutritional benefit of reducing the phytic acid content of the wheat flour, which leads to increased bioavailability of many nutrients, enhanced magnesium and phosphorus solubility, as well as boosting enzyme content.  In other words, this bread digests very well, is remarkably healthful, and it is possible that even gluten-intolerant types might be able to eat it safely.

I’m a bread-eater and always will be; this method of bread-making allows me to enjoy my own fresh-baked, healthful sourdough bread every single day with minimal fuss and effort.  It’s a small victory, a minor battle won in the war we’re all fighting to take back control of our daily food, despite the onslaught of convenience-driven choices in the supermarket and insane demands on our available time.

I’d be happy to share my experience with developing a sourdough starter and the recipe I’m currently using for my daily bread – just holler.  Got a loaf ready to put in the oven right now – enjoy your Sunday evening, all!

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