I came to the conclusion after my last round of bread baking that our ancient oven just wasn’t doing the trick.  With so many variables in baking good bread, its hard enough without having to constantly wrestle with what should be the most dependable element of the process.

While an upgrade is in the future, its not immediately on the horizon.  So, I let my bread making lapse while I considered alternatives.

Then a friend passed me the Cook’s Illustrated Almost No Knead bread recipe.  This recipe is a superior variation on the NY Times No Knead recipe.  There is a good discussion and video on Breadtopia.

Among the great improvements in this technique is the use of the dutch oven as a cooking vessel.  In combination with increasing the hydration of the dough, it solves both the temperature and humidity control problems I’ve had with other attempts.

The increased hydration with the long autolysis takes the place of much of the kneading required in other recipes.  With the other minor tweaks in the CI recipe, the results have been dramatic.

I’m on loaf #3 and #4 of the method (one rising and one cooking) and so far I’m batting 1000.  Throw in a few more kneads at the end of the first process and the product is consistently excellent.  Not home baked bread decent but can’t tell its not an artisan loaf excellent.

The other great aspect of this recipe and its variants is how it can very easily fit into a busy schedule.  While the CI recipe suggests that you could end the first rise in as little as eight hours, the dough greatly benefits from a more extended period.

This works out wonderfully.  I can get a batch made in about 15 minutes.  Wait for about 24 hours and do the brief knead and 2 hour second rise.  That’s a schedule that is easy to manage.  I can make a batch after work and bake it the next evening without any hassle.

The first few attempts were so successful, I’m expanding the technique to try whole wheat sandwich bread and a recipe based on my sourdough starter that’s been languishing in the back of the fridge.

I can’t over emphasize how excellent and consistent and forgiving this method is.

More results in just a short while!

[update]

The latest results are in.  First my results with the whole wheat sandwich loaf.  Pretty much by the book and here is what it looked like coming out and then sliced.

The whole wheat looks, feels and smells like the real deal.  Unlike regular bread, the crust is chewy (as is the crumb) but it has a very satisfying texture.  I sliced to sandwich width with an electric knife to try to maintain as much consistency between slices as possible.  I’m not 200% sure about using Molasses as the sweetener.  I may try honey next time to brighten it up a bit.  Basically this is a great base upon which to build a more complex sandwich loaf.  I can see adding seeds, wheat berries etc. to enhance it with great effect.

And here is the sourdough.  Basically, I used the stock almost no knead recipe and substituted a 1/4 cup of my starter (dissolved in the water portion) instead of the yeast.  I retained the beer and the tbl of vinegar to see how it came out.  To my taste, it could have been more sour (and I can stand it really sour) and I think the crust, though blistered and reasonably complex, could probably have benefited from some retardation in the fridge for another day to develop it.  Still, far and away the best pure sourdough loaf I’ve made to date.

As you can see with both recipes, unlike the NY Times recipe, this doesn’t have the pure “rustic” texture which I think must be the result of slightly less hydration and the additional kneading.  Note the slightly more uniform appearance of the crumb in this loaf.  That could be in part because the starter which I only recently revived was not the most vigorous, or as a result of the few extra kneads I gave the loaf after the first rise.  Still the crust is both crunchy and chewy and the crumb is shiny and stretchy.  Far better results than I’ve obtained before.

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