Kneadlessly Simple

Fabulous, Fuss-free, No-knead Breads

by Nancy Baggett

Hardcover, 210 pages, John Wiley & Sons Inc, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Title
Kneadlessly Simple
Subtitle
Fabulous, Fuss-free, No-knead Breads
Author
Nancy Baggett

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Excerpt: Kneadlessly Simple

Kneadlessly Simple

Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads


John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-39986-6

Chapter One

the kneadlessly simple method

NINE EASY STEPS TO GREAT BREAD

The kneadlessly simple method involves nine remarkably easy steps, all based on certain principles of yeast bread chemistry. First, I'll run through the steps. Then I'll briefly explain the chemistry, so you'll understand why some seemingly unimportant directions matter, and how (and why) the method really works.

1. Stir together the basic dry ingredients like the flour, yeast, and salt in a bowl large enough for the mixture to triple in size. (If the recipe calls for a little sugar, it goes in, too. But if there's more than 2 tablespoons per cup of flour, the excess sugar is added later.)

2. Stir a heaping cup of ice cubes into the water called for in the recipe; this reduces its temperature to around 50ºF. Don't worry-you don't need to check the temperature, and the ice water won't kill the yeast (I promise!). If the recipe calls for honey, molasses, or a flavorless vegetable oil like corn or canola oil, you mix them into the ice water now. (If it calls for olive oil or butter, these are added separately, as they solidify in ice water.)

3. Stir or mix the ice water mixture into the dry ingredients just until thoroughly blended. Do this with a spoon, or, if desired, with a heavy-duty mixer. Just remember that while the procedure does develop some gluten, it is not designed to substitute for kneading-its primary function is simply to thoroughly mix the ingredients together. Once the dough is mixed, olive oil or butter is sometimes incorporated.

4. For the absolute best flavor (or for convenience), refrigerate the dough (covered, in its mixing bowl) for at least 3 and up to 10 hours. The cooling period can be a little shorter or longer if necessary, and this step is optional, but it does have significant chemical benefits and is often a very convenient way to hold the dough overnight or to easily shorten or lengthen the total rise time to better fit your time awake and at home.

5. Set the dough (covered, in its mixing bowl) out on the counter or in any cool spot and let it slowly rise for 12 to 18 hours, or in some cases 18 to 24 hours. This step requires no attention whatsoever, but it cannot be skipped. So long as the room is cool, the rising period can extend up to 24 hours, if that's convenient, but don't shorten it much, as this is when the bubbling action of fermentation actually fully kneads the dough. (This step is the reason you can skip all the kneading.) If you don't have a cool (ideally 67º to 70ºF) spot, lower the dough temperature by refrigerating it for 3 to 4 hours before beginning the countertop rise, then let it stand out for a maximum of 18 hours. In an extremely warm room, cut the rise time to 15 hours at most.

6. Mix in (using a spoon or sturdy stand mixer) any remaining ingredients. These include perishables such as dairy products; certain yeast-inhibiting spices and herbs; dried fruits, extra sugar, and other dehydrating items; and, finally, enough more flour to obtain the consistency specified in the recipe. Most (but not all) Kneadlessly Simple recipes call for the dough to be stiffened until it's hard to stir before the second rise begins, and it's important to follow this instruction.

7. Briefly stir the dough as directed, and, unless hand-shaping is required, invert it into the baking container for the second rise. Many Kneadlessly Simple breads-including some rustically handsome boules and fancy dessert breads-are shaped entirely or mostly by their baking container. Breads such as French baguettes, Italian ciabattas, cinnamon pinwheel loaves, and finger rolls obviously need some hand-shaping, but this step is often completed on baking parchment to minimize sticking and handling problems as well as kitchen counter cleanup. In many recipes the last stirring actually involves folding the edges of the dough into the center of its bowl using a rubber spatula; this is another small, but important, step.

8. Complete the second rise using the rising option that best suits your schedule. In place of a traditional 1 1/2- to 3-hour rise, you can choose an easy "accelerated" rise and cut normal rising time almost by half. (Speeding up the second rise won't shortchange flavor because it's already there.) Or, if you need or want to put off baking until much later, simply place the shaped dough in the refrigerator and hold it as long as the recipe permits (usually 24 hours) before completing a regular rise.

9. Bake as directed; let the loaf cool; and enjoy your bread! Because the Kneadlessly Simple method produces "stirrable" doughs, they are likely to be slightly moister and require longer baking than normal to ensure the center is baked through. That's why the recipes routinely suggest a few extra minutes in the oven after loaves appear to be done. If in doubt, remember that with Kneadlessly Simple, breads are moist enough that they almost never dry out and actually benefit from what may seem to be overbaking.

the chemistry behind the steps

Experts almost universally agree that yeast breads benefit from a long, slow, cool or cold first rise. Developing the rich, soul-satisfying taste and aroma that make good bread one of nature's greatest foods just can't be rushed. And rushing won't save enough time to make yeast baking noticeably more convenient, anyway. On the other hand, slowing the process makes it easy to adjust the risings to the demands of daily life.

