Our wood oven has been operational since the beginning of August and I’ve turned out a ton of pizzas but–with the exception of three pathetic baguettes–no bread. This had to change. With the help of Jim Lahey’s My Bread I set out to bake my first true round of wood-fired bread.
My entirely unscientific guess is that the average bread recipe for home bakers calls for about three hours of rising and another hour for a second rise, so that including the mixing and baking the whole operation takes no longer than six hours. My current bread cookbook champion is Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (my review) and most of his recipes take this a step further and call for the preparation of a starter, poolish, or soaker the day before you want to bake. Lahey keeps the amount of yeast low and prepares the dough the day before but also has the dough ferment over night (for 12 to 18 hours) at room temperature. Most remarkably he does away with kneading.
The dry ingredients are mixed together to evenly distribute the salt and yeast throughout the flour and the dough is stirred for thirty seconds after adding the water. The principle behind no-knead bread is, apparently, that the gas released by the digesting yeast will form bubbles that will stretch the dough and organise and manipulate the strands of gluten in the same way that kneading would have. Mark Bittman and the New York Times dd a lot to popularise this technique and its probably best that I let him and Jim explain the process in their own words on this video.
Drier doughs (everything that I can think of other than pizza, baguette, or focaccia) are a pleasure to knead in small quantities but this diminishes drastically after about two loaves. For wet ones the kneading/mixing can be a pain without a Kitchenaid so I’m definitely predisposed to no-knead recipes. I just worried that there would be a noticeable sacrifice in the bread’s texture.
Lahey makes a big deal about getting a handle on the basic recipe before trying the more advanced ones. Sounds like a pain in the ass to me. Also sounds like the sort of restriction that Jim Lahey himself would have trouble following. I wanted to put the book through its paces so as well as the basic recipe I made the Pane Integrale (roughly the basic, plus some whole wheat flour), stecca (long bread with toppings that is a sort of a cross between a baguette and focaccia), stirato (rustic Italian baguette), and pizza bianca.
The stecca and pizza bianca both won very high praise for taste but were equally difficult to handle in their raw, post-rise state. Pizza (bianca or napoletana) is the first stage of any bread-making day in the wood oven because they both require higher heat and nothing darkens my baking mood like unmanageable dough that sticks to everything and refuses to stretch. The round boule-shaped loaves were a different story entirely. Going from proofing basket to dutch oven or to the peel on the way to the oven floor takes handling issues out of the equation. They both had an open crumb with lots of those striations that remind me of croissants and a crackling crust–though on both counts the all-white loaves had the edge. The flavour on both was really good with lots of well-developed “wheatiness” and very low-key notes of yeast thanks to the overnight ferment and the tiny amount of yeast used.
For the past two summers we’ve been using a GE ultraviolet system to render the water we pump out of the lake drinkable. Straight from the tap it still smells of the lake bottom and I know it’s fairly hard. I’ve read that hard, minerally-tasting water makes better bread and to put this to the test I brought a container of Toronto water from home and used it for two of the four round loaves. The difference is subtle and the other two people I had blind-taste the comparison couldn’t tell the difference or preferred the Toronto water. I liked the lake water better though because I found it did more to highlight the bread’s inherent flavour.
As well as not kneading the bread Lahey’s recipes stand out because they call for baking in a preheated cast iron or enamel dutch oven. This is not unusual for the new generation of no-knead bread recipes–I’ve used on from Cook’s Illustrated–and is supposed to recreate the high-humidity environment of a fully-loaded wood-fired or steam-injected commercial oven. I baked two of the loaves in dutch ovens and the other two straight on the oven floor. These two methods produced a subtle, but noticeable flavour difference and tasters actually preferred the slightly smoky and ash dusted bread that came direct from the oven floor.
It was a bit of a hassle to keep all seven batches of dough at warm room temperature over night. Realistically this problem only applies to the first and last months of the cottage season but the bigger problem is cleaning all the bowls. I’ve read that wood ovens work better the closer they are to full capacity because this helps create the high-humidity environment that the enclosed dutch oven mimics. I’m motivated to bake, say, eight loaves at once but I’m definitely not motivated to clean eight bowls of the particularly tenacious crust that forms after eighteen hours at room temperature. So, I’m wondering is there any reason not to make a much larger batch in one bowl and then divide to loaf size before the second rise?
During this videotaped radio interview with WNYC, Jim Lahey very briefly mentions that the loaf-sized batches don’t insulate themselves. What happens if a batch of dough is big enough to insulate the centre? How big is this big?
The other question I have is where should the dough ball’s seam go if baking directly in the wood oven? The dutch oven method has it go seam down for the second rise and then seam up in the “fake oven”.
Clearly I have some more experimenting to do with these recipes but for now I can confidently say that they help make remarkably good bread. Tonya at What’s On My Plate has a full series of posts on Lahey’s recipes and especially the idea of integrating a higher level of whole grain flours.