(Almost) no knead to know: Easy but slow bread baking

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There’s something very satisfying about making your own bread…when it works. My sole childhood memory of my mother baking bread was during one of the numerous bakery strikes that happened in the 1970s in the UK. Sadly, her effort was pretty unpalatable. As for me and Mrs CookWithNoName, we’ve had quite a few disappointing attempts between us. However we’ve both found saviours espousing very different baking techniques and from very different backgrounds.

Mrs CWNN has had success with the methods of the English-based Breton baker Richard Bertinet. He favours the French “slap and fold” method of kneading. His book Dough is excellent and comes with a short DVD which you can watch on YouTube. (The kneading demonstration starts at around 4.30.) This produced a great loaf and only one complaint – from our neighbour upstairs, annoyed about the noise of the slapping on a Saturday morning.

Bertinet is a classically trained artisan baker and his books demonstrate a great variety of loaves. His kneading method is quite a bit of work however and there’s been a trend to no-knead bread that is allowed to develop over a much longer time period than conventional modern baking. As well as saving on effort, the long ferment allows superior flavours to emerge.

The baker I’ve found whose guidance is the most reliable and easy to follow is the American, Ken Forkish, whose book Flour Water Salt Yeast gives very precise, detailed instructions. He is unusual in a number of respects – his breads mainly use all purpose (or plain) flour rather than the strong bread flour normally favoured for its higher gluten content which supposedly gives a better rise. And he bakes his bread inside a container – by preference, a large cast iron Dutch oven – which helps keep the shape and keeps in moisture allowing the bread to rise more before forming a crust. His sole book has essentially one basic method which he then develops into a variety of different recipes around a common theme.

Forkish’s recipes generally make two large loaves – each roughly a 2lb loaf as a traditional British baker would have seen it. But you could easily halve the recipe and produce one of these large loaves or even two smaller loaves. Below, to keep things simple, we’ll make one (roughly) 2lb loaf (or two smaller 1lb loaves).

You need to do quite a bit of planning around the timetable – his method does not need much active work but it does require being there to do things at a few key moments. In his book, he discusses how to vary the timetables and gives alternative recipes like an overnight loaf but again, we’ll keep things simple here.

He is very precise about the temperatures before the actual baking. This is something of a dilemma in Hong Kong where our ambient temperatures in the summer months are significantly higher than he is working with. Perhaps even more importantly, we have very high humidity. I’ve adjusted his recipe to slightly reduce the amount of water to allow for our higher humidity and not warmed the water as well as slightly reducing the time to reflect the temperature. If your kitchen is air-conditioned, that will lower both the temperature and humidity to closer to his assumptions.

Forkish’s method requires no kneading – neither the conventional British way (of pushing with the heel of the hand) nor the French slap and fold. Instead there is a brief mixing of just the flour and water to “autolyse” the mixture and later a very quick folding two or three times after adding the yeast and salt. He has posted videos on YouTube which are very useful

One thing I’ve found is that the shaping phase is very important and perhaps the most neglected element of getting a good rise. Both Bertinet and Forkish demonstrate in their videos how you can build strength into the dough before it goes into the oven so it rises well. .
Forkish bakes longer than most to achieve a very dark crust. Mrs CookWithNoName prefers a slightly less thick crust so we don’t go as far as him.

Equipment
You need a container to mix the ingredients. Forkish recommends very specific large plastic tubs which are great if you plan to do a lot of baking. I bought some of these via Amazon US. But really anything roughly bucket shaped (or quite a bit smaller for the quantity below) would do. Ideally they’d have a lid or you could substitute cling film I guess. I used a very large Tupperware-type container when I first did this. Round ones are better than square ones because you don’t want corners that bits can get stuck in.

