When it comes to no-knead breads, I am a believer

20 Vanity

For the longest time, all those recipes that promised you could make bread without kneading seemed to me simultaneously a cop-out and an oxymoron—like nut milks with no dairy, or vegan hamburgers or, for that matter, working holidays.

Why leave out the most kinetic, fun part of the entire process, that allows you to playact blue-collar labor, work out your aggression, and show the gluten who’s boss, all at once?

But I realized recently that I had missed the point. I had missed the import of one word: autolysis.

Bread starts with gluten. Flour has the potential of turning some of its proteins into gluten, that stretchy, strandy thing that binds the air into webs as it rises. Gluten is the cause of the elasticity of dough and for the spongy, soft interior of bread. Gluten is the reason bread doesn’t turn into either a pancake or a brick.

Flour, while it is dry and powdery, contains the ingredients to make gluten, but no gluten itself. But as soon as flour particles come in contact with water, a couple things happen. One, in the presence of water, two of the flour’s proteins start to come together to form gluten. And two, some of the starches break down into sugar. If the flour-water mixture is ‘infected’ with yeast, the little yeasties can feed on the sugar and multiply. This process is known as ‘autolysis’.

Now most of the wise bread teachers, like Rose Levy Berenbaum and the bakers at King Arthur Flour, have always recommended a period of ‘walking away‘ once you have mixed water and flour before the kneading begins. This walking away, whether it is for ten minutes or an hour, gives the gluten formation a head start, and makes the subsequent kneading a much easier task.

Call it walking away or call it autolysis, it is the time for the flour to spontaneously do the gluten-formation that kneading is usually called upon to do. But what if you took this principle to its logical conclusion, and allowed the flour-water to do all the work? What if you never had to knead at all?

What you have then is no-knead bread. It takes longer than kneaded bread, because the folding and squeezing that the dough is subjected to while kneading speeds up the process. But as a home cook, I plead—no, I demand—that you develop patience. It will take you a day, or more. But you will be proud of your loaf.

Wetness

Now here’s another advantage that no-knead breads can give you that kneaded breads simply cannot. The dough can be very, very wet. So wet in fact that they are impossible to handle, because touching it with your whole hand as you would have to in order to knead would make a sticky mess. No-knead bread is never handled (with one exception, as I’ll go into next). So it can have a lot more water by proportion than regular breads; and a wetter dough makes for a softer, more risen, more holey crumb.

Now the dough is so wet that one even foregoes the usual ‘freeform’ baking of the crusty loafs, where they sit in the oven all by themselves. The dough is simply too wet! This is why the standard way to bake this kind of bread is in a covered dutch oven or a loaf pan. (I’ll show you both by-and-by). The added advantage of this method is that in the closed, wet, hot environment of a dutch oven, you essentially create a steam sauna for the bread, and get a simply remarkable final rise—while baking.

Folding

Now while kneading is not called for, here’s a step that can lengthen and stretch the gluten strands and thus improve the final crumb. This is a step that Rose Levy Berenbaum specifies in all her crusty loaves. It involves laying out the flaccid dough in a gently stretched rectangle, folding both sides in to overlap in the middle, turning 90° and repeating it. So,

Step One: Fold in the left third of the rectangle in order to cover the middle third, then fold in the right third of the rectangle in order to cover the previous flap.

Step Two: Rotate the dough 90° and repeat the two folds above.

Steps

Mixing flour, water, yeast, salt

Folding

Shaping for final rise

Misting and scoring

Baking

No-knead bread

A note on ingredients:

You have considerable flexibility regarding ingredients. Where the flour is concerned, you can go up to one third whole wheat. I’ve used high protein bread flour, but all-purpose will work too, though the result will not be as chewy, but rather, softer. A single teaspoon of salt will be just enough for the bread to taste ‘normal’ but you can go up to even two teaspoons for a saltier crumb. Using less yeast then a quarter teaspoon will make it rise slower, more will make it rise faster. Though I would not recommend more than a half teaspoon because remember, you want this process to be slow.

