No-Knead Sourdough: Season Finale! or Look Before You Leap!

Posted by Susan on May 13, 2010 in Baking, Photos, Recipes, Reviews, Special Projects

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This past winter I hopped eagerly on the no-knead bread bandwagon, and had a great time. I am a huge fan of sourdough bread—the really sour kind that’s also chewy with a nice crunchy crust, and here was a relatively easy way to get that level of sour with the crunch. And since I was pretty new to bread baking, the entry-level skill set required for this method had me at hello. What could possibly go wrong?

No-knead has been done to death on food blogs and in cookbooks and magazines,* but I thought I could add something to the discussion from my perspective as a very green bread baker. I was thinking I should bake this bread one more time before the weather got too warm and the prospect of a 500F oven for and hour+ would become very unappealing.

I had made this recipe variation a couple of times before, with what I thought were good results. But this time around, not so good. Here’s the breakdown of what went ever so slightly awry.

Friday April 30. Today and the next few days are forecast to be pretty warm. This bread bakes at 500 for close to an hour total, so the house should get nice and toasty. So much for getting in one last cool-weather baking session. Oh well. The starter is ready, so what can you do?

My starter smells great and has a nice consistency—possibly a bit dry but I think very nice. Love that smell!

Mixed up the dry ingredients, then added the starter, which I first dissolved in the water. Dough was a bit too wet, which I remembered from last time I used spelt (2.5:1 ratio, ish). So I just tossed in another tablespoon of bread flour. Seems better now. (Note: I’ve started using a scale to measure ingredients by weight instead of volume. It’s easy and more accurate. Still haven’t gone whole-hog with it, but will eventually.)

The dough, in a glass bowl covered with plastic wrap, is now hanging out for 18 hours–5PM to 11AM.

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Saturday May 1. Turns out I was right about the dough—way too wet. It’s flattening out like a flippin’ pancake! Nothing for it now, so I forge ahead. Note to self: READ the damn notes you write on your recipe. “Use less water when mixing in spelt.” But, as Julia Child once said (and I’m not sure she said everything she was supposed to have said), “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” OK, so what the hell.

I fold the dough up a few times per the recipe, cover with plastic, and let it rest for about 15 minutes.

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Then I place it seam-side down into a proofing basket that’s been sprayed with a bit of canola oil and dusted with wheat germ to keep the dough from sticking.
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This proofing basket is a really nice piece of equipment, BTW, and makes a nice concentric ring pattern on the top of your bread. I then cover the basket with a towel and let the dough rise for 2 hours. And it does rise, so the yeast is still active. And it does smell really good, despite the overly wet texture.

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After 1.5 hours, I turn on the oven to preheat at 500. The clay pot is already in the oven, sitting directly on the pizza stone that’s always in the oven.

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The most hair-raising part of the process comes next: turning the risen dough out into the extremely hot clay pot without dumping the dough onto the oven door and/or burning yourself. I usually put a piece of parchment in the clay pot to avoid the bread’s sticking to the pot, but this time I tried putting the parchment over the proofing basket and dumping the whole thing in.

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Didn’t work any better, really, but fortunately no disaster either. The hard part is remembering that the clay pot is really really hot, even the lid, which you’ve removed to put the dough in.

OK, the dough is in the pot, a bit lopsided as usual, but that makes it look homemade, right? Put the cover on (using mitts!) and bake at 500 for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, I turn the heat to 450, remove the lid, and bake for another 20 minutes. I’m looking for an internal temp of 200, so I will leave the bread in until it gets there or very close.

The bread is done, and I turn it out onto a cooling rack. Sigh. It is pretty flat, but otherwise looks really nice—gnarly and rustic. And smells fantastic. I love to listen to the crackling as the bread begins to cool.

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I’m on my way out the door so don’t taste the bread until the next day. The crust is very, well, crusty, and the inside is a bit too moist but flavorful. Actually, the sourness may be too much for some people, but I love it this way. The texture is not bad considering the low level of rise.

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I cut the loaf into slices—very thick because my bread knife isn’t up to the task of slicing thin. Something to figure out in the future—I wonder if one of the bakeries around here would slice it for me. Slices are in the freezer, ready to toast.

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Epilogue, May 7. Toasted up a couple of slices and drizzled a bit of olive oil on them. Excellent! Maybe not such a disappointment after all!

The lesson: Spelt flour has a lower water absorption value, meaning that it does not take up as much water as other flours. Other things to remember with this no-knead method: the 18-hour rise is what allows the full development of flavor. This method of baking bread is not difficult, and even though it takes time, the hands-on time is really not much at all. Try it!

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Sourdough no-knead**

* Breadtopia is a great source of how-to videos and bread-baking advice; http://www.breadtopia.com/basic-no-knead-method/; see also Mark Bittman’s 2006 article on no-knead bread: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/08mini.html); Artisan Breads Every Day by Peter Reinhart is a beautifully photographed and detailed primer on the benefits of the slow rise.

**Original recipe from Breadtopia, with a few tweaks of my own.

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2 Responses to “No-Knead Sourdough: Season Finale! or Look Before You Leap!”

  1. Avery Katz says:

    I have a La Cloche but have never preheated it — just preheated the oven and added the room temperature dough and Lc Cloche — and have always gotten a pretty good crust, though not always the rise that I hoped for. Same with a Dutch oven. Does preheating the pot make a big difference in result?

  2. Susan says:

    Yes, the preheating allows you to place the dough into an extremely hot environment right away, which gives a good crust and helps with the oven rise. Many of the recipes I’ve seen include the step of preheating the pot. Good question!

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