Can Nancy Baggett's Kneadlessly Simple no-knead bread book turn me into a decent baker?

What to eat. What not to eat.
April 15 2009 7:01 AM

My Inner Baker

Can Nancy Baggett's Kneadlessly Simple help me make a decent loaf of bread?

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I ramped up the complexity throughout the week—on Tuesday, I ventured on to a partially whole-wheat sandwich loaf, which I baked in a too-small loaf pan, giving each slice the long-eared profile of a cocker spaniel. Wednesday's four-grain honey loaf was even tastier, though with a denser texture, thanks to the oats and brown rice inside it. Both definitely bested the whole-grain sandwich loaves I normally keep on hand for lunches around the house.

On Thursday I baked off a pot-baked rye loaf, which I was sure would be a hit, since the moist interior of the no-knead breads remind me of the German style black rye breads I loved as a kid. But, in fact, despite a dash of pickle juice to mimic the tang of a sourdough culture, the rye fell flat. I noticed a similar flavor flatness with a mixed whole-wheat/white loaf densely populated with flax, pumpkin, and sesame seeds. The closer the loaves seemed to the kind I'd buy at a good bakery, the more I noticed their shortcomings, so I was skeptical when I then worked on some traditional-style breads: fougasse (the ladder-shaped Provençal olive bread) and ciabatta, the air-pocketed flat Italian loaf. But they were really good. Thanks to Baggett's instructions to place a pan of steam-producing ice water at the bottom of the oven, both came out with appealing crusts and righteous chewiness (the fougasse more than the ciabatta, which called for less flour, and less fermentation time). I wouldn't say my ciabatta had the loopy, airy irregular bubbles that I'd look for in a bakery-bought loaf, but it was good.

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In fact, I liked it well enough to try again for my weekly Sandwich Sunday—a no-utensil entertaining tradition I'm trying to cultivate, for which I normally pick up bread at my favorite bakery. But I had already started to tinker with Baggett's recipe—cutting back on the amount of yeast to see whether I could push the bubbling a bit more. I'd also started to wonder how to make my oven even steamier. The ciabatta was acceptable for that night's sandwiches of tuna confit and roasted red peppers, but it was not as pleasantly pliant as my first batch.

And this is the problem with the no-knead way. It is good—very good and very encouraging. So encouraging, in fact, that I start to think of myself as a better baker than I am. Do I like Baggett's chill-it-and-forget-it approach? You bet. But if I continue down this path, there's no way I'll leave it at that. The no-knead method is like an entry-level drug, and if I keep it up, I'll move on to the harder stuff—forever seeking more complex flavor and textural highs. Pretty soon, I won't leave town without finding a sitter for my sourdough, and I'll start building brick ovens in the backyard. And, no doubt, then I'll start screwing up again.

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