Ever since I got Jim Lahey's book 'My Bread', I've been anxious to try it, but I haven't had the right tools (Lahey's bread requires a Dutch oven).
I've been very curious about the technique. I took the book to work with me and read some of it on break. The method looks pretty simple, and the breads look so great in the pictures, you just want to have at it. Could I do that, I wondered? Could I make a bread as pretty, as inviting as that?
I didn't have a Dutch oven. But I wouldn't let that stop me. What I did have was the inside crockery of an old Electric Crock Pot, or slow cooker. Recently we tossed out the electric part, since it wasn't working. But I saved the crockery to try to cook bread in it. It had a nice glass lid that I assumed was safe for oven use. I would use this, I thought, until I got my official Dutch oven. Probably any really heavy duty casserole pot would do -- but it would have to be ovensafe at the high temperatures that Lahey's methods need. For my first experiment with Lahey's method, I wouldn't care if the pot fractured in the heat. The inside of the crock pot was otherwise garbage anyway. Come to think of it, I have seen such crockery pieces at the goodwill store before for a couple of bucks. That is certainly cheaper than a real cast iron Dutch Oven would be.
When I got home from work, I looked in the cupboard. Although this blog is about my interest in whole grain breads, I actually do have some bread flour, which Lahey's loaves call for. Unfortunately, it is an unusual Multigrain Bread Flour, made by Robin Hood, that I bought once out of curiosity. I wasn't sure of the protein content (and the website link above was no help). This multigrain bread flour contains quite a lot of bran, some rye, some cracked wheat -- quite a mix of flour, actually. I figured I'd use it, to be sure, but I wasn't convinced that my loaf would turn out quite as nice as Lahey's.
I decided to do a side-by-side experiment on another loaf, one using some ordinary Canadian All Purpose flour that we get at the local Arva flour mill. After all, Firtig's book (200 Fast & Easy Artisan Breads: no-knead, one bowl) tells me on almost every page, 'Canadian Wheat has more gluten!' So perhaps, I thought to myself, that must mean that Canadian All Purpose Flour has gluten (almost) as high as bread flour everywhere else. I don't know if that's true, but I figured I would try it.
Lahey's method requires a long fermenting period, of 12-18 hours. That meant that if I mixed it at night, since I had to work the next day, it would be fermenting 24 hours, which I thought might be too long. So what I did was, I set out the ingredients so that I could combine them easily in the morning before I went to work. My intention was to bake it when I came home, before I go to bed. It would be ready to eat for breakfast on my day off.
And, I figured if it neither of these trial loaves worked out, I could go to the store and buy some real bread flour that isn't multigrain, and do a better trial of Lahey's methods.
The next morning when I mixed the dough I could already see a potential problem. First, the multigrain bread dough was going to be too firm. I could probably use the flour in some of Lahey's recipes, but I would likely need to add more water (Lahey advises 1 - 2 tablespoons. Yes, tablespoons, not teaspoons. After the last bread fiasco, I now pay attention to such things.) Just because I weighed everything doesn't mean I'm safe: this multigrain bread dough contains a lot of bran which is going to soak up more water, and inhibit the formation of the gluten strands. So I either need more water, or a longer rise. I think.
What I need is just a tiny amount of bread flour so that I can see what the original recipe's consistency is supposed to be like. Thinking ahead, I thought I might just buy 400 grams of it or so at the bulk barn on my way home from work.
Second, the all purpose dough was going to be too wet. When I mixed it up, it wasn't really dough consistency, it was more like paste. We'll see if it ferments properly over the 12 - 14 hours I'll be giving it.
I arrived home and took pictures of the fermented dough. This is at 15 hours. As expected, the multigrain bread dough doesn't seem wet enough, it hadn't risen that well; and the all-purpose dough, although it had some nice bubbles, it was still pretty gooey and looked like it hadn't risen at all. Neither of these doughs had doubled, from what I could see; of course, in the bowls, it is hard to tell. But I decided to try and make the bread anyway.
I turned out the multigrain bread dough on a floured counter. It was sticky, but already fairly tight, the gluten in it holding it tightly together.
I formed the first boule as per Lahey's instructions (probably I slightly overhandled it, due to inexperience with his gentle methods) and I set it in the towel to rise 2 hours. I didn't notice much change after those 2 hours. But supposedly it is not ready to bake before that proofing is done. I didn't check with my finger as Lahey suggests. I didn't have time to mess around, I was tired after working all day, and it was already getting late.
