I’ll always remember the first morning when I arose to discover the result of my first, Mark Bittman, slow-rise, no-knead, dough as it finished the last of its 12 hours sitting on my kitchen counter – I had before that time, never witnessed the heady perfume of a long dough fermentation, and it was, as they say, one of my foodie epiphanies. If you are not yet aware of the home baked artisan style bread made famous by Bittman and Jim Lahey, of the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC, here’s the original 2006, NY Times article that spurred a minor revolution in the world’s bread baking world. If you’ve never tried this bread, I encourage you to do so – and I’ll bet you’ll add it to those other essential family recipes in your collection.
Please allow me to quickly relate what it is about this process which makes it an instant classic. BTW, this process is not new with Lahey and Bittman, they simply improved on a method of baking that is thousands of years old. First, the long rise removes the need for kneading the dough – a wonderful improvement. The long rise also develops flavor as the slow process of fermentation occurs in the dough. Thirdly, the bread is baked within a pot which has been heated to the same high temperature as the oven itself, thereby creating a fantastic chewy but crisp crust which often is the difference between homemade and bakery breads. Fourth, it calls for a very wet dough, which if you were kneading the dough, would be impossible to work with, but which creates the big holes so often missing in home baked bread. To sum it all up, this process reduces the labor effort and increases both the flavor and quality of the finished loaf.
While I’m more than pleased each time I bake this loaf, I have baked it so often since that first loaf that it’s hard not to recognize ways in which improvements can be added. And I’d like to share those potential improvements with you here. Certainly, one of the obvious weak points of the original process is that when the time comes to add the risen loaf to the heated pot, it is simply “plopped” into the pot! Just when you want to protect as much of the dough rise as possible, you are forced to use a procedure that sacrifices the risen dough to avoiding getting burned. Now admittedly, the super-hot pot plays magic with the rudely violated dough, and you are always amazed at how much “oven spring” occurs in the first five minutes in the pot! Still, there’s little doubt that the more rise goes in, the more comes out. My improvement? I simply use a piece of baker’s parchment under the last rise of the loaf, and grab it by the edges to lower it into the pot – result: gentle entry = less loss of rise by the loaf.
Now, there’s more to this simple improvement than meets the eye. If you lower the upright loaf into the hot pot, that means you can also score the top before doing so. This is no small thing, since with the original process, you must turn the loaf over as you plop it in, which means the bottom becomes the top, and the bottom is often less attractive than is the well rounded and tightened top. But even more significant is that without a score on its top, the loaf is left to create its own pressure split, which unfortunately often occurs on the side of the loaf than on its top, where it would look more attractive. OK, I hear some cynic saying, “Well, what’s so hard about just turning the loaf over and scoring it as you lift it into the pan?” – to which I respond, “And that will take even more of your precious rise away”. The less you handle your risen loaf, the more of that rise you protect.
What about the other improvements? Well, an easy addition that will give you even more flavor development during the fermentation period is to add some sourdough starter to your yeasted dough during the initial mixing. But this addition will give you an added plus, it increases the stability of the rise. When you use yeast as a leavening agent, the more yeast you use, the more stable is your rise. But we’re using an incredibly small amount of yeast in this loaf. By adding a second leavening, the stability of the rise is increased over the use of only one. Not only that, but the rise times of each is just about equal, which is exactly what you want. This means that when you are ready to bake, your loaf will not be so delicate that a mere touch will cause it to deflate – that’s why you can safely score it without fear.
There is still one more advantage to the use of both yeast and sourdough – following the long, slow, fermentation period of the Bittman/Lahey process, you quickly form your loaf, and let it rise for only two hours. But you’d have even more flavor development if you could allow it to rise even further. And the use of the sourdough will allow a continued second rise/fermentation of 4-6 hours with no fear of over-proofing. How much sourdough starter to use? I use 1 cup of starter for each loaf I’m making – is this a perfect ratio? I’ll know better with another 10/20 loaves made.