I’ve been baking bread a lot lately. Homemade bread is cheap (~$0.20 vs. $4.29 for a decent artisan-style loaf), it produces a delightful aroma (I’d wear fresh bread perfume if it was available) and the freshness simply cannot be beaten. Most recently I’ve been working on developing a recipe for a simple, everyday, adaptable bread. This task required a fair amount of research, as well as trial and error. Among my various rambles into the world of internet recipes I discovered a most unusual (and disconcerting) trend- various ‘no-knead’ breads. This was shocking. An outrage! Blasphemy! I felt like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof . Bread must be kneaded! My mother kneaded her bread, as did my grandmother, and her mother, all the way back to the earliest bread-baking antiquity. Confronted with such an alien concept, and married to a scientist, I knew that I had to test my hypothesis- that kneading is essential to good bread. Thus this little experiment was born.
The recipe that I used for both loaves is my current favorite everyday bread. It’s baked in a Dutch oven to increase the thermal mass and improve the evenness of the bake. The lid is left on, which seals in the steam, resulting (very surprisingly) in a crunchier, crispier crust. It’s weird, I know. We’ll just have to chalk it up to the mysteries of the universe until I actually remember to Google it. Although I tried to isolate kneading as the tested variable, I did bake the loaves on different days. There’s only so much bread two people can eat at any given time, and I only have one Dutch oven of the requisite size.
And now the odyssey begins…
1 1/2 C warm (but not hot) water
1 Tbl active dry yeast
1 Tbl sugar
1 Tbl salt
4 C bread flour
With both loaves I first dissolved the sugar and yeast in the warm water. If you’re not sure if your yeast is still alive, letting it sit until it produces bubbles (AKA proofing) will let you know. It should look like this:
While the yeast was starting to happily bubble its way out of hibernation, I combined the remaining ingredients. I next added the yeast-laden water to the dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly. This, finally, was where the two methods started to diverge. Loaf A was taken out of its bowl to be kneaded, by hand, for about 10 minutes (until it bounced back when I poked it). Loaf B was left to sit. I covered both doughs with a damp towel to rise until doubled, about two hours in this case.
By now I was increasingly dubious as to the efficacy of the no-knead method. I contrasted the smooth, taut skin of my kneaded dough to the sticky lumpy mess that was the no-knead dough:
I admit to my (obvious) bias regarding bread kneading, but seriously? There was no comparison.
I punched down both loaves and transferred them to my 5 quart Dutch oven (their baking vessel) for the final rise. After another two hours, I scored an ‘X’ pattern on the top of each loaf to enhance the oven rise. Loaf A (the kneaded loaf) cut nicely; Loaf B was frustratingly sticky and slightly gooey. Loaf B was still looking unpleasantly lumpy to my eyes as well.
Both loaves were covered with the lid of the Dutch oven and placed into the pre-heated 425-degree oven for 35 minutes. Finally, the moment of truth:
The no-knead loaf was surprisingly good. It didn’t rise quite as nicely and fell apart slightly easier than its kneaded kin, but was otherwise fine. The crust was still crunchy and the center was still moist and spongy. I do hold my ground that no-knead bread is inferior to a properly kneaded loaf; I will, however, concede that it technically works and does produce a viable bread loaf. Of course, you only gain ten minutes by not kneading. It just doesn’t seem worth it to me.
I hope this little venture into empirical baking was as enjoyable and informative to you as it was to me. Happy eating!