No-Knead Artisinal Bread Part I

You can make a decent loaf of bread with one of the many popular no-knead recipes on the interwebs. With just a little bit more effort you can make a much better loaf of bread with a “levain” (or “sourdough starter” in less yuppiefied parlance).

For about ten years, I used to bake the loaf I blogged about here and put in our first book The Urban Homestead. Lately, however, I’ve completely changed the way I bake thanks to meeting Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers.

I’ll post a specific recipe once my method crystallizes a bit more. In the meantime, this is the general way I’ve been baking. All the mixing and first fermentation can take place in a plastic tub or large bowl.

1. The night before I mix my dough I take some starter, add flour and water to create the “levain”. Starter is made by mixing dough and water and letting nature do her thing. I’ll blog about the process in detail in a future post. Right now I’m working with a starter that has the consistency of bread dough, but I’m going to switch to a more liquid starter to avoid the dough messes in the kitchen that cause marital strife.

2. In the morning I mix the final dough, carefully measuring ingredients on a digital scale. While I use a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, I’m trying to wean myself of its use. Kneading, it turns out, is unnecessary labor and can be replaced by simply folding the dough a few times during the initial fermentation period.

3. After mixing the dough I let it rest for around 20 minutes to allow flour and water to integrate.

4. Following the rest period I mix in the salt.

5. The dough rises for 2 1/2 hours. During this first fermentation period I pour the wet sticky dough out onto a work surface every 50 minutes and quickly fold the dough in half two or three times.

6. At the end of the first rise I shape the dough into either a batard or a boule. At some point I’ll make a video on how to do this.

7. Once shaped, the boule or batard goes into the refrigerator covered with a floured piece of canvas, in the case of a batard, or plopped in a proofing basked in the case of a boule. The dough can stay in the fridge for 24 to 48 hours. During this second, slow, fermentation period the dough develops a more acidic, complex flavor, plus it allows for more flexibility in terms of your baking schedule. When you want a loaf, all you do is heat up the oven, pull the bread out of the fridge and toss it in the oven. There’s no need, it turns out, to bring the dough to room temperature before baking.

8. To get a decent crust in a home oven I recommend baking in a dutch oven as in the no-knead method. Pre-heat both dutch oven and stove, toss the loaf in the dutch oven and bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes remove the top of the dutch oven and continue baking until done (usually another 20 to 25 minutes).

A note on water: chlorine and chloramine inhibit starters. I have a carbon filter on our house water which I thought removed both chlorine and chloramine. However, I discovered that I got much better results when using bottled, distilled water. After pouring through multiple aquarium enthusiast internet forums (not particularly exciting when you don’t keep fish) I figured out that my cheap carbon filter removes some, but not all of the chloramine in our water supply. At some point I’ll do some tests to confirm this. In the meantime, I’ll stick with bottled water.

I should note that the road to bread baking nirvana is littered with hockey puck loaves and existential angst. Push through the wall of frustration and you emerge on the other side an alchemist, with the power to turn flour into loaves, lead into gold and Dan Brown into Shakespeare. Well, maybe not that last bit.

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11 Comments

  1. so how often do you get a loaf together? I love bread that tastes (and feels) like this, but can’t be around to flip it over every 50 minutes and watch the clock for rising/fermentation times. Do you make a few at a time and save for a couple of days? Or is this a treat you make for yourself every weekend or so?

  2. I can’t wait to give this a try! Thanks for sharing. I received the Urban Homestead and Making It on my Nook for mother’s day. Love, love, love them! I got Making It just so I could figure out how to read a beer recipe! It solved that problem, and there are just so many great ideas I hardly know where to start!

  3. wolfanfinch,

    I put a loaf together a few times a week. With the time in the fridge it makes the process a lot easier in terms of scheduling. If you are around in the evening, you could do the first fermentation then, put the dough in the fridge and then bake it anytime you like–morning or evening. Chad Roberstson, who uses this same method at his bakery Tartine did not like getting up early. So he bakes in the late afternoon

  4. Hmm, I have just been using city tap water for about two years now, no problem really. I have been doing no-knead with wild yeast and whole grain whole wheat. The only problem I have had has been when the dough is too cool it gets kinda dense. I used to use the dutch oven, but I like to make more than one at a time… normally 4 loaves. I have found that blocking the oven vent helps… and putting a pan of water in too.

  5. A few thoughts on chloramine:

    An activated carbon filter will remove chloramine, but how much of it depends on a few factors. Flow rate of the water, surface area of the filter, and how new the filter is will affect the rate of chloramine removal. I have a canister filter housing with a 10in carbon block filter that I use for all-grain homebrewing and it works well when I run the water slowly. (Works well in that there’s no off-flavors in the beer, and the yeast are healthy enough to blow the airlocks off.) Parts for it ran about $40, and the filter lasts 6-12months or about 750gallons and costs $8-10.

    You can also treat it with food-grade chemicals:
    http://byo.com/stories/article/indices/56-water/906-it-was-suggested-that-adding-sodium-metabisulfite-to-the-water-would-clear-the-chloramine

  6. If you let water sit out for a day or two, the chlorine evaporates (the chloromine doesn’t though). Learned that from keeping fish. :P It’s kind of a bummer you have to buy bottled water, are there reverse osmosis filtering stations you can try instead? Seems like RO does remove chloromine.

  7. Garrett–thanks for the tip and for explanation! I have the same kind of filter–works great for beer but not quite well enough for wild yeast breads, apparently. I’m probably running too much water through it. Perhaps if it filtered a single fixture it would work better. Will also look into sodium metabisulfite.

    Mjai–indeed, I hate bottled water and am working on an alternative.

  8. In the past, I’ve read chloramine becomes destabilized (or falls apart?) after being heated. If that’s true, I’d guess heating tap water first, then allowing it to air off the chlorine might help.

    I tried looking it up again, but will have to rethink my keyword/phrase with all the water filter companies using my search terms in their product pages.

  9. I just read the article in Urban Farm magazine about your no-knead bread. I started a starter and it was quite bubbly by the 3rd day. I used a mix of bread flour and all-purpose flour (both white). But, I’ve got a dark colored liquid on the top (after a week in the refrigerator). The starter smells sour-doughy, but the liquid looks awful. Is that normal, or a bad sign? Should I have only used AP flour? By the way, my loaf tasted good, but didn’t rise. I probably should have given the starter more time to develop.

  10. Hey Notes to My Sister,

    The liquid is normal. You can just stir it in and feed if you want to take the starter out of the fridge. Flour doesn’t matter–just don’t use cake flour. Let me know if you have any other problems.

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