Once known as the Flour Milling Capital of the World, Minneapolis-St. Paul has no shortage of great bakeries, from Rustica in Minneapolis with its light and airy baguettes; to Don Panchos Mexican Bakery on St. Paul’s West Side where carb-lovers can load up baskets of goodies priced by the item; to humble Trung Nam Bakery in St. Paul, where Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year as customers make the last-minute dash to fill their breadbaskets for the harvest feast.
Yet, sometimes, nothing but homemade will do. And if you want to fill your kitchen with the yeasty scent of rising dough, 2009 is your year. On Amazon, a search for “artisan bread” yields six hits on the first page alone, with titles by Peter Reinhart, whose The Bread Baker’s Apprentice was named cookbook of the year by the James Beard Foundation in 2002 and Nancy Baggett, whose Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads is intriguing simply based on the author’s surname.
Two new books teeter atop my reading pile: Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients[324 pages, hardcover, Thomas Dunne Books], by local authors Jeff Hertzberg, M.D., and Zoë François and My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method [222 pages, hardcover, W.W. Norton & Company], by Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste. Both books promise that delicious, airy, crusty bread is yours for the making, with a minimum of effort and equipment (though, some essential equipment is required). Although only Lahey calls his bread “no-knead,” neither technique calls for kneading.
Hertzberg and François published their first book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, in 2007, just months after New York Times columnist Mark Bittman sparked a floury explosion of home baking with his article “The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work,” featuring Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread technique and recipe.
In their follow-up book, Healthy Bread, Hertzberg and François write that the secret to having fresh, home-baked bread is to “Mix enough dough for many loaves and store it in the refrigerator. It’s easy to have freshly baked whole grain and other healthy breads whenever you want them, with only five minutes a day of active effort. First, mix the ingredients into a container all at once, and let them sit for two hours. Now you are ready to shape and bake the bread, or you can refrigerate the dough and use it over the next five to fourteen days.”
While Artisan Bread “concentrated on ingredients from the traditional European baker’s cupboard,” Healthy Bread expands the discussion “to include whole grains, vital wheat gluten, and even ingredients for gluten-free breads.” Hertzberg and François’ recipe for high-moisture dough yields a loaf with with a chewy crust and a “custard crumb” interior that is shiny, chewy and moist. The minimum equipment required is a serrated bread knife, a cooling rack, pastry brush, a lidded plastic or glass storage container, a broiler pan, a pizza peel, and a baking stone.
In Healthy Bread, and in Artisan Bread before it, Hertzberg and François’ technique relies on baking with steam to achieve a crispy crust, although they offer other alternatives, including misting the bread with water early in baking and baking inside a cloche or covered cast-iron pot.
According to Lahey, the secret to producing great bread without a huge time sacrifice is low-rise fermentation. Writes Lahey about his technique: “Applied in the modern home kitchen, it requires about 5 minutes of actual labor, followed by 12 to 18 hours in which the bread rises, developing structure and flavor on autopilot, and then another short rising time, and, finally, the brief baking in a covered pot. It’s a terrific loaf of bread, easily within reach of any home cook.” The resultant loaf is “chestnut-colored, chewy, [and] satisfying.”
As far as essential equipment, Lahey’s technique requires “a medium (3-quart) mixing bowl, a set of volume measures (cups and spoons) or a kitchen scale […], a sturdy wooden spoon or rubber spatula or bowl scraper, [… and] the oven within the oven, the pot.” Lahey develops most of his recipes for baking in a 4 ½ to 5 ½ quart pot, such as an enameled cast-iron Le Creuset. Writes Lahey: “Many who’ve used this brand have reported on various Web sites that the handle can burn in the oven, and in fact the company considers them ovenproof only up to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.” Lahey suggests you do what he did: “Use a regular screwdriver or a butter knife to unscrew the handle and remove it. Then either put the screw back in to seal the hole […] or fill the hole with a plug of aluminum foil.”
Whether the preheated, covered heavy pot you use is Le Creuset, Lodge, or Emily Henry (the most expensive option and Lahey’s favorite), the pot is essential. “It accomplishes what classic dome brick ovens do: it completely seals in the baking process so the steam escaping from the bread can do its work to ensure a good crust and a moist crumb.”
Lahey writes: “I’ve seen a lot of recipes designed to approximate the steam-injected high-heat ovens that many professional bakers use. They involve tricks like throwing ice cubes onto the hot floor of the oven, misting the oven walls with a spray bottle, or preheating a cast-iron pan and then pouring in boiling water when you’re ready to bake,” but he maintains that his approach is “simple.”
