I love bread. Simply love bread. I learned to bake bread from a neighbor in Warren, Mrs. Levinson, who also taught piano. She tried teaching me piano. But soon discovered I had neither the hands nor the tempo for the piano. I did have bread hands, she told my mother.
Over the years, they’ve also become pasta hands, pizza hands, typing hands, and knead-a-friend’s-sore-back hands. Basically, bread hands. But among my favorite breads to bake are the kind that don’t require tedious kneading (or the help of a bread machine). These are earthy, crusty loaves with lovely big holes inside. These are the kinds where the crust sounds like it is cracking when you break off a piece.
Jim Lahey started the no-knead bread revolution in New York. The ingredients are simple: flour, water, yeast, salt, a very hot oven, and a good cast-iron pot (I like a 2.5- to 3-quart size), preferably with an enamel coating. And you need time. Most of the time is passive.
Because we live in Erie, I also like to use a heating pad when I’m making this bread during the colder months because I don’t keep my home heated to 72 degrees 24/7/365. More on this in a minute.
Wegmans offers a great bread selection, but there’s nothing like pulling a loaf out of the oven and slathering it with butter or dipping it into a bold extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned salt mixture while it is still warm.
Not everyone likes sourdough, but the beauty of making your own is you can control the flavor. The starter and the proofing temperature and time will determine how deep the flavor becomes.
You can buy a starter, often from websites offering some form of pedigree, or you can create your own. I’ve killed more than one heritage starter due to neglect (I’m not very good at friendship bread either), so I like to start my own. It’s simple. I use a large old yogurt container (4 cups). For a starter you will need flour, filtered water and either unsweetened apple juice or unsweetened pineapple juice and time. You can follow the instructions from the New York Times here. One you get it going – it will take about a week – you can stash it in your refrigerator. A portion will need to be used (or discarded) once a week and then it needs to be replenished (fed) with more water and flour. If should smell like it is fermenting – yeasty and somewhat vinegary. If it gets a gray layer of liquid on top or doesn’t smell good, it’s time to start over.
Once you have a starter, the time investment is about 18 to 24 hours to make a loaf of bread. I will start mine in the evening, around 6 p.m., which means I can bake anytime the following afternoon or evening.
This doesn’t require any special flour. Buy unbleached all-purpose flour from a trusted source. You don’t need bread flour for this to work. Once you get the hang of it, you can try mixing in some whole wheat flour (start with 1/2 cup and work with it until you get a texture and flavor you like). You can brush it with garlic olive oil during the second phase of baking (once you remove the lid from the pot) or herbed oil. Now the bread becomes your own.
Now the part about the heating pad. Once you have your flour, water and starter mixed together, it will need to rise in a warm place. I cover my bowl with a damp tea towel (not one with the loops on it) and a plate. Then I put it in box on an open shelf in my kitchen and cover it with the heating pad set on low. The temperature needs to be about 70 degrees consistently. If you like more tang in your sourdough, you will want temperatures averaging 75 to 80 degrees (or warmer, but no higher than 85). Make sure the tea towel doesn’t dry out or a crust will form on the top of your dough (BAD), so check it every 4-8 hours.
About an hour before you are ready to bake, crank up the oven to 475 degrees with your pot in it. Have some cornmeal on hand to sprinkle into the bottom of the pot when you are ready to bake – this will help prevent sticking. Now you are ready to bake.
3 ½ cups unbleached flour (or 3 cups unbleached white and 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup sourdough starter that has been fed
1 1/4 cups warm water
Coarse cornmeal (3 tablespoons, about)
Combine flour and salt in a bowl large enough to handle the dough doubling in size. In a small bowl, combine starter and warm water. Add to bowl with flour and mix until just combined. It will be shaggy. Cover with a damp tea towel and plastic wrap or a plate and set in warm place to rise, 12 to 24 hours.
Scoop dough out of bowl on a work surface covered with flour. Gently fold dough together to form a round loaf. Transfer the dough, seam side down, to a tea towel (no loops) that has been dusted with flour. Cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Heat oven to 475 to 500 degrees with a covered cast-iron enameled pot (about 2.5 to 3 quarts) in it about 1 hour to 30 minutes before baking. When you are ready to bake, take the pot out of the oven and remove the lid. Sprinkle bottom of pot with cornmeal. Carefully lift the dough and gently deposit it (seam side up) into the bottom of the pot. Cover pot. Return it to the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. (I like 25 in my oven). Remove the lid from the pot. You can brush it with olive oil and herbs at this point. Return it to baking for another 20 to 25 minutes. It will be brown and crusty.
Remove the bread from the oven. Allow to cool slightly and then, carefully, extract the loaf from the pan. It should have pulled away from the sides. A metal flexible spatula can help, along with an oven mitt.
Allow to cool for about 30 minutes before slicing.
Adapted from Cooking.NYTimes.com