The Loaf Awakens: A No-Knead Bake-Off (Part Four of Four)

The Bake-Off, and a Bonus

If you’ve stuck with this ludicrously overfermented series this far, you’ve already seen the recipes behind the three approaches to no-knead bread that Cuisine Stupide has tested:

  1. Jim Lahey’s original “No-Knead Bread.”
  2. Jacques Pépin’s “One Pot Bread.”
  3. Jeff Hertzberg’s and Zoë Francois’s “Master Recipe: Boule.”

We’d love to say that our “testing” involved something like the rigorous experimentation of America’s Test Kitchen or the mad-scientist machinations of Good Eats. Truth is, we tried out these recipes when we felt like it over the course of a couple of years, inflicted the results on our friends, and failed to take detailed notes. All told, we probably baked fewer than two dozen loaves to reach our conclusions.

So take the following advice with a few grains of (preferably kosher) salt. Try the recipes, and others, for yourself. And let us know what you discover.

Jim Lahey’s “No-Knead Bread”

The first time I tried making Lahey’s concoction, I thought it was a disaster. The wet dough was a big damn mess—a bubbly puddle that resisted any attempts at shaping. I didn’t so much place it in the Dutch oven as pour it in.

And the result … was marvelous. A light, chewy interior surrounded by a crisp but not tough crust. It needed more salt (something that other food bloggers discovered, too), and subsequent tries showed us that a little oil and a lot of flour made shaping the dough much easier. We like plastic wrap better than kitchen towels for the final rise. And we fashioned a metal handle for our Dutch oven, since the plastic one isn’t designed for 400-degree-plus baking.

Sometimes the dough has come out drier and firmer. Sometimes it has risen more or less. We’ve used both instant and bread-machine yeast. And the bread has always turned out at least good and usually great. The great innovation of Lahey’s method isn’t that kneading isn’t necessary; it’s that the recipe is so forgiving in terms of vagaries of quantity, time, and technique. In baking, that’s a rare thing, and one that’s invaluable to a home cook.

Jacques Pépin’s “One Pot Bread”

Pépin’s variation is simple: Use the Dutch oven as the mixing bowl, so that the dough never touches your hands. It’s definitely easier than Lahey’s technique, but the results were disappointing: a shorter loaf that had a nice crust but less loft and a more rubbery consistency.

The difference, I think, is that the minimal amount of handling that Lahey demands is enough to give the dough more texture. You might achieve the same effect by using your flour-coated hands to turn the dough a couple of times before baking—but that sort of defeats the purpose.

The other difference, of course, is that Pépin calls for the rise to happen in the fridge rather than room temperature. At the very least, let the Dutch oven sit on the counter for an hour or more before putting it in the oven so the yeast has time to wake up.

Jeff Hertzberg’s and Zoë Francois’s “Master Recipe: Boule”

This is the recipe I wanted to like. Hertzberg and Francois possess an infectious enthusiasm for their technique, and the idea of having freshly baked rustic bread a couple of times a week, with minimal effort, is incredibly appealing.

Unfortunately, our results have been wildly inconsistent. One batch of dough gave us one of the more beautiful loaves we’ve ever produced (see the photo at the top of Part Three), but subsequent loaves from the same batch didn’t yield anything similar. Storing dough for four loaves of bread requires significant refrigerator space (space that Cuisine Stupide doesn’t currently possess), and we discovered that leaving the container lid ajar sometimes produced an unappealing dried crust on top of the dough. Once we even ended up with what looked like spots of gray-green mold. In any case, baking the loaf on a stone slab while using a water-filled broiler pan for steam was a step backward, both in terms of effort and results, compared to the superior Dutch oven method.

In other words, the forgiving qualities that made Lahey’s system so attractive are absent in the Hertzberg/Francois method, replaced by a whole lot of complexities and variables. I’ve no doubt that, for a lot of people, that’s all worth it. But for many others it won’t be.

And the winner is …

Lahey. Clearly.

For Cuisine Stupide, simplicity of process and consistency of results triumph. We’ll be baking this bread for a long time.

Until we find something better, anyway.

Now, the bonus

Even though the Hertzberg/Francois approach to no-knead bread isn’t our favorite, one recipe in their book, The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, had us intrigued: Crock Pot Bread.

It turns out that a slow cooker is a pretty good, lower-heat way to bake bread: consistent temperature in a small vessel that keeps in the steam. The resulting loaf won’t have as much loft as one baked in the oven, and the top will be soft and tan rather than crusty and brown; the authors suggest a few minutes under the broiler, but the result isn’t quite the same.

Still, we’ve enjoyed our Crock Pot Bread and recommend giving it a try, if only for the novelty value.


Crock Pot Bread (Fast Bread in a Slow Cooker)

By Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë Francois
from The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

For ingredients and prep, use “The Master Recipe: Boule (Artisan Free-Form Loaf).”

Form the dough into a ball and place it on a sheet of parchment paper. Lower the dough into a Crock-Pot or other slow cooker, 4 quarts capacity or larger.

Turn the temperature to high and put on the cover. Bake for 1 hour. (Not all crock pots behave the same, so you should keep an eye on the loaf after about 45 minutes to make sure it is not over browning on the bottom or not browning at all. You may need to adjust the time according to your machine.) To check for doneness, poke the top of the loaf; it should feel firm, not soft or mushy.

4crock2The bottom crust should be nice and crisp, but the top of the loaf will be quite soft. Some folks desire a softer crust, so you will love this loaf. If you want a darker or crisper crust, stick the bread under the broiler for 5 minutes or until it is the color you like, with the rack positioned in the middle of the oven.

Let the loaf cool completely before slicing.


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