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No-Knead Bread: The Burnt Bottoms

No-knead bread with a beautiful crust.
I know, I know my recipe crush on the Lahey-Bittman no-knead bread is glaringly obvious. Hell, I’ve even gone as far as making a stop-motion video homage to it. But, this obsession goes beyond an appreciation for the concept that great bread can be made with very little effort; it’s something that I actually do two or three times a week.

A detailed description of the method probably isn’t necessary since: a.) the original youtube video has been played about 1.75 million views, so I’m guessing it’s fairly widely known; and b.) I’ve gone into some detail in previous posts. Today’s post has a special focus so let’s say that a sufficient summary of the recipe is: mix dough, ferment overnight, allow a second countertop rise while the over heats with a Dutch oven inside, bake inside the closed Dutch oven for 30 minutes, and then remove the lid and bake for 15 to 20 minutes more.

Mug Shot: Golden-brown on top, but acrid black on the bottom.

Mug Shot: Golden-brown on top, but acrid black on the bottom.

The steps are easy to complete and the bread is consistently delicious: an open, flavourful crumb, inside a shattering crust that is gold to dark brown. Well, except on the bottom where it usually turns an acrid black. It’s easy enough to shave that off when slicing the bread, but the loaves would be perfect–or at least perfect enough for home-baked bread–if weren’t for these burnt bottoms.

What to do? Luckily, bread ingredients are cheap and I do this often enough that I can painlessly run a few experiments to find a solution. Before I get started I want to offer my guesses for what will work and see what you think (please comment below):

  • Use a different Dutch oven: In the thousands of other blog posts about baking bread in a Dutch oven a majority of the photos feature Le Creuset pieces. (A plurality even name the brand in the recipe steps.) My collection includes ones from Lodge, Staub, and Le Creuset, but it’s the knock-off store brand one that I use for bread. It’s the perfect size (3 Qt.) for a two-person loaf (400 g flour) and has a relatively small base and gently rounded sides that make it less than ideal for browning meat, but great to give a loaf of bread a gentle push in the right shape direction. I feel like the high, dry heat and frequent use also inflict wear and tear on the pot that I’d rather not subject the fancier ones to.
  • Be more careful about temperature management: Jim Lahey calls for a “500, or even 515″ oven in the New York Times”s original video. I usually heat my oven set at about 525°F and then drop it down to 475°F or so, once the dough goes in. I have the feeling that our oven runs a bit hot so I’ll monitor this with my infrared, non-contact thermometer. I’m also open to the idea that even an accurate 500 to 515 is too hot.
  • Move the Dutch oven to a higher rack: By default, I keep our oven racks in the 1 and 2 slots (counting from the bottom). I can go one higher, to the middle position, and still fit the Dutch oven under the broiler. This is a widely recommended solution and makes sense since, because if the pot is further from the element it will take longer to recover its temperature after the bread goes in.
  • Insulate the Dutch oven (or the bread): A cookie sheet placed under the pot might catch some of the heat from the element and either deflect it or spread it more widely. Metal baking pans are good conductors (and poor insulators) so I’m skeptical. A more complicated solution came to me through a suggestion on the Food With Legs facebook page: Line the bottom of the Dutch oven with crumpled aluminum foil covered with a flat sheet of foil. Here the insulation comes from the air trapped in the various pockets around the foil and that should be more effective than just metal. The problem is that I don’t have much vertical room to spare in my Dutch oven (the original recipe is for grilled dinner rolls) and I worry about how much foil I’d go through at two-plus loaves a week. I’ll save this as a last resort if the other ideas don’t work.

What does everyone else think? Have I missed something here? Do you have any suggestions? Please let me know in the comments section below.

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6 Comments

  1. Jeremy says:

    I have never had the burnt bottom problem!

    I do all my mixing in a large ziploc bag, then I push all the air out and pierce the bag with a knife to let co2 escape.

    I do it at 225C. I also do the second rise on parchment paper that I just drop into the pot. No muss no fuss. Perfect every time!

    See if you like these mods-I sure do! I also use this dough for thin crust pizzas-amazing!

  2. David Ort says:

    Thanks for the tips, Jeremy. What does using a resealable do for you? Just keep the dough moist and make it so that you don’t have to wash a bowl? I take it you can’t re-use the bag?

    225C is in the 430s fahrenheit, so I suspect it’s the cooler temperature that is keeping your loaves from burning.

  3. Jeremy says:

    I do everything in the bag. no bowl, no spoon, no mess. I actually do everything by weight, so I don’t even have to dirty the measuring cups etc!

    You can re-use the bag, I do- There will be a little dough left from the last time, so DON’T ADD YEAST! there is enough in the bag already. Kind of like keeping a sourdough starter. obviously this only works if you use it right away(or I guess you could throw the bag(s) in the freezer until you needed(punny) them.

    Just remember, when working with wet dough, use wet hands people! If you don’t know this-you will be thanking me forever.

    J

  4. David Ort says:

    The bag method seems like a great tip. My one complaint about the no-knead method is that after 18 hours of proofing bits of dough stick to the bowl like concrete. Thanks, Jeremy. Do you mind if I share this modification to the method in a future post? (Obviously, I’ll be happy to credit you.)

  5. Jeremy says:

    Sounds good. Try it, and feel free to email me with any questions.

  6. Pourmeaguinness says:

    450 to 475 works great for me. The bottoms burnt every time I baked at 500 or above.

    I usually don’t take the lid off at 30 minutes either.

    I use an oval kitchen aid enameled cast iron pot.

    I shape the dough into a log and slash the top 3 times diagonally.

    It cooks up beautifully. Never burnt and nice and crispy. Not super crusty. My little ones like it better this way.

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