I had the crock pot ready in a pre-heated oven. I placed the dough in the crock pot -- none too gently, I might add. The crock pot is a bit deeper than a Dutch oven, and so the dough hit the side on the way down and became somewhat misshapen. I gently nudged it back into place, and replaced the lid. Into the oven it went. I had my doubts that anything good would come of all this. (How can you call it a trial of Lahey's methods if you change everything at virtually every step of the way?) Here is a picture of the skidmark that the multigrain dough made as it went into the pot, and its rather ignoble landing:
...and here is what it looked like after I attempted to straighten the dough (which I probably shouldn't have done). Anyway, I baked it as per Lahey's instructions for time, temperature, periods of lid on, lid off. Since the crockpot is so deep, you can't really see into it while it is baking. You have to wait until it is completely done to tell what you've got. I was just so excited to see, I felt like a kid again.
And here is what I got:
Hey! Despite everything I did wrong, this loaf looks pretty darn good! It is not quite a poster-child for Lahey's bread, like the loaves in his book. But for a first attempt, I was really very pleased with this loaf.
And what about the all-purpose loaf that I made at the same time for comparison purposes?
When I turned it out on the counter, it was pretty wet still, but I was pleased to see it had a sort of surface tension so it didn't all just drip away. It reminded me a little of the too-wet fiasco I had the other day when I added a cup more water to Reinhart's recipe than I should have.
I did my best to form it into a boule as per Lahey's instructions, but my hands were getting very gooey. Reinhart says that it is best to use wet hands when handling wet dough. I didn't listen. I used flour, and since it wasn't working for me, I more or less just plopped the dough on my homemade couche (a double layer of linen that I sewed haphazardly together).
I left it for a couple of hours and then unwrapped it to find it hadn't changed all that much, to my eye. I picked it up by the cloth and dumped it in the crock pot. Two things I noticed about doing it this way: One, the cloth was now very wet. This dough was so wet, it kind of soaked into my cloth. I wonder if this is one of the ways Lahey allows the dough to lose some excess moisture prior to baking? Two: I was getting better at this. Despite the fact that this dough was stickier than the first one I tried, I hit the center of the deep crockpot, there were no skid marks. And what is more, the dough actually looks more cohesive than when I started. More like a ball than a bag of frog jelly. So I was pretty hopeful this one would turn out okay -- if it had enough gluten to rise like bread dough. The suspense was killing me. Perhaps literally, since I had been awake since 0500 and now it was well past midnight and I was still baking bread.
When finally I looked in at the finished loaf, I almost swooned. It had a lovely caramelized crust. There were flecks of red and gold in it. I fell in love with the texture.
I took many pictures.
I really must be an Exorphin Junkie.
It was now very late. I didn't have to work the next day. But what I did have to do was, I had to taste that bread before I slept. And Lahey says you have to wait at least an hour before cutting into the loaf. Yeah, yeah. My mother used to say that you couldn't go swimming for an hour after eating, too.
Of course, I listened to both of them. I waited.
The multigrain bread flour bread had a marvelous taste, but a denser crumb. I found it a trifle too salty for my taste (at least when buttered with salted butter); I think I will try reducing the salt on the next loaf I make with this flour and method. (and I will make more Everyday bread using this flour and method). I think I will not be afraid to let it ferment 24 hours next time, either, especially in a cool house as ours was last night.
The all purpose flour bread had a wonderful moist texture, full of character holes, but it did not rise as high as the other loaf (and I think the reason was because it was not formed as well or as tightly). The taste was not special. I can see how it might develop with Lahey's olive loaf, or walnut loaf, or cheese loaf, or with a dozen other ideas that are surfacing in the back of my mind as I continue to experiment with it (and I will experiment with it for my Everyday Bread in the future). Will Lahey's methods require me to buy bread flour? Perhaps not, in our area. As long as I use Arva's All Purpose flour, which currently comes (if I recall correctly) from a hard Red Wheat.
As grateful as I am to the people who gave us the '5 minute a day' books for getting me started on bread making and no-knead bread, I have to say that I think that Lahey's breads are superior in ease of making, and in taste, and in crumb, and probably in results. Look how many ways I diverged from his recipe, and look at the results: his recipe and method is very forgiving to amateurs like me. It remains to be seen, however, whether I will be able to use his techniques for whole grains the way I want to. I will try this again with 100% whole wheat (Lahey's whole wheat recipe uses 75% bread flour).
Notes to myself:
- