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No Knead European Style Bread
By Charlie Burke

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My recipes are based on classic techniques which, when understood, can be
modified into variations limited only by one’s imagination. The preparation of a
stock or soup is the same in Italy as in France, with only the ingredients
differing, and the same is true of braising, sautéing or roasting.

I would have said the same of bread making until I read Mark Bittman’s column
in the New York Times last November. Bittman, who refers to himself as “The
Minimalist” believes that most recipes are unnecessarily complicated and that
great food results from using high quality ingredients in uncomplicated
preparations.

He believes, as do I, that “less is more,” and his weekly columns in the Times
follow this credo, reiterated in his award winning books, such as “The
Minimalist Cooks at Home: Recipes That Give You More Flavor from Fewer
Ingredients in Less Time”, published in 2002 by Broadway.

A New York baker contacted Bittman and invited him to come to his bakery to
see a simple, fool-proof method to prepare artisanal crusty bread which
required no kneading.

I knew that long, slow rising was the secret to developing the flavor and chewy
texture of European breads and that many of our recipes use more yeast than
necessary in order to shorten the time of preparation. When I saw that only one-
quarter of a teaspoon of yeast is used here, and that the rise takes nearly twenty
four hours, I thought this bread might be something special. That it requires no
kneading and is cooked in a covered iron pot intrigued me.

It soon was clear that I wasn’t the only one interested; soon, the recipe caused a
sensation and was all over the Internet. Blogs appeared, discussing the pros and
cons of the recipe and suggesting modifications, and the bread was being baked
and commented upon in countries in Europe and elsewhere. All this interest
seemed to have caught Bittman by surprise, and he wrote a second column
updating and modifying the original when people began obsessing over the
amount of salt, the best flour combination and even whether adding an eighth of
a cup of water improved the bread!

I have spent many hours following multiple steps to make French bread and
last year made many rustic crusty loaves using my own sour bread starter. The
results were quite good, but what separates home bakers from the pros is that
many commercial bakers use steam ovens. The moisture is the secret of getting
a thick, crunchy crust with a moist interior. This wet dough releases moisture in
the hot, covered pot which simulates the professional steam ovens much more
successfully than does tossing a cup of water onto the floor of the oven, as I’ve
tried in the past.

The result here is a crusty, moist loaf with large and small holes in the chewy
interior and is the closet we’ve ever come to duplicating the great artisanal
breads of France. As it cools, the crust crackles audibly, and the only other time I’
ve heard this was when I baked “authentic” French bread following Julia Childs’
meticulously detailed and laborious recipe. My recipes for this column are,
with notated rare exceptions, original, but the elegant simplicity and reliably
great results of this New York baker’s method convinced me to share it here.

We use our Le Creuset enameled iron pot, but a simple iron Dutch oven works
well. We’ve even pressed our tagine into service when making multiple loaves,
and it yielded a perfect loaf. Avoid thin bottomed pans however, which will
cause the bottom of the bread to burn.

We’ve been making this bread for over a month now, and friends and family
have enthusiastically jumped on board. It literally takes a few minutes to mix
and then can be forgotten until the next day. I write the time to turn out the
dough in magic marker on the plastic wrap so if I’m not around Joanne just
takes over. Frequently, two loaves are prepared at the same time, with the
second being frozen or given to friends.

One loaf:

3 cups flour (we use King Arthur all purpose or half all purpose, half bread
flour)
¼ teaspoon rapid rise yeast
Scant 1 tablespoon kosher or coarse sea salt
1 ½ - 1 5/8 cups tepid water
Additional flour for dusting

Place flour, salt and yeast into a large bowl and mix briefly. Pour in water and
mix until flour is incorporated. Dough will appear rough; do not over mix.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 18 – 22 hours.
The dough will have risen and have visible bubbles on the surface when ready.

Turn out onto a movable floured surface (disposable plastic cutting boards
work well here, facilitating turning into the pot later). Let dough rest 15 minutes
(optional), then with floured fingers or dough knife fold each of 2 sides half way
over the top. Cover with lightly floured plastic wrap (original recipe calls for
two floured dish towels, above and below, which stick to this wet dough). Let
rise for 2 hours.

Turn on oven to 450 degrees 30 minutes before bread is to be baked. Place a
heavy pot, such as a large Le Creuset into the preheating oven for the 30
minutes.

When the dough has risen for 2 hours, remove the pot from the oven and turn
bread into the dry pot, seam side down, shaking the pot to spread bread. Do not
worry if it’s not even or symmetrical. Replace cover on the pot and return to
oven.

Cook covered for 30 minutes; remove cover and bake and additional 15
minutes. The bread should become deeply browned. Flip the bread, which
should come easily from the pot, onto a cooling rack.

This is a very forgiving recipe. We’ve observed little difference with varied
second rising, although I suggest a minimum of 1 ½ hours. I would use 1 ½
cups of water during humid weather and the larger volume in dry winter
weather. Excellent results have been reported using 1/3 whole wheat flour, but
we’ve been so pleased with the all purpose/bread flour mixture that I’ve not
tried it.

Try this simple “minimalist’ approach; few recipes this simple yield such
spectacular results. You don’t have to tell your guests how easy it is, but don’t
be surprised if they have already heard!

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather
Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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