So, which technique is better? It depends on what you are trying to achieve with your home baking. Judging strictly on taste and texture, we preferred the airy, yet hefty, loaves we baked using Lahey’s no-knead technique. We did enjoy the appealing, sourdough-like tanginess of the loaves we baked using the techniques in Artisan Bread and Healthy Bread, but found that the crust of the loaves could be unyielding and tough, instead of merely firm and chewy. Also, we didn’t immediately warm to Hertzberg and François’ moist custard crumb, although we came to enjoy it.
However, if you wish to enjoy warm, fresh bread every day, Hertzberg and François’ method of preparing the dough all at once and allowing it time to rise in a big batch is much more practical for day-to-day baking. Lahey’s bread is a weekend-only indulgence in our household.
Even with Hertzberg and François’ artisan and healthy bread, however, we found the approximate two hours required to rest, bake, and cool the loaves could still be too long for you to be able to serve warm bread alongside dinner if your family is ravenous on a busy weeknight. We had great success using the par-baking approach Hertzberg and François suggested in Healthy Bread, in which — on a day when you have time — you bake the loaves just long enough to set the center, then cool and freeze in a plastic bag for defrosting and reheating an additional five to 10 minutes later, when you want to serve it.
Also, we grew weary of the smoking corn meal (necessary to slide the Hertzberg and François’ artisan and healthy loaves from the pizza peel onto the stone for baking) blanketing the floor of our oven. Although we agree with Hertzberg and François that baking the loaves right on the pizza stone yielded the best crusts, as a practical matter, we embraced the option Hertzberg and François provided in Healthy Bread to use a silicone baking sheet or parchment paper to lift the loaves onto the stone. The quality sacrifice to the crust was negligible.
If you follow a gluten-free diet, Healthy Bread is the choice for you as there are no gluten-free recipes in Lahey’s My Bread. (The Heavy Table did not test any of Healthy Bread‘s gluten-free recipes, alas.)
If you don’t want to invest in new equipment or both books, Lahey for weekend baking and Hertzberg and François for weeknight baking, you may wish to choose based on the equipment you already own, although I found I didn’t need to buy any new equipment for either technique, except a Danish dough whisk, which I found useful for both. Even though both master recipes are ubiquitous online, once you decide which technique you prefer, you’ll want your own copy of either My Bread or Healthy Bread to take advantage of the books’ other ways to use the dough. There are recipes for flatbreads, pizzas, focaccias, enriched breads, and pastries. There are even some recipes that call for stale bread.
Finally, both books claim that the steam that escapes from your loaf as the crust contracts and cracks during the cooling process might inspire your bread to sing for you. Perhaps I wasn’t listening, but none of the loaves I tried from any of the books serenaded me. If the musical abilities of your food are important to you, you might need to work a little harder than I did at nurturing the innate talents of your dough. But, if you just want delicious, warm bread out of your own oven without getting up to your elbows in flour, either of these books could serve you well.
THE MASTER RECIPE
Excerpted from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients
Makes enough dough for at least four 1-pound loaves. The recipe is easily doubled or halved.
5½ c (1 lb, 9 oz) whole wheat flour
2 c (10 oz) all-purpose flour, unbleached
1½ tbsp (.55 oz) granulated yeast (2 packets)
1 tbsp (.55 oz) Kosher salt
¼ c ( 1 3/8 oz) vital wheat gluten
4 c (2 lbs) lukewarm water
cornmeal or parchment paper for the pizza peel
1 to 2 tbsp of whole seed mixture for sprinkling on top crust: sesame, flaxseed, caraway, raw sunflower, poppy and / or anise (optional)
Mixing and storing the dough
1. Measure the dry ingredients: Use dry-ingredient measuring cups (avoid 2-cup measures, which compress the flour) to gently scoop up flour from a bin, then sweep the top level with a knife or spatula. Whisk together the flours, yeast, salt, and vital wheat gluten in a 5-quart bowl, or, preferably, in a resealable, lidded plastic food container or food-grade bucket (not airtight).
