To Knead or Not To Knead

Posted February 20th, 2010

My Dear One decided to bake. I noticed because there were a couple of plastic buckets left over from some construction job in the oven—a sure sign of yeast at work.

For whatever reason—cabin fever, a short supply of good rye bread in the freezer, the sudden urge to make up for previous failures–he quietly brought out the flour, yeast, salt and sugar and put Nature’s organisms to work.

Quite some time ago we had followed Mark Bittman down the garden path of “no-knead bread.” Bittman, writing in the New York Times, was out to persuade readers that a perfect loaf of French-type bread could be made, with sufficient patience and time, without actually putting muscle to dough. You can go to Bittman’s blog to follow the conversation, but let me just say that you cannot make a really good loaf of bread without a little groping and seduction.

In the past, our efforts to produce a crusty, flavorful, whole-grain loaf using this technique had not been particularly successful. The problem had plagued my Dear One for quite a while. At the point he engaged my assistance today, however, he had two pails of pungently sweet and yeastily sour sponge that needed to be formed into loaves for the final rise.

Knead or not? The reciped says not to. Aw, c’mon. How can kneading the dough result in a bad loaf?

I dusted the countertop liberally with bread flour. (Gotta pump up that there gluten.) The dough was extremely damp but riddled with small bubbles. I folded the mass over and over, adding several more handfuls of flour as I went.

I love the feel of bread dough, the softness and elasticity. I love the way it absorbs flour, changing in consistency, sighing in pleasure as it is pummeled.

Half the dough was left to rise in a well floured basket, the other wrapped longitudinally in a dish towel.

The original recipe had called for a heavy baking vessel, something with a lid that would seal in moisture during baking. The pots are preheated along with the oven to 450 degrees. We had chosen the eight-quart Dutch oven for one loaf and the salmon poacher for the other. The Dutch oven produces a boule; the poacher something more like a long Italian loaf.

At two-thirty we rolled the floury forms into their intended cooking pots. My Dear One slashed the tops with a razor and I painted the loaves with an egg-white wash. My Dear One sprinkled them with salt (kosher salt on one, Fleur de Sel on the other) and I shook on the caraway seed.

After thirty-five minutes, we removed the lids to find great golden domes. After an addition fifteen minutes cooked uncovered—the time specified in the original recipe—they seemed not quite done. We did not get that hollow echo when we rapped on the crust, and back in they went for another ten minutes.

The loaves fell from their pots onto cooling racks; the fragrance of fresh bread pervaded every corner of the house.

What is bread warm from the oven if not a vehicle for sweet butter?

And what is fresh rye bread and butter if not the divinely ordained companion to peppery Lithuanian beet soup, chunky with lamb and tangy with vinegar?



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