Even more important, dramatically slowing down the first rise by mixing the dry ingredients (including a rather modest amount of yeast) with ice water (yes, ice-cold water!) and then refrigerating the dough for a while has some remarkably positive chemical effects. While high temperatures can kill yeast organisms, icy temperatures just temporarily knock 'em cold (so to speak!) and put them in a sluggish state. With the yeast out of commission, some enzymes in the flour go to work breaking down damaged starch into sugars. Normally the yeast organisms would rev up activity in the presence of this banquet, but instead they remain available to significantly improve bread taste, crust color, and appearance. Other enzymes are also busy softening and smoothing the crumb and strengthening the gluten.

Known as "delayed first fermentation," this recently introduced technique is beginning to catch on with professional bakers, and, fortunately, it's an effortless way for home bakers to improve their bread, too. Peter Reinhart, who learned the basic method from a French baker and discussed it in his award-winning 2001 work, The Bread Baker's Apprentice, commented that it had tremendous implications for both professional and home bakers; he was absolutely right! I call for a 3- to 10-hour delayed fermentation because I've found that all the most noticeable improvements-richer dough flavor, smoother texture, and more attractive browning-occur in that period. (The time frame can be adjusted a bit to fit your typical work/sleep schedules although it does take a minimum of 3 hours for the benefits to accrue.)

The next, equally effortless step-setting the dough out in a 67º to 70ºF room to slowly rise for up to 18 hours or even 24 hours-is at the heart of the Kneadlessly Simple process. As the dough warms and the yeast comes back to life, the long, slow fermentation produces even more flavor enhancers. If you don't have a suitably cool room, place the dough close to an air-conditioning vent or unit, or lacking that, refrigerate it for at least 3 hours first. This slows down the yeast organisms so they won't become too active from the heat and over-ferment the dough.

Fermentation also produces carbon dioxide gas bubbles that cause the mixture to expand, sometimes three-or four-fold, and have a holey, sponge-like appearance. (This, of course, is why bakers often call the bubby, airy dough mixture a "sponge.") To the naked eye, the bubbling action of the sponge may not seem significant, but, over time, it accomplishes on the molecular level exactly what kneading does faster and more obviously: It jostles and bounces around molecules called gliadin and glutenin so they hook up and form the strong, elastic gluten strands needed for good bread structure. The process, which I've dubbed "micro-kneading," isn't visible, but its effects are: Thoroughly micro-kneaded doughs are extremely elastic and springy and will stretch out so thin you can see the light through them. (Bakers call this "passing the windowpane test.") Aside from its ease, a big advantage of micro-kneading is that certain flavorful carotenoid compounds in unbleached flour that are normally lost through oxidation during vigorous kneading are preserved. Another advantage is that the long, slow fermentation actually boosts the digestibility of bits of grain and seeds.

Bread chemists have known for several decades that doughs, especially ones moist enough to permit lots of bubbling, will eventually and very effectively knead themselves. But except for a few minimal-knead, refrigerator-rise recipes for home cooks that appeared in the 1980s, recipes don't seem to have capitalized on this phenomenon until recently. Perhaps professional bakers didn't take an interest because they already have powerful, efficient kneading equipment to do the job. But for home bakers who don't have the time, skill, desire, or equipment to knead, the value is enormous.

After the first rise, most recipes call for stirring the dough. This is done to deflate it and to incorporate any dairy or other perishable products that can't safely stand at room temperature for long periods. Sugar and dried fruit also inhibit yeast organisms by binding up water vital for their growth, so they are often added after the first rise, too. Certain herbs and spices contain chemicals that hinder yeast growth as well. (In my experience, garlic, onion, oregano, thyme, mustard, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and ginger have particularly strong retarding effects. So, don't toss in larger quantities than my testing has shown the yeast will tolerate!)

Once these ingredients are incorporated, it's important to add in enough flour to stiffen the dough as directed in the recipe. While super-hydration facilitates the bubbling that develops the gluten in the first rise, in the second rise too much water can be a liability. It can lead to doughiness in the final product, and can weaken the gluten and add weight to the point where the loaf sinks in the center during baking.

The final step before putting the dough in its baking container is often to fold it in to the center all the way around using a rubber spatula. This particular folding action, followed by inverting the dough into its baking pan, helps organize the gluten strands properly and substitutes for "rounding," a hand-shaping technique some professional bakers use.

So now you know that the Kneadlessly Simple method isn't magic. Instead, it's easy because it takes clever advantage of a whole array of chemical processes that naturally happen when water, yeast, and flour co-mingle under controlled conditions. Let's make bread!

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