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).