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The Cook’s Illustrated No Knead Bread method has been so consistently great, that I went in pursuit of the almost mythical great good everyday whole wheat sandwich bread.  My charge was simple, replicate the whole wheat bread my wife and I consume regularly which is an oatey wheat sandwich loaf with sunflower seeds and wheat berries.  Great in a sandwich or simply toasted.

I started with the basic Breadtopia Almost No Knead Sandwich Loaf (Wheat Version) below but with a few tweaks.  This doesn’t involve baking in the dutch oven, but after a few attempts, its proven consistently good.

18 ounces (~3 2/3 cups) flour. I use 3 cups of white and 2/3 cup of whole wheat flour.
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1/4 cup Bob’s Red Mill 5-Grain Mix
1 3/4 tsp salt (I use just a bit less)
3/8 tsp. instant yeast
1 cup (8 ounces) water
1/2 cup (4 ounces) beer (non-alcoholic is ok)
1 1/4 Tbs white vinegar
2 1/2 Tbs honey

I combine all the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly in a large mixing bowl.  Then I usually dissolve the honey in either the beer or the water to make sure its distributed evenly throughout.  Add the liquids and mix the dough together until all the ingredients are taken into the dough and you’re left with a bit of a shaggy ball.  I usually use my hands until all the dry ingredients are fully incorporated.

I’m guessing the hands on first portion must be no more than about 15 minutes.  Quicker as you get familiar with the recipe.

Place the bowl in a large bag or cover with cellophane and let rise for 24 hours.  My favorite spot is on top of the refrigerator.  I haven’t tried it using less time for the first rise, but I tend to make bread after work or at the end of the day and then plan on baking the next evening.

After the first rise, turn out on to a floured surface and knead about 10 times or so, folding and rotating gently.  Form into a loaf and place in a standard bread pan which has been sprayed with cooking spray.  Spray the top of the loaf with cooking spray and place in a large cellophane bag.  Let rise about two hours or until doubled.  I use an olive oil spray.

It can’t take me more than 10 minutes to complete this step.

About 1-1.5 hours into the second rise depending on its progress, I start preheating the oven to 425 F.  Just prior to placing in the oven, I make a slit down the entire length of the loaf in the middle about 1/2-3/4 inch deep. I’m always a bit cautious when scoring the loaf, but with this sandwich loaf, it seems the deeper the cut the more the top spreads and makes the ideal “rectangular” slice rather than having a high dome.

Immediately put the pan the in oven and reduce temperature to 350. Bake for about 55 minutes or until internal bread temperature is about 200 degrees.

Turn out onto a wire rack to cool.  About an hour or so after the bread has almost completely cooled, I slice into sandwich sized slices with an electric knife.

As a result of this recipe, we no longer buy any sandwich bread and know exactly what we’re eating.

Enjoy!

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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.

Got sucked into an Alton Brown flower pot smoker video that I happened across on You Tube.  Well, the more I tried to find the perfect components, the more the total price of the smoker (and my fear of lack of functionality) rose.

I found plenty of bottom pots, a few good candidate racks, the perfect hot plate but alas, the domed top was not to be found.  I was about to go with a flat lid when I passed through my local big box home improvement store to see what they had.  Lo and behold they had a Char Broil electric water smoker on closeout for under $50.  My expected cost for the flower pot version was starting to get to about $75.

For the relatively small investment, I got a classic “trash can” smoker with two rack, a water pan, adjustable thermostat electric heating element, side access door and adjustable vented lid with a semi decent thermometer in it.

Today’s the inaugural burn in progress.  The design is not perfect, but apparently none are and tips, tricks and trial and error seem to be the way with smoking.  Part lore, part engineering, part voodoo I guess.

The strange thing about this design is that it comes with a water pan that is supposed to sit almost on the heating element.  There seems to be some controversy whether you’re supposed to put the wood chips in the pan or use it for water.  I had hear there were challenges keeping it at temp without the water, so for the first run I decided to put the water pan in the second rack slot and then create a “pan” out of aluminum foil to sit directly on the burner element so the wood chips would smoke and clean up would be easy.

So far, it seems to working out nicely.  I soaked hickory chunks overnight.  To get things going well, I broke up a few of the chunks into chips.  I filled the bowl with hot tap water and after about 15 minutes or so, we were smoking.

On the rack is about a 3 pound pork loin roast that I brined for the last day and a half in the fridge.  I based the brine loosely on Alice Waters brine recipe.  I didn’t want too many variables in the equation so I’m trying to keep it simple.

I made the brine and put it and the roast in a plastic zipper bag in the fridge.  I only had 1 gallon bags, so I only added what would fit.  I probably used about 3/4 gallon of the brine.

I dumped the brine, gave the pork a quick rinse and patted dry.  Then on to the grill.  So far, so good.  Its been on about 1 1/2 hours and temp seems to be holding nicely and I just had to add a few more chunks of wood.  How much to use is a mystery of course.  I started with probably 5 or 6 of various sizes.

[Update: about 2 hours in] I just reupped with about 3 biggish chunks.  There was quite a bit of smoke at the start, so I’m thinking I might want to tone it down a bit– both for the flavors and the neighbors.  As the thermostat kicked in the 3 chunks seems to be generating plenty of smoke and the temp is holding about 200-225 F.

