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Kitchen Tales

Robert Jackson, Dibs on the Lox, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Henoch. Via Artsy.

Knead for Naught

After decades of perfecting a homemade bread recipe, a single experiment transforms a home cook into an artisan.

As someone who’s mixed and kneaded and shaped it for years, I can tell you: Bread dough is moody. You may start with the same ingredients, follow the same instructions, and bake at the same temperature for the same amount of time. But this loaf comes out denser or flatter or more breadstick than baguette. Bad weather? Bad karma? Super moon? Then again, when it all comes together—the dough, the technique, the ambience in the kitchen—a round of golden and crusty bread earns you superstar status among your non-baker friends. You MADE that?

When I learned to bake bread as a newlywed in the ’80s we treated our dough the way we approached our aerobics workout (no pain, no gain), kneading it with a vengeance and then deflating it after it rose. Punch firmly, two or three times. On weekends in those years, my husband and I were renovating our house, a 1950s bungalow that had lobster-red shag throughout. Saturday mornings, I’d mix up a batch of whole-grain health bread and set it to rise on the kitchen counter while we draped our living room furniture with drop sheets. Between bouts of scraping, sanding, and painting, I’d knead and punch and shape, feeding the same creative urge, perhaps, that gave rise to my spinach and tomato roulade, a culinary disaster that still evokes memories of cringing in the kitchen, spooning out pea-green mousse, guests waiting expectantly at the table. The failed roulade left me with an aversion to recipes that say “gently roll up into a log,” reinforcing my preference for more athletic kitchen productions.

From trial and error and books, I learned that the point of kneading, aside from strengthening your upper body, is to strengthen the gluten in dough so it holds its shape as it rises. I kneaded my way steadily into the new millennium—by hand at first and later, during my stand-mixer phase, with a dough hook—gaining a feel for the meaning of smooth and elastic, soft and springy, add more flour until no longer sticky.

Today, the trend among artisanal bakers is a gentler, more Zen approach—less knead and punch, more stretch and fold, or in the case of one variation I tried—more stretch and swing. It isn’t often you hear the word dramatic in the context of dough-handling methods, but that’s how French baker Richard Bertinet, the author of one of my cookbooks—describes his technique for working a shaggy, wet dough into a smooth, elastic ball by repeatedly lifting it off the counter with both hands, swinging it up and slapping it back down. Stretch the front of the dough towards you then flip it back over itself like a wave. The idea is to incorporate as much air into the dough, and thus into the final loaf, as you can.

The dough leapt about the countertop seemingly on its own, flopping onto a different spot every time I slammed it down.

I watched a video demonstration of this technique twice before attempting it with a baguette recipe. Still, the work of mixing the dough by hand proved more strenuous and time-consuming than I’d expected, even after moving the bowl into the kitchen sink to get a better angle on it. Eventually, though, I poured a wobbly dough onto my counter, plunged my hands in, and attempted the wave. At first, the dough leapt about the countertop seemingly on its own, flopping onto a different spot every time I slammed it down, leaving gooey bits that I had to scrape into the main dough immediately before they hardened. A blob detached from the dough ball and hit my cooktop. One blob landed on the floor, another on my shoe. But after ten minutes, something clicked and to my surprise the dough became springy, bouncy, and smooth.

The problem was, I’d been so preoccupied with technique that I hadn’t given much thought to the logistics of baking more bread in one go than I’d ever made in my life—12 loaves. It wasn’t until the oven was hot and the baguettes had risen and were ready to bake that I noticed a discrepancy between the length of my shaped loaves, about 15 inches, and that of my 13-inch baking tiles—a problem that intensified when I tried to slide a baguette onto a wooden peel, the flat, long-handled tool used to transfer it to the oven, and the dough stretched like a wet noodle.

