Knead-less Bread-Baking

When it comes to making bread dough, “kneading is an optional and flexible step,” says Harold McGee in his new book Keys to Good Cooking (Penguin Press). If you don’t want to hassle with kneading bread dough, you can let time do the work. The concept of no-knead bread has been around awhile–most recently popularized by Mark Bittman when he wrote about baker Jim Lahey’s technique several years ago in The New York Times. I gave it a try at the time, but my dog Rascal (NOURISH Evolution’s official mascot) ate the dough while it was proofing on the counter and I never got around to trying it again.

That is, until about a month ago, when a friend posted a Facebook link to a no-knead bread recipe by San Francisco-based cookbook author and cooking teacher Penni Wisner. Her recipe was a streamlined version of Lahey’s method and inspired me to give it another go. All went well–the ingredients came together just as she promised, Rascal left the dough alone, and resulting loaf was delicious with a lovely, chewy crust and tender crumb. Even better, letting time instead of elbow grease do the work yields a better-tasting loaf. “It has that long development, which gives it time to really increase in flavor,” says Wisner.

Wisner, who’s passionate about sharing this bread with everyone, agreed to let us share her recipe with the NOURISH Evolution community. She also has a few tips:

Pick the right flour(s). Yes, you can make bread with all-purpose flour, but you’ll get better results if you use bread flour (available at most supermarkets). “I do think it makes a difference,” says Wisner. Bread flour has a higher protein content than all-purpose, so it forms more gluten to give your bread structure.

Wisner also adds a little whole wheat flour. “When you add it whole wheat flour to the mix, your dough acts totally differently,” she says. “It absorbs more water. Also, the dough is more active and ferments faster.” More water in the dough means the bread will have a more tender, loose grain. We both favor mild-flavored white whole wheat flour, but regular whole wheat flour works just as well. (You could use all whole wheat flour, but you’ll end up with a pretty tough-textured loaf.)

Measure carefully. Take a tip from the pros, and use a kitchen scale to weigh out your flour. This ensures consistent results–and it’s easier than aerating the flour, then spooning it into a dry measuring cup and leveling it with a knife.

Mimic a bakery oven. Professional bakers use high-heat ovens with steam to give bread a delightfully chewy crust. You can imitate that by cranking your oven up to 500 degrees F and preheating a Dutch oven. You’ll add the dough to the hot Dutch oven and cover it for the first 30 minutes of baking–this creates the steamy environment. No-knead dough also tends to be loose, and baking it in a Dutch oven yields a loaf with a pretty boule-like shape. “If you do nothing else but change your baking environment and use a Dutch oven, you’ll get better bread,” Wisner promises.

Practice. Wisner’s recipe is good from the first loaf, and it gets even better the more you make it. You’ll get familiar with the climate of your kitchen (if it’s warm, you dough will proof faster and be wetter) and the quirks of your oven, just two factors that can influence dough.

You’ll also become more confident handling the dough. “It’s a soft dough, so it’s not necessarily what you’re accustomed to,” says Wisner. “I think dough responds to confidence. It sticks to you less, when you movements are more confident.” Like many avid bakers, Wisner believes every dough has its own personality. I certainly do, and can’t resist visiting it while it ferments to check on its progress.

I’ve found the biggest challenge is allowing the baked bread to cool enough to slice it. That, and keeping it away from the dog.

Nourishing Gift Ideas from the NOURISH Evolution Market!

It’s that gift-shopping time of year. If you’re like us, you’d rather skip the mall and buy tokens for the nice people on your list online (OK, and the naughty ones, too). Have you checked out the NOURISH Evolution Market? Lia and I have filled it our must-have kitchen tools–the stuff we use every day and what we think makes cooking easier and more fun.

Of course, you can head straight over to the Market and browse to find goodies for everyone or just make a wish list for yourself. We’ve also gone through and picked our favorite selections. Here’s what we suggest you slide under the menorah or tree.

Lia’s faves

  • Stocking Stuffer: Oxo Good Grips Melon Baller ($9). “Mine went missing a few weeks back, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dug for it since,” says Lia. “Aside from the fact that it makes balling melons a breeze, I use it to quickly de-seed squash, scrape seeds from cucumbers, core apples and much more.”
  • Under the Tree: Colorful Oxo Nesting Mixing Bowls ($25). “I’ve got a mishmash of mixing bowls right now; some that nest, some … not so much,” says Lia. “I love how bright and colorful (and in NOURISH Evolution shades, even!) these Oxo mixing bowls are. The fact that they’ve got a handle and anti-skid bottom makes them even more attractive.
  • From Santa: Bormioli Rocco Food Storage Containers ($24).  “I’m asking for three sets of these from Santa to take the place of my Tupperware,” Lia confesses. “I’m ready to give up plastic once and for all.”

Alison’s faves

  • Stocking stuffer: Messermeister Pro-Touch Swivel Peeler ($7). I got this peeler in my culinary school knife kit, and I love how nimble and sharp it is. It can handle anything from delicate tomatoes to potatoes to thick-skinned winter squash.
  • Under the Tree: Fagor Duo 6-Quart Stainless-Steel Pressure Cooker ($91). I used to be terrified of pressure cookers, but this model won me over. It’s foolproof, with a locking lid, easy-to-use pressure indicator and automatic pressure-release function. If you’ve resolved to cook more with dried beans and whole grains in 2011, you want this.
  • From Santa: KitchenAid Professional 600 Series Stand Mixer ($321). These are the workhorses of the kitchen–you can use them to whip egg whites, knead bread dough, make cookie dough, cut fat into flour for pastry and, if you add attachments like the pasta maker and ice cream maker, do a whole lot more.

We both love…

  • Stocking stuffer: RSVP White Marble Mortar and Pestle ($17). Lia makes a great case for using a simple mortar and pestle instead of food processor for everything from grinding spices to making pesto. This trim model is easy on your wallet, won’t hog kitchen counter space and can handle most any job.
  • Under the tree: Lodge Enamel Cast-Iron 6-Quart Dutch Oven ($67). Nights are cold these days, and we’re obsessed with braising. For that, you want a sturdy Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. This model by Lodge is pretty and affordable, too!
  • From Santa: Chef’s knife. No kitchen tool is used more than a knife, and a high-quality chef’s knife is a must. It’s also a very personal choice. Lia favors the nimble, Japanese-style Wustof Classic 7-inch Santoku Knife ($100). I love the Japanese-made Mac 10-Inch Chef Series French Chef’s Knife $100), which is well-balanced and holds its edge.

What’s on your list this year? Let us know!

In the meantime, use a pressure cooker or Dutch oven to make our recipe for Pea Soup with Spanish Chorizo and Sherry Vinegar.