OK, so, back to the discussion from yesterday.  I really hope you’re not bored of my bread nerdiness yet!

To recap: we tried both Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and No-Knead Bread, and No-Knead is definitely the superior bread.  It has a longer rise, and that out of the fridge, which means superior development and thus better flavour.  It is cooked in a cast iron pot, which works better than any amount of fuss with steam and a domestic oven.  But it’s still just great white bread, and I won’t bother baking for anything less than sourdough.

There is a lot of unneccessary mysticism around sourdough, and I think that’s why people give up on baking it at home.  So here’s the essential information:

Sour ferments are lactobacillus cultures — not born of yeast, but great neighbours. There is no magic trick to them.   They’re useful because they taste good, and because they impart a little rise by producing gas: this is how rye breads, which have little gluten, can be cajoled into lightness. The starters used for breadmaking are a convenient double-bill of yeast and tasty bacteria. 

Like yoghurt , sour cultures are an ingredient that you can keep alive in a jar in your fridge.  They need less than 30 seconds’ effort each week, less than it takes to find an ingredient in the supermarket.  Trust me, you CAN fit a sour bread in to “five minutes a day”.

To sum up:

  • Simple bread = (flour/water/salt) + lots of yeast + a little time.  ["5-minute Artisan" method].
  • Elegant, tasty bread = (flour/water/salt) + a little yeast + a lot of time.  [No-Knead method]
  • Delicious sourdough = (flour/water/salt) + a little yeast + lactobacillus culture + a lot of time.

With only one more step, you can have no-knead, no-babysit sourdough loaf that’s every bit as good as a fancy-pants $5 deli bread.  You can have it warm with butter.  It is so good.  I’m hungry again just thinking about it.

Nom.

Make, buy, beg or steal a sourdough culture.  There are lots of different starters  for sale on the internet and for a few dollars, you can pick and choose the one that you like best.   If you’re in America, specialists sell a range so get something great — my Californian friend Tammi would kill me if I didn’t recommend a San Francisco lactobacillus.  For Aussies, there is a baker in Tasmania that sells a great one online.  You can also start your own if you have the patience, but I won’t go into that here — I bought mine because I’ve started a number of sours myself and they’ve never tasted as good.  Stands to reason: the guy who sold it to me is a master baker and had already done the hard work of finding a great tasting culture.

Stick it in your fridge and feed it once a week: a purchased starter will come with instructions for “waking up”.  Mine also came with a long and complex recipe for bread, with several rises, which is awesome if you don’t have a job, children, or anything else but bread in your life.  If that is you, good luck to you.  You don’t need my help!!

This is our starter –getting a bit low.  This photo was taken just before I took out all but 50g, and added 200g each of flour and water — which is the full extent of necessary starter maintenance and should be done weekly — more often if you bake every day and need more starter.

Every time we want a loaf, we break off a heaped tablespoon from the starter and mix it into some of the water required for the recipe.  From that point, the recipe is exactly the same.

Sour No-Knead Bread

  • 1 heaped tablespoon sourdough starter
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 3 cups white flour (if you can, buy a bag of organic flour from a health food shop with good turnover — it’s not only better for you, it develops into a better tasting bread.)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt

Put the starter into the water and break it up with your fingers.

Add everything into a container:

Make a shaggy dough:

Wait 12 to 18 hours and turf it out on to a floured surface.  Stretch and fold (see the video from my last post: I’m not a star at this so I’m not going to show you my sad efforts!)

Wrap it up to rise for two hours in a well floured tea towel.  At one hour, pop a cast iron pot in your oven and turn it up to about 210C.

Invert your dough into the pot (be careful with the hot cast iron!).  Bake 30 mins lid on, then brown with the lid off (around 15 minutes more).  Clean your bench with one of these, it’s a pastry or dough scraper and is worth every cent in a quick cleanup.

Compose smug face.

(The same guys who sell the starter I recommend, also sell scrapers, but kitchenware stores do stock them also.)

After I uploaded these photos, I realised that this last shot is of the rye version*, and I didn’t take photos of the white loaf from folding until after it was baked — here they are side by side.

You can see how the rye is a little more dense.  That’s how it’s supposed to look — as mentioned above, rye flour has little gluten and benefits from the sour ferment for even this more modest rise.

Allow to cool, at least most of the way to room temperature, before slicing.  All sourdough breads are tastier the next day, if you can wait that long.  The cracked surface is made by baking seam side up, the smooth by baking seam down.  You can also make fancy slashes with a kitchen knife, should artistry strike.

And that is how you make sourdough bread, as good as any you can buy, without killing yourself or sacrificing your marriage.

I got Dan to watch the No-Knead video and he got really excited about making it himself.  From a man who watches my baking as if I’m performing some magical voodoo rite, this is great.  (He told me yesterday that he’s never separated an egg.  What??  Is it even possible to live 30 years and not separate a yolk from a white?).

Sometimes it’s frustrating to live with a city boy.  Other times — like seeing him pick fresh berries for the first time in his life as I did on our honeymoon, or listening to him tell our friends how easy it is to make sourdough bread — it’s awesome.