[Update again:]  A few more chunks about 1 hour after the last to keep a mild smoke going.  I also upped the temp a wee bit to keep it around 225.  After about 4 hours, internal temp was 140 so I kept it going till it was about 165 before I pulled it.  Rest for about 30 minutes in foil and slice.

For the first attempt it was pretty damned good.  Good smoke flavor throughout.  Very tender and moist.  The “bark” was not bitter at all.  All in all, I’d call round 1 a success.

No so much to report here.  I got a little anxious and think I pushed it exactly the wrong way.  I had this idea that I’d get some bread done for Sunday to go with a nice split pea soup I was making.  So, I got the dough started Friday evening and let it rise in the fridge overnight, then in the oven with the light on during the day. 

My theory this time was to squeeze in an extra rise help in the sour department.  So Saturday night, I punched it down, kneeded and put it back in the bowl.  I left out overnight then divided the dough, formed two loaves and let one rise in the oven again.

In addition to not getting much lift on this last rise, this time I think I let it go too long.  When I removed the loaf to prep the oven it looked fine, but by the time I got it into the oven after scoring, it had deflated.  I cooked it anyway and it had decent taste and complexity but was fairly dense.

Debugging the process, I came across Sourdough Home, a website with some great tips.  As I looked through the troubleshooting tips, I could see at least two or three culprits.  Ultimately, I think there is just no substitute for time.  We’ll see if I can have better success with the remaining loaf which I let retard in the fridge overnight.

This is not my first foray into breadbaking.  I had just gotten up to speed going before we moved to Seattle, got really busy and didn’t bake a single loaf there even though we had a great oven… pity.

So,  now I’m committed to perfecting the sourdough.  Having grown up in the S.F. Bay Area, there really isn’t any other bread that’s worthy IMHO.  Still, here in the valley, and especially for the amateur baker, the Great Good Sourdough is elusive.

So, I bought some starter, got it mixed up and started the first batch.  For those of you committed to making something other than bread machine wonder bread, you know that time is your friend not your enemy.  Even so, once you’ve started, you can’t delay baking indefinitely.

The mother starter seems to have taken off appropriately and smelled wonderfully barmy.  I let it go for a few days before I created a baby for baking.  I was a little rusty on my technique and timing, so I didn’t really have my kneading dialed in.  Still, I think I was close enough.  I didn’t windowpane (not my video, but good though) the dough, but got close enough.

I let the dough rise covered in a bowl overnight and then put it in the fridge in the morning.  I was fully intending to let it do a second rise the next evening after work (and maybe bake late that night) but got busy so it sat in the fridge an extra day.  As I said, those of you who have learned that retarded fermentation adds greatly to the texture and complexity of the loaf, might actually plan on doing this.

I learned my lesson experimenting with a basic white bread recipe some time ago.  Basically, I did a single rise, punched it down, kneaded and formed 3 loaves.  I let loaf 1 double in size and baked it that night.  I let loaf 2 go another 24 hours in the fridge and loaf 3 go 2 days in the fridge before baking.

There wasn’t much difference in the crumb, but the crust was wildly different.  Loaf 1 was a uniform, flat, tan color– almost pie crust like.  It had no shine, blisters or bubbles.  Loaf 2 started to have some gloss to it with a warmer carmel color developing with some minor blistering.  Loaf 3 was what I thought crust should be:  glossy, deep carmel brown many blisters.  The flavor in the later loafs was vastly superior.

So, my delay in getting the loaves formed wasn’t alarming to me.  On day three I formed the loaves and let them rise in the fridge.  They didn’t do much, so I had my wife take them out of the fridge to come up to temp in the afternoon.  By the time I got home from work, they were still fairly cool, so I let them go a while later and finally baked that night.

I was afraid they might not have enough push left, but they seemed to do ok.  Here is loaf 1 in the oven:

loafoven.jpg

Note a couple of things about this set up.  First, I have a pan of water on the bottom rack which I filled when I started preheating.  Additionally, I spray a mist of distilled water into the oven every five minutes or so during the first 10-15 minutes of baking to keep the oven nice and humid and the crust moist while blooming.

Next, I have a 1/2″ pizza stone which acts as a great heat moderator.  The additional height is part of my space problem though.  Next, I have a thermometer in the oven– do not trust your oven’s thermostat or temperature readout.  Note also how deeply I scored the loaf (which I did only moments before popping it into the oven.  Everything I’ve read and tried says do it deeply and just before you put it in the oven to maximize the “bloom” of the loaf in the first few minutes of baking.

Finally, note how crowded this small oven is.  If the loaf were much bigger, it would almost touch the top element.  I considered flip flopping the set up, but thought I try this for round one, even though the top of the loaf would be at the hottest part of the oven.  I started at 475F and dropped to 450 after 5 or ten minutes.  Even so, it cooked very quickly.

bakedloaf1.jpg

You can see that the high heat at the tippy top of the oven got the best of the top of the crust, but look closer at the sides and bottom:

crust1.jpg

Finally, here’s what the crumb looked like:

crumb1.jpg

Not too bad.  Nicely irregular, but still plenty of room for improvement.  How did it taste?  Wonderfully chewy crust, but a little light in the sour department.  Everything I read says go for more rises and longer to foster the most sour flavor you can stand.  I think I’ll easily go another rise or two on the next batch.

November 2017
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