I just heard Mark Bittman on [KCRW’s weekly radio show] “Good Food” talking about a no-knead bread that’s very good. Can you tell me whether to knead or not to knead? How does bread get those holes in it anyway? Why is the crust crusty, but not the entire loaf?
— Michael H., Los Angeles, California
I will tackle this question despite my suspicion that you are just trying to bait me into one or more “need/knead”-based puns.
Kneading — manual manipulation of dough — develops a bread’s structure by aligning the strands of gluten and encouraging them to bond together to form a supporting structure for the bread.
But as Bittman explained, kneading is not strictly necessary for good bread. Gluten forms naturally in any wheat-flour dough, as the proteins (glutenin and gliadin) in the wheat hydrate and link together. Given enough time, the strands will naturally align themselves and bond with their neighbors to some degree. Kneading only speeds up and intensifies the process.
The no-knead bread “trick” popularized by Bittman (adapted from Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York) is to mix a very wet dough with a very small amount of yeast, and to let it ferment for a long time — like, 24 hours.
It’s then baked at high heat in a Dutch oven (more on this in a minute). The promise is an easy bread with lots of flavor, a crisp crust, and an “artisanal-style” interior structure with big holes. (The fancy baking term for all those holes is “open crumb.”)
Big holes are the coolest, and were always what I admired most about fancy artisanal breads when all I could make were dense bread-machine loaves. Ken Forkish, of the award-winning Ken's Artisan Bakery in Portland, Oregon (OK, I just made that awards part up, but if it’s not true, it should be), told me that a restaurant once asked him to change his recipe because the holes were too big. (Lame!) He refused, and lost the account.
Wetter doughs (up to a point) generally result in bigger holes. Yeast fermentation creates lots of carbon dioxide, which diffuses through the wet dough until it reaches tiny air pockets, which then grow as they fill up with CO2 gas.
A strong gluten network is also important for trapping those gas bubbles, and containing them as they expand during baking. Careful handling of the dough ensures that most of the bubbles stay intact, ready to “go large” in the heat of the even. Finally, a hot oven provides a good “oven spring” — expanding the gas bubbles quickly while the dough is flexible, before the crust starts to harden and impede the rise.
One key to big holes is having sufficient air pockets present in the dough when the yeast starts to do its thing. The pressure of dissolved carbon-dioxide gas in the dough isn’t enough to spontaneously create bubbles in the sticky dough; the best the CO2 can do is to expand tiny air bubbles that are already present in the dough.
That’s where handling the dough can make a difference. I’ve had OK luck with no-knead recipes, but I’ve really never gotten the massive crazy holes I wanted.
In the depths of my despair, I took a bread class from Ken, where he demonstrated a recipe that had a lot in common with the no-knead standard, but with one important difference. About five or six times during the dough’s fermentation, he’d reach into the container with floured hands and sort of pick up the edge of the wet dough and fold it over onto itself a couple of times.
It doesn’t seem like much (certainly no one would call it “kneading”), but the technique made a big difference for me. By the third or fourth flip, the sloppy dough started to show its structure, sitting up a little bit higher in the container and maintaining a domed top surface.
Clearly the gluten was starting to power up, but the stretching and folding also created more air pockets, which equals more opportunity for big holes in the bread. I’ve had much more pleasing results with this method than with the straight “no knead” recipe.
Also, the stretch-and-fold dough — which only takes a few extra minutes over the regular no-knead recipe — develops enough structure that it can be formed into fun shapes, like baguettes or bâtards (French for “bastards” — really, I swear). Not that there’s anything wrong with the amorphous blob of the no-knead recipe, but it’s not especially interesting, either.
The crust, on the other hand, is where the no-knead method kicks unequivocal butt for the home baker. Artisanal loaves have a thin, crisp crust that is difficult to duplicate in a home oven. Home “sandwich loaves” and the like will turn brown on top, but the crust is just a lifeless dry area at the edge of the loaf.
The secret to a glassy, shattery, professional-seeming crust is moisture in the baking environment. Abundant moisture (plus heat) causes the starch granules in the flour to spill their hot guts and form a starch gel on the surface of the loaf, which then dries and hardens to form a thin, shiny, crisp crust.
In a commercial oven, the necessary moisture comes from injectors that flood the oven with steam when the loaves are put in. There are various techniques for approximating this effect at home; I won’t go into them here. The Sullivan/Bittman no-knead recipe, however, uses the genius innovation of baking the bread in a pre-heated Dutch oven (a heavy, oven-safe, lidded pot). The lid is placed on the pot for the first 30 minutes of baking, so steam from the wet dough is trapped in close proximity to the surface. The result is perfect gelation and a very professional-looking crust.
For the last 15 minutes or so of baking, the lid is removed to allow the crust to harden and brown. Only the outside surface of the loaf is directly subjected to the high heat and drying of the oven, so only the surface gets “crusty.” The interior of the loaf is a steamy place where the wet dough is gradually converted into bread. It doesn’t really dry out (that would be a cracker), but the starches gelate and the dough turns into sort of a cooked wheat custard supported by a gluten structure, with air bubbles in between.
There’s nothing preventing you from using a stretch-and fold method during fermentation combined with the Dutch-oven method for baking.
By the way, I know gluten is sort of a four-letter word these days given the long-overdue increase in awareness of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Gluten-free readers, if you’ve made it this far, don’t despair. Shauna James Ahern (the Gluten-Free Girl) has perfected her own no-knead recipe.
Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.
Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees, and an intense curiosity about food and cooking. Follow Hank’s blog, Sous Vide Jones.
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