One way the bread can go wrong

Leif Johnson — 12 Jun 2012, 14:06

and I were gifted a beautiful, red, enameled cast iron pot this spring, for the express purpose of baking bread. I know, it sounds funny, needing a heavy pot to bake bread. But, you see, we've finally run across the no-knead bread technique that hit the NY Times / NPR crowd several years back, and it truly is a lovely way to make bread.

Here's the general recipe. In a big bowl, mix up 3c bread flour, 1.5c warm water, 0.25t yeast, and 1t salt. Cover and leave alone for 12-24h. Turn the goopy, bubbly dough out on a heavily floured, woven cloth, fold it over itself a few times, and wrap up in the cloth. Set the oven timer for 90m. When it goes off, put the oven-safe pot (including the oven-safe lid) in the oven, preheat to 450, and set the timer for 30m. When that goes off, dump the dough into the pot, and bake for 30m with the lid on, and then 20 additional minutes with the lid off.

The result is a lovely loaf of white bread, with a somewhat spongy crumb and a crispy crust. Remarkably, the entire process is rather immune to error. So often in my attempts at making bread the usual way, I have ended up with loaves of dry, crumbly nothingness surrounded by tough, chewy crust. Add too little water or knead too much, and nothing works right. But the kicker is that you can't know how it will turn out until it turns out. This no-knead recipe is delightfully resilient, I think partly because you're really not supposed to mess with it very much.

But my faith in the recipe was shaken last week when a slight disaster resulted in my lovely loaf of bread sticking to the bottom of the pot ! Unlike the usual old recipe, though, I know exactly what happened this time, and I want to use this space on the internets to warn others not to tread this path. The path involves using too much water in the dough. I was making a double batch of bread (we've noticed that using a single batch yields too little dough, resulting in a flat loaf of bread with cross-section similar to a biscotti), but when measuring the water I forgot to double it at first, resulting in a very dry mix. I added more water, but in the end it was too much. The dough turned out lovely and gooey, but when we tried to turn it off the towel into the pot, a huge amount of it stuck to the towel, which took several minutes to scrape off.

Part of the genius of this method of baking bread is that the pot is ludicrously hot when you bring it out of the preheated oven to add the dough. This has the benefit of instantly baking the outside of the dough when you add it to the pot, resulting, if done properly, in a loaf of bread that slides right out of the pot at the end. If the dough is too wet, as I discovered, then the pot doesn't have enough heat to evaporate instantly the necessary amount of water from the surface of the loaf, and something will end up sticking. If, as in my case, the sticky bit is on the bottom, then it's pretty difficult to tell what went wrong when you pull the pot out of the oven : everything is 450 degrees hot, and so you don't have a lot of angles for investigating where the stickiness is happening.

So, with a hot mitt and a very hot pot, I pulled and pulled against the wall of the pot with a butter knife, rupturing the lovely crispness of the crust, but to no avail—the loaf would not budge. Even waiting a few minutes and inverting the pot over the cooling rack didn't do the trick ; instead of coming out cleanly, the loaf split in half lengthwise, the bottom crust stuck inside the pot, with the top of the loaf suspended in the air from the remaining intact tendrils of crust on the side. Eventually I freed the bottom crust from the pot, but it was too late, the loaf was irrevocably torn. It's still delicious bread, and we enjoy it every day here, but the bottom crust ends up torn off and left on the counter.

So, fellow no-knead bread bakers, beware adding too much water to your dough ! For split loaves and orphaned crusts lie this way. Follow the recipe well, and strike the right balance of added-water against added-flour, and you, too, will rejoice in crispy, soft bread for your sandwiches and soups.