Bittman — Lahey No Knead Bread: The Third Time’s A Charm?

by A.J. Coltrane

The first time I tried No Knead Bread I used quite a bit of extra flour on the work surfaces. I was happy with the taste, but less so with the appearance. (Really, I was completely happy with it the first time, almost giddy really, but there’s always room for improvement.) The “first time” bread was somewhat misshapen and seemed to have an excess of flour on the outside. The second time I tried it was more or less the same story — same shape, same rise, and probably more flour than would be desirable on the outside of the finished bread.

 

The 3rd loaf.

The Bittman/Lahey No Knead Bread recipe basically breaks down to five steps, I’ll list them, as well as what I tried that was different on the 3rd attempt:

1.  Combine the ingredients in a bowl. Let rise 18 hours.

No changes here. Mix the ingredients with a wet spatula, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and come back the next day. The dough is happy to do its thing.

2.  Remove the dough from the bowl and place on a work surface. Fold the dough onto itself and let rest 15 minutes.

The first two times I used a very generous amount of flour and a cutting board work surface, and the dough still stuck. You might say: “Of course, you dummy, the cutting board has lots of grooves for the dough to grab onto!” (And you’d be right to say so.) During the rise I covered the dough with plastic wrap, which also stuck a little.

On the third try I used a large round (flat) serving platter. I added a tiny amount of cooking spray to the platter and dusted it with a small amount of flour. I covered the dough with an inverted bowl. This worked *much* better, though the dough might have benefited from a little flour on top. The top is eventually flipped to become the bottom, and the flour might help protect it from the heat of the dutch oven.

There’s an important note in here — everytime the dough sticks to something it degasses. Degassing = less open crumb structure and less rise in the finished product. All of my (intentional) adjustments were rooted in the idea of having less stickage happening.

The first loaf, note that it didn't really develop "ears".

On the first two attempts I used a wet spatula to fold the dough onto itself. On the 3rd try I got my hands wet and used them to fold the dough. Between the relatively no-stick surface and my somewhat no-stick hands it worked a lot better, and the folds were much more pronounced — better all the way around. I think that may be why the 3rd dough had the nice ears and the first two breads only developed a crack along the surface. (Either that, or the final handling was responsible for the ears, OR, it was all luck.)

I also think I may be underselling the importance of the folding in the no-knead method. If the dough is really only being handled two or three times I’d guess each time *really* makes a difference. (Though the dough will taste awesome regardless.)

3.  Shape the dough into a ball and place it seam-side down on a well-floured towel. Let rise two hours.

Use really wet hands. Less dough will stick to them that way.

I ditched the towel idea and went with a medium size serving bowl with straight sides. The idea was that the diameter of the bowl would allow me to invert the bowl directly over the dutch oven and the dough would plop out. To encourage the dough to fall out easily I added a tiny amount of cooking spray and then lightly floured the bowl. The issue that I ran into was that I didn’t spray/flour all the way up the sides of the bowl, so the dough got a little stuck at the very top. Other than that though, I thought this modification worked really well.

4.  Transfer the dough to a preheated dutch oven. (Seam side up.)

My oven is small. I’m thinking that it’s a bad idea to preheat the dutch oven longer than it takes the oven to come up to temperature. The bottom of the dutch oven gets too hot, since it’s relatively close to the bottom of the oven. I’m also of the suspicion that my oven may be running vaguely warmer than it says it is — each time the bread has been done at the very earliest recommended cooking time. (Either that, or it’s the small oven talking again.)

5.  Bake, removing the dutch oven lid partway through.

The crust came out browner on the 3rd try, especially on the bottom of the bread. Reasons for this might include:  The small amount of cooking spray used in handling the dough; the oven and dutch oven both preheating for longer than the first two attempts; or the absence of bench flour protecting the outside of the dough from the heat.

My first guess at the main “brownness” culprit is the preheating that happened on the 3rd attempt — on the first two attempts the dutch oven was placed in the oven and the oven was preheated to 450 degrees, the dough was then immediately put into the dutch oven. On the 3rd attempt the dutch oven was allowed to hang out in the preheated oven for about 10-15 minutes. I think the environment was hotter overall.

I’d like to think that I used such a tiny amount of cooking spray that it didn’t significantly darken the finished bread. If only because it’s easier make the bread that way. More flour on the dough might help too, especially on the bottom.

Variables.

Another picture of the 3rd loaf.

 

The recipe and “first attempt” post is here.

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