Ingredients:
  • 3 cups flour (I used 2.5 cups King Arthur bread flour and 0.5 cups King Arthur whole wheat flour)
  • 1-1.5 tsp salt
  • 0.25 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1.5 cups + 2 tbsp water
  • Dry flour for sprinkling
Time:
  • 5 minutes to mix.
  • 8-18 hours first rise.
  • 10 minutes folding and shaping.
  • 1 hour final rise.
  • Bake at 450°F for 45 minutes
Method:

Combine the first three ingredients in a large bowl and combine thoroughly with a fork. Make a sort of well in the center and pour a cup and a half of water into it, reserving the two extra tablespoons to add if needed. Roughly combine using a chopstick till ALL the flour is moistened. Add in the extra water if needed to make sure there is no more dry powdery flour in the bowl. A wet, sticky mess is what one is aiming for.

The resulting mixture will be very, very rough and sticky. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and leave aside.

In about an hour or two, you are ready to fold the dough as described above. Sprinkle the counter with plenty of flour and scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the counter. Sprinkle dry flour on the dough as well as on your fingers, as this will help you handle it without it sticking. Perform the two folds as described above. Now the dough will be a much smoother, tighter roll than the mass you started with. Place it back in the bowl, covered with wrap, to rise.

This rise can take anywhere from 8 to 18 hours. If it is rising too quickly and you are not ready to proceed with the next steps yet, put the bowl in the fridge to retard it. Take it out the next morning and let it come to room temperature, about an hour or two.

At the end of this period, the dough should have more than doubled, and the surface should show some large bubbles. If you tap the bowl, it will shiver like jelly.

Sprinkle the counter with more dry flour and place the dough on it and proceed to shape it into a round. This is done by pretending you are making a cloth bundle with the dough: so gather the edges into the middle, tighten, and do it some more.  Not only is the dough turning into a tight ball, the outer skin is also getting stretched.

Place it seam side down on some floured parchment paper. Cover with plastic wrap once again and leave to rise. You can leave it to rise free form, but it is better to place it in a bowl or basket or, as I did, an empty tortilla container. This is so that the vertical sides of the container constrain the dough from spreading outwards, and it is pushed to rise upwards instead. The dough will take about an hour or hour and a half for this second rise.

About half hour before you are ready to bake, turn the oven up to 450°F and place the dutch oven, uncovered, and its lid, in the oven to get it hot.

At the end of the hour, remove the plastic wrap off the dough. Mist the top of the dough with a fine spray of water. Use a sharp serrated knife to score it: gently, with a slicing motion and barely any pressure at all, make a half inch cut in the top of the dough. A lip will open up, showing all the glorious webbing that has developed under the skin. Scoring in this way helps the crust, as it bakes, to open up along that line instead of haphazardly.

Lift up the dough ball, parchment and all, and place in the dutch oven and cover with the lid. Bake for 30 minutes covered and 15 minutes uncovered.

At the end of baking, the crust should be golden brown and the bread dramatically risen. When thumped on the bottom it will sound hollow. Let it cool for an hour before slicing.

(Find me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry)

A slab of bread rolls — laadi pav

 

Pav

Pav

Most people are only dimly aware of this but the Portuguese colonized India long before the British, and hung on till long after. Because of their influence, a particular yeasted bread called pav spread all around Bombay and became very much part of the culture of the city. (A word on that shortly.) Now pão in Portuguese simply means ‘bread’. In India, we have a pretty fraught relationship with yeast breads, as in, we didn’t get around to rising breads much. Most of the use of wheat flour is for flat breads. It’s not that risen breads are not popular in India — they are, very much so. But they come from the European influence, and have always remained a bit foreign. By that I mean that hardly anyone makes risen breads at home. When I was a kid, if one wanted pav, one had to resort to bakeries.

Irani restaurants

By iranichaimumbai (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In the old days, most of the bakeries in Bombay were run by the Iranis, as part of tea-houses called Irani restaurants. They were pretty unique establishments, run by Zoroastrians who escaped Iran around the 1920’s. For me, it is impossible to think back to any neighborhood in South Bombay without thinking of the corner Irani restaurant that served it. The Iranis were foreigners and the rigid customs of Hinduism meant nothing to them. The food they served was mostly Irani cuisine but also had a touch of Europe.

Their clientele looked like the city itself. There were Christians and Parsees, taxi drivers and street workers, middle-class office workers and retirees. For a few rupees you could hang out for hours under the high ceilings, the drone of the fan overhead, read the morning newspaper that was still warm from the press, sit on the wooden colonial-style netted chairs at glass-topped tables in peace while you ate your breakfast.

