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.

Photo Tour of the Root Simple Compound

New, as yet unnamed, kitten enjoying homebrew. Photo by Emily Ho for re-nest.

In case you’ve tired of the continuous coverage of Osama Bin Laden’s compound, how about a look at ours? Writer and photographer Emily Ho sure did a nice job putting together a photo tour of our crib over at re-nest in a post entitled “Kelly and Erik’s Urban Farm.”

Funny, when I look at our house I see all the work I have left to do, the chipped paint and broken concrete. Emily managed to capture the pretty stuff. Thanks should also go to Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms who helped us redesign the garden last fall.

How Not To Bake Bread

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown are away on book tour while I’m holding down the fort in L.A. and looking after their chickens.

I figured that while they are away and not blogging much, I can step in and entertain you with tales of my epic baking failures. Sure, lots of blogs have pretty pictures of food and neatly typed recipes, but everyone likes a good tale of failure now and then.

Now, my neighbor Erik, aka Mr. Homegrown is quite the bread baker. He can turn out beautiful, tasty loaves of bread with ease. Down the street here, my loaves are quite the disaster. I’ve been wanting to learn to bake bread for a while and my experiments haven’t been going well. I’m hardly an incompetent cook. I can even bake cakes and cookies and other things leavened with baking powder or soda. But with yeast, well, I just haven’t figured it out.

I’m trying to follow the Mother Earth News ‘no knead’ bread recipe that you bake in a dutch oven. I’ve tried other yeasted bread recipes before with little success. Since this one is supposed to be easier, I thought this is the perfect bread for me! Apparently some folks gets great
results with it. Grumble. Grumble. I get chicken feed. Not that the chickens are complaining. They love this experiment.

One loaf flattened out completely in the bottom of the pan. I was able to glean some of the pretty tasty insides before turning it over to the hens. The next loaf I was determined to shape better. The dough was a sticky mess. It stuck to everything including plastic wrap, my hands, the bowl. I added more flour to deal with the stickiness but things still went wrong. I at least got something that looked more like a loaf than a pancake. But I think I cooked it too long. Again, I cracked it open, ate the soft inside of the bread and gave the rest to the chickens.


I tend to be a very experimental cook. I like to learn from my failures. Often things taste good but aren’t pretty, but after a few tries I can make them taste and look good. But not bread. It defies all of my time tested methods of how I teach myself to do things. I’ve been reading books on baking and they make my head hurt. How much protein is in the flour or what kind of enzyme does what is way beyond my comprehension at this point. So when the neighbors get back, in exchange for ten days of chicken- sitting, I’m going to have Mr. Homegrown teach me how to bake a darn loaf of decent bread. With none going to the chickens.

Mr. Homegrown here–happy to give a bead lesson, but I’ve had plenty of failures myself. One tip would be to use a scale when measuring bread ingredients. Another would be to make sure you’re not using old, dead yeast. Lastly, I know you’re sick with a sore throat and that’s the time to order take-out.

In Seattle, Headed to Portland

Photo from bikejuju.com

Dig that tallbike, welded up by our host in Seattle Tom, a.k.a. “bikejuju” who has a blog at www.bikejuju.com. His wife Lyanda is the author of a book readers of this blog will enjoy, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. And they have the prettiest mixte I’ve ever seen in their living room.

This afternoon we head to Portland. Hope to see you at one of our appearances.

Tartine Bread

A whole wheat loaf fresh out of the oven at Tartine. It tastes as good as it looks.

As a bread baking geek I’ve set a goal of visiting the best bakeries in every town I’m in. Here in San Francisco, on our book tour, I had the privilege of waiting in the long line outside Tartine Bakery to buy a loaf of bread.

It was well worth the wait. Founded by Chad Robertson, Tartine specializes in naturally leavened breads with dark, thick crusts. Robertson’s technique involves moist doughs, no kneading and a long secondary fermentation in a refrigerator. Best of all, Robertson has adapted his methods for the home kitchen in a lavishly illustrated book Tartine Bread. Like the popular no-knead bread recipes circulating the interwebs, you bake your bread in a dutch oven, which simulates the steam injection of commercial ovens–the secret to a thick crust. But with naturally leavened breads such as the recipes in Tartine Bread, you get a much deeper flavor. Natural leavened breads, due to the higher acidity of natural leavens, also last a lot longer before going stale.

I agree with what Robertson says in the introduction to his book, that naturally leavened breads take only a little more effort than yeasted breads and yield much better results. When I return from our book tour I’ll share some other tips I’ve learned about how to bake naturally leavened bread.

Can you folks in Seattle and Portland suggest some good bakeries to visit? Leave a comment . . .