Eventually, over the course of a steamy afternoon, surrounded by rapidly rising dough, I worked out a system of arranging the baguettes diagonally across the oven tiles and baked them one by one by one. Some of the more badly misshapen loaves didn’t even make it into the oven. And around mid-afternoon, as I was misting the oven floor to create steam, a few drops of water hit the glass oven door, causing a loud crack. But in the end, I wound up with some amazing baguettes—artistically slashed and golden brown with crispy crusts and chewy insides. There were only six, however, and considering my time, even at minimum wage, plus the expense of replacing a glass oven panel, even before ingredients they priced out at $34 per baguette.

I can clearly remember my first no-knead bread. One day in 2006, a friend emailed me a New York Times article about a technique developed by Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. Not that she was planning to try it, but she thought I just might. Scanning the no-knead recipe, I was struck by two things: the short list of ingredients (flour, water, salt, yeast) and the lengthy time required—18 hours compared with 2 or 3 hours in most recipes I’d used—for the dough to rise, or proof. The instructions were straightforward: You simply combined the ingredients and after the long rise, shaped the dough, and then set it on a cotton towel to rise again for an hour or so while you heated a cast iron pot in your oven to 450 degrees. I mixed up a batch before I went to bed.

Among bread geeks, no-knead went viral.

The next day when it came time to put the bread in the oven I hit a glitch. The dough had firmly adhered to the towel. I had to scrape the sticky mass, deflating it, into the pot. Oh well, I told myself, I gave it a try, and heaved the scorching pot into the oven anyway.

Thirty minutes later when I removed the lid I was stunned. The loaf inside was brown and round and beautiful. It sizzled and sang on the counter as it cooled and was chewy and crackly when I sliced it. True, the process of transferring dough to the hot pot had been daunting. But the recipe was simple. Ridiculously simple, as though I’d just discovered, after writing for 30 years, that really, all you have to do is collect some words, feed them to a computer, and watch your bestseller roll out.

Looking back, I have to imagine that as I was cautiously maneuvering my cast iron pot onto my cooktop that day nearly a decade ago, so were a gazillion other home bakers in New York, in North America, and around the world. Among bread geeks, no-knead went viral. Today, you can find infinite versions of Lahey’s slow fermentation recipe on websites and food blogs and in magazines and cookbooks—recipes that rely on time, more than kneading, to develop gluten in dough. Although it feels like cheating, I bake no-knead bread all the time.

Not long ago, for a dinner party with some neighbors (not a bread geek among them), I made two no-knead loaves: a golden, round, Sicilian bread with toasted sesame seeds on top and a whole wheat loaf, scored with a sunburst pattern.

When I presented them to the hostess she gasped.

“You made those?”

I floated into the kitchen as the guests admired my loaves. One man pulled me aside to ask how I’d done it. Special yeast? Special oven?

“I use a bread machine,” he confessed in a whisper.

I couldn’t bring myself to admit that my superstar bread required no particular talent whatsoever.

I thought of saying something encouraging, like, “Easy, nothing to it.” But easy seemed to disregard so much. My decades of dough handling experience, my trials over the years with instant yeast, fresh yeast, and pre-ferments, my skills shaping boules, bagels, and hamburger buns, my $34 baguettes. I couldn’t bring myself to admit that my superstar bread required no particular talent whatsoever. “Artisan bread takes time,” I mumbled. “You use very little yeast.”

He looked at me blankly: “I suppose it’s all in the kneading.”

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the hostess circulating among the guests, one of my breads in each hand. Dinner was nearly ready, I overheard her say, and she wanted to be sure everyone had seen the lovely loaves before they were sliced. I floated higher, drifting over the guests, rising above the room like a queen of dough.

But then Mr. Bread Machine was at my elbow again. His wife’s stand mixer was equipped with a dough hook. Could he make bread like mine with that?

I broke down and told him about no-knead bread, explaining my basic recipe in all its simplicity: how you mix flour, instant yeast, salt and let that sit overnight, maybe 12 to 18 hours; how you shape the dough, gently; how you proof it on parchment paper or in a proofing basket, if you have one; how your baking pot and your oven must both be blazing hot. I don’t think I actually said the word “easy” though. In fact if anything I may have exaggerated the difficulty of handling the pot.

 “It’s dangerous,” I warned. “Be careful.”