Monday, November 9, 2009

No Knead Mythology

Mark Bittman's video of Jim Lahey's method of making no knead breads has been seen on YouTube over 532,753 times. Right at the beginning of the video Jim says even a four year old can make bread with his techinque. If you're like me, I tend to believe what people tell me unless I have reason to believe otherwise. Hey, if a four year old can do it, then surely I can, and that's what I suspect most people thought who saw the video.

The reality is, a four year old cannot make this bread, and I'm willing to bet that when most bakers tried this technique, they were initially disappointed, but were too embarrassed to admit that they could not do something that ostensibly a child would have no problem doing.

The no-knead bread is not a simple bread to make. In fact it's quite a bit more difficult to make than a standard yeasted bread where you knead the dough. Here's the problem: The no-knead dough is a very slack (wet) dough, and this type of dough can be so difficult to work with that you might very well find a slimy mess on your counter that is impossible to handle. That was my first experience, and when I finally was able to dump the dough in the hot iron pot, I didn't realize that it would stick hopelessly to the bottom of the pot.

My problem was that I followed Jim Lahey's instructions in the video, and I followed them to the letter. I should have known better than to follow explicit instructions. In fact, I've been telling folks for years not to follow explicit instructions.

First off, he says to use three cups of flour. When you scoop flour, as he does, you don't really know what you're getting. The only way to really know the honest amount is to weigh the flour. If you don't have a scale, then you have to go by observation and feel, and that's okay. In fact, that's what I usually do, but remember, I needed to prove to myself I could do what a four year old could do.

The video shows the dough being dumped on the counter, and then soon after, the dough is being formed up. Wait a minute here. Certainly more flour was worked in to make this possible, but we don't see it.

I also noticed that the iron pot Jim Lahey was using was sitting on a cookie sheet in the oven. The cookie sheet will deflect some of the oven heat away from the bottom of the loaf, helping to prevent the bottom from burning. Maybe people should be told these things.

Bakers have been making no-knead breads long before Mark Bittman popularized the technique, and I do believe that the very finest loaves can be made using this technique, but you really have to see and read between the lines.