Anyway.  Time for me to leave you alone.  You could have set some bread on in the time I’ve been blathering on.

*For a rye loaf:

  • 1 heaped tablespoon sourdough starter
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 2.5 cups white flour
  • .5 cup rye flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)

You can use the starter with either No-Knead or Five Minute methods — if you want to use it in the latter, I’d recommend substituting one cup of starter for one of the packets of yeast, and baking in a cast iron pot.

I love making bread.  I do.  I get really nerdy about it, too.

I love mucking around with sourdough cultures and yeast and trying stoneground flour X versus organic flour Y plus Z percent of rye… watching it rise… smelling the starter and the dough develop from a puddle of flour and water into something truly complex and sour… sitting next to the oven waiting for the magic to start.

I am also a total bread snob which means that I don’t bake regularly.

How does that work?  In my experience, quick breads – overnight bread maker jobs – aren’t worth it.  I live in the inner suburbs of Melbourne and  there are three artisan bakeries within walking distance of my house.  If I can’t make a bread that’s equal to or better than theirs, I’ll buy.  In the same line of reasoning, I don’t make croissants or pain au chocolat, though I love them dearly, because the French guy down the road is better at it.   (Besides, I like not knowing how much butter there is in my pastry).

But every year I have a baking spree, a wild, no-holds-barred, up-until-3am-because-the-dough-isn’t-ready-yet crazy-lady bakeathon in which the kitchen is dedicated to all things yeasty.  Because it’s so much fun that I can’t resist it.  I go nuts.  I experiment and buy new equipment and drive everyone insane.  I don’t go out because I have to mind the bread.  Sooner or later the sink gums up with excess flour, my friends are sick of pizza, ciabatta, and rye, and I  too have had enough.  Truly artisanal bread is a hard taskmaster.

When the bug hit this year, I tried a different tactic.  In this I was inspired by Gina’s success at making bread regularly.  Instead of trying for absolute perfection, I took two quick-and-dirty methods and tried to turn them into worthy bread.  10 kilos of flour later, the results of my mucking around have changed our household — not just me, but Dan too – into one that regularly bakes.

Our two contestants are the quick-bread big guns:  Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and No-Knead Bread.

The Artisan method  is certainly easy. Throw a whooole lot of flour, water, yeast and salt in a big bowl — enough for a number of loaves.  Give the huge, sticky mass a quick first rise of a couple of hours.  You use tons of yeast so it puffs up quick as can be.  Then put it in the fridge and, over the next two weeks, pull a ball of dough out every time you want bread.  Let that dough come to room temp and rise (they say 40 minutes but it can take up to two hours.)  Then bake.  If you have a strong stomach for cheesy all-American smiles, herewith the video:

This is a good way to get fresh, hot bread without being stuck to a timetable: all you need in the way of babysitting or planning is to be in the house for 3 hours.  The recipe makes good looking bread with a high loft, but for me it just didn’t hit the spot.  It was tasty when hot, but most of the heartiness  was gone by the time it cooled.   These breads certainly look like artisan loaves but the taste is just slightly better than your average Brumby’s or supermarket loaf.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s only a failure by the standards of someone who can buy a fantastic loaf around the corner.  If you love plain bread (or have kids who won’t eat new and ‘weird’ foods — hi Gina) then it should work pretty well.  It makes fresh, hot bread without preservatives, and it’s fun.  You know, for those of you who live a ways out from a real bakery, what a great substitute for sliced supermarket loaves.

The No-Knead recipe is similarly easy, except that you need to know in advance when you’ll bake the loaves.  Not that hard for me: I mix just before bedtime for a bake sometime the next afternoon, even after work.

Put your flour, water, salt and a tiny bit of yeast in a container, and leave it for 12-18 hours.  Form it into a ball, let it rise for two hours, then bake it in a hot cast-iron pot.  The baking method is, for me, a revelation.  It works incredibly well for a high-loft, caramel loaf.  I do recommend you watch the video, because this is seriously easy and good.

No-Knead beats Five Minutes hands-down on crust, crumb and flavour.  The slow growth of the yeast makes a delicious, yellowy dough that smells like heaven, and I have never made such good bread since trying this cast iron baking method.  The first bread I made tasted like a seriously good ciabatta.  And lo, it looked every bit as good as the one in the video!  That never happens!!

But of course, it wasn’t sour.  And here’s the magic missing piece of the quick-bread puzzle.

The 5-minute Artisan people claim that if you slow the growth of their non-cultured dough by refrigerating it, you will get some sourness.  You could almost certainly achieve the same quality by slowing the growth of a no-knead loaf even further.  But essentially you’re just encouraging some minor native bacteria that was already hanging around in the flour, to grow a bit.  They’ll never truly sing: yeast is the star.

So, to sum up — No-Knead is the superior method, and gives good bread with less effort than making a cake.  But you can’t make sourdough bread with plain baker’s yeast.  It doesn’t matter how long you store the dough.

I’m writing this up as two separate posts, because I can sense your eyes are getting tired,  so stay tuned for tomorrow when I’ll share the tweak that makes all the difference.  (And it’s still quick).

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