They were not fancy. Customer service was a bit…brusque. This post has an entertaining story about that. Tea inevitably got poured into the saucer to be drunk. Breakfast was variations on pav. Maska pav is bread and butter. Brun maska pav is hard brown bread with butter. Akuri pav is pav bread with scrambled eggs. And so on.

If you want to further explore the old world of Irani restaurants, here are some websites with pictures and wonderful stories. The Heritage Institute page on it, and one from a website called Irani Chai.

Street food

The Irani restaurants are sadly on their way out. Many have turned into beer bars, one into a McDonalds. If they are around, they have survived by expanding their menus to include dosas and Chinese. But pav bread remains as popular in the city as ever. It fuels much of the manual labor that goes on in the city from the early hours to way past midnight.

I guess this is the appropriate time in this post for me to start referring to the city as Mumbai. People say that no one starves in Mumbai. To eat a decent, wholesome meal, you don’t need to own a kitchen or a stove or even own a pair of shoes. Every street corner has some food stall or the other. Many serve meals centered on pav. Plates and cutlery are completely unnecessary. Food is simply handed to you or may be wrapped in a newspaper.

One is vada pav, which is mashed potato deep-fried in a besan batter, served inside a pav, with garlic chutney. Another is pav bhaji, which is a mashed mixture served with pav with tons of butter. For 50 rupees you can fill your belly with an excellent, pure vegetarian, wonderfully-spiced meal. People, please realize how wonderful this is. The Odd Pantry will showcase all of those recipes eventually.

But one has to start with pav.

Laadi pav

The particular version of Portuguese pão that we in India latched onto looks like a grid of bread buns stuck together at the edges into a slab (‘laadi’). To me the word ‘laadi’ sounds a bit mechanical or construction-related, so it is quite endearing when it is used for bread. Looks a lot like a dinner roll that is available all over America.

But look, this is different. I’ve tried to recreate my favorite street food snacks at home using a standard dinner roll, but the results are terribly disappointing. This is because store-bought dinner rolls have more than a hint of sweetness and that simply does not go with the savory flavors of street food. It totally ruins it, in fact. They often don’t use real butter and one absolutely needs real butter.

This recipe of pav has no sugar whatsoever. None. You don’t need any. And real butter. Just try it.

Flour and yeast

Flour and yeast

Pour water in and stir

Pour water in and stir

Shaggy mass

Shaggy mass

Shaggy mass with butter poured on

Shaggy mass with butter poured on

Pav dough

Pav dough

Divided dough

Divided dough

Further divided dough

Further divided dough

Pav rising

Pav rising

Pav risen

Pav risen

Laadi pav

Ingredients
  • 3 cups bread flour (I used King Arthur, substitute with all purpose or maida in India)
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast. This is also available in most stores as bread machine yeast.
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Method

Have the flour in a large bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast and stir it in. Then sprinkle in the salt and stir that in. Add 1.25 cups room temperature water and gently stir to moisten all the flour and make a shaggy mass. Cover and go do something else for 15-20 minutes.

Melt the butter — I use the microwave for this. But make sure it is not sizzling, it needs to be just melted. Pour the butter over the flour mixture. Now give it a good kneading, for about 5-7 minutes. The dough will be smooth and shiny.

Cover with plastic wrap and leave it aside at room temperature to rise for 1.5-2 hours. My room temperature is around 70°F. In India, room temperature will be a lot higher, so I would leave it under a fan or airy window.

In 1.5-2 hours, it will have doubled. Gently take the dough out, and using a pastry cutter, divide it into 12 rolls. The way I do this is to first divide in half, then each of those into halves to make 4 quarters, and each of those into 3 to make 12.

Each roll must be shaped like this: take the dough in hand and start by rolling it into a pouch, press down the center point with your thumbs and keep rolling more and more of the bun into the pouch. You are sort of trying to make a stretched balloon with the outer surface. Pinch the seam of the pouch shut. Cover with oil and lay seam-side down on a cookie sheet. Each roll is to be place half inch away from its neighbors in a grid.

Let it rise for another hour. The rolls will have risen into each other and gotten connected. Bake in a 425°F oven for 15 minutes. If you like, brush with butter right away when they come out.


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