2. Mix with water-kneading is unnecessary: Warm the water until it feels slightly warmer than body temperature (about 100°F). Add all at once to the dry ingredients and mix without kneading, using a spoon, a 14-cup food processor (with dough attachment), or a heavy-duty stand mixer (with paddle). You might need to use wet hands to get the last bit of flour to incorporate if you’re not using a machine. Using warm water will allow the dough to rise fully in about 2 hours. Don’t knead! It isn’t necessary. You’re finished when everything is uniformly moist, without dry patches. This step is done in a matter of minutes, and will yield a dough that is wet and remains loose enough to conform to the shape of its container.
3. Allow to rise: Cover the dough with a lid (not airtight) that fits well to the container. If you are using a bowl, cover it loosely with plastic wrap. Lidded (or even vented) plastic buckets designed for dough storage are readily available. Leave it open a crack for the first 48 hours to prevent buildup of gases; after that you can usually seal it. Allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse (or at least flattens on the top), approximately 2 hours, depending on the room’s temperature and the initial water temperature. Longer rising times, even overnight, will not harm the result. After rising, refrigerate in the lidded (not airtight) container and use over the next 14 days.
Fully refrigerated wet dough is less sticky and is easier to work with than dough at room temperature. So, the first time you try our method, it’s best to refrigerate the dough overnight (or at least 3 hours), before shaping a loaf. Once refrigerated, the dough will seem to have shrunk back upon itself. It will never rise again in the bucket, which is normal for our dough. Whatever you do, do not punch down this dough! With our method, you’re trying to retain as much gas in the dough as possible, and punching it down knocks gas out and will make your loaves denser.
On baking day
4. Shape a loaf in 20 to 40 seconds. First, prepare a pizza peel by sprinkling it liberally with cornmeal (or lining it with parchment paper, or use a silicone mat) to prevent your loaf from sticking to it when you slide it into the oven. Dust the surface of your refrigerated dough with flour. Pull up and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-size) piece of dough, using a serrated knife or kitchen shears. Hold the mass of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it won’t stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating a quarter-turn as you go to form a ball. Most of the dusting flour will fall off; it’s not intended to be incorporated into the dough. The bottom of the ball may appear to be a collection of bunched ends, but it will flatten out and adhere during resting and baking. The correctly shaped final product will be smooth and cohesive. The entire process should take no more than 20 to 40 seconds. If you work the dough longer than this, it might make your loaf dense.
5. Form a narrow oval-shaped loaf and let it rest: Stretch the ball gently to elongate it, and taper the ends by rolling them between your palms and pinching them.
6. Allow the loaf to rest, loosely covered with plastic wrap, on the prepared pizza peel for 90 minutes (40 minutes if you’re using fresh, unrefrigerated dough). Alternatively, you can rest the loaf on a silicone mat or on a greased cookie sheet without using a pizza peel. Depending on the age of the dough, you might not see much rise during this period; instead, it will spread sideways. More rising will occur during baking.
7. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450°F, with a baking stone placed on the middle rack. Place an empty metal broiler tray for holding water on any other rack that won’t interfere with the rising bread.
8. Paint and slash: Just before baking, use a pastry brush to paint the top with water. Sprinkle with the seed mixture if desired. Slash the loaf with ¼-inch-deep parallel cuts across the top. Use a serrated bread knife held perpendicularly to the bread.
9. Baking with steam: After a 30-minute preheat, you’re ready to bake, even though your oven thermometer might not yet be up to full temperature.With a quick forward-jerking motion of the wrist, slide the loaf off the pizza peel and onto the preheated baking stone. If you used parchment paper instead of cornmeal, it will slide onto the stone with the loaf, and if you used a silicone mat or cookie sheet, just place it on the stone. Quickly but carefully pour about 1 cup of hot water from the tap into the broiler tray and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is richly browned and firm to the touch (smaller or larger loaves will require adjustments in resting and baking time). If you used parchment paper, a silicone mat, or a cookie sheet under the loaf, carefully remove it and bake the loaf directly on the stone or on an oven rack two-thirds of the way through baking. When you remove the loaf from the oven, it may audibly crackle, or “sing,” when initially exposed to room-temperature air. Allow the bread to cool completely, preferably on a wire cooling rack, for best flavor, texture, and slicing. The perfect crust may initially soften, but will firm up again when cooled.
10. Store the remaining dough in the refrigerator in your lidded (not airtight) container and use it over the next 14 days. You’ll notice throughout the book that certain ingredients mean a shorter shelf life. You’ll find that even 24 hours of storage improves the flavor and texture of your bread. The dough begins to ferment and take on sourdough characteristics.