You also need something in which to do the final proofing. This will help in the shaping and contribute to the rise. The classic container is a specialised “banetton” or proofing dish. Traditionally made from cane or basket-weave, they help to dry out the surface of the dough which might assist in forming the crust. But these are hard to locate in Hong Kong and, messy to clean if your dough turns out too sticky as it may do sometimes when you experiment. So you can substitute anything which is roughly bowl shaped – a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl will do fine

It is possible to bake these directly on a baking tray on the shelf of the oven but Forkish’s method is big on using a lidded cast iron container and I’m sure that contributes significantly to the result. Sogo sell a range of nice but expensive American Lodge cast iron ware and I use one of their large Dutch ovens. One disadvantage of this is that, unless you have a range of different shapes and sizes, all your loaves will come out pretty much the same shape. I have a couple of largish cast iron enamelled casserole dishes which I have also used for 1ln loaves and that gives a bit of variety

Forkish recommends baking at a high temperature of 240C. Our previous oven would only go to around 220C and, even if yours says it goes higher, it may be lying to you. But it seems, as long as you can get it above 200C, you’ll be OK although you may need to bake a little longer. If you’re using the cast iron container, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a fan oven or gas or electric or whatever because the bread is going to be within in its own hot little world. A fan oven will get hotter quicker however and recover the right temperature more quickly after you open the door.

You’ll need some accurate scales. Other optional extras are a baker’s knife to make a nick or two in the top of the dough to help it break open for a nice finish. (Forkish doesn’t use this, relying instead on it happening naturally in his method.) A cooling rack would help. But you can turn the loaf upside down to cool on a worktop if you don’t have one. A dough scraper helps – these are available cheaply in lots of stores like City Super and the specialist baking stores like Twins.

(Almost) no knead to know: Easy but slow bread baking
 
A 2lb white boule loaf recipe adapted for Hong Kong from Ken Forkish;s Flour Water, Salt Yeast
Author:
Ingredients
  • 500 grams all purpose (plain) flour
  • 360 grams of water
  • 11 g salt
  • 2g instant yeast
Method
  1. Mix the flour and water in your large plastic container. You are simply incorporating the water into the flour. Don’t worry about kneading or anything like that. See Ken Forkish’s video of this stage (but note he is using double the quantity here and a different recipe. The principle is the same though.)
  2. Leave covered in a warmish place for about 25 minutes. (The ambient temperature in Hong Kong will be fine.)
  3. Add the yeast and the salt and mix these into the flour and water by repeatedly folding over the dough and cutting through the mixture with your hand. See Ken Forkish’s method. Cover and store
  4. After about twenty minutes, fold the dough. You need to give a few folds of the dough. This means grasping about a third of the dough from underneath and folding it over itself. You will do this three or four times using a hand that is dipped in a little water to stop the dough sticking to your hand. Ken Forkish’s video shows the method well.
  5. Repeat the folding once more, after about an hour.
  6. After about five and a half hours from when you started, remove the dough from the plastic container onto a lightly floured surface.
  7. With lightly floured hands, shape the dough into as tight a ball as possible. You do this by folding the dough repeatedly in on itself from underneath to the top. Then with your hand underneath the ball you spin it around a little to finish the shaping and place into your proving container. Again Ken’s video shows this very well.
  8. Depending on how long your oven needs to heat up, you’ll need to start pre-heating the oven with the cast iron container inside. Heat to 240C if your oven will go that hot, otherwise, as hot as it will go. (You may get a little bit of smoke coming off the container when you remove it, especially if, like me, you oil the container for storage to avoid rust.)
  9. The dough needs to prove for around one hour in Hong Kong summer temperatures (up to 15 minutes longer in the winter or if your kitchen is air-conditioned). Test the proof by pressing with a floured finger – it should go indented and slowly recover its shape when you remove your finger. If it springs back almost immediately then it still has some proving to do; if it doesn’t spring back at all, then it’s over-proved – you should bake right away but the rise won’t be optimal.
  10. When ready, remove the cast iron container with oven gloves; take the lid off and drop in the dough gently, the other way up from how it has been proving. Take care – this is very hot.
  11. Bake for around 30 minutes and remove from the oven. Again, take care.
  12. Take the loaf out of the container and put it back directly onto the oven shelf for a final development of the crust. I just do this for 5-10 minutes depending in how pale the bread is when it comes out but Forkish goes longer. Test the bake by tapping on the base of the loaf – it should give a nice hollow sound, if not it needs longer.
  13. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a cooling rack before trying.
Notes
The crust sadly goes soft quite quickly in Hong Kong’s humidity. You can re-fresh the crust by putting it back in a hot oven (say 200C) for 10 minutes.
The loaf keeps well inside a sealed plastic bag – we’ve happily kept this for a week or so.
Alternatively you can freeze it inside a plastic bag. Either defrost and then re-heat the whole loaf or, if you are only going to use a slice or two at a time, you can slice it before freezing and then defrost individual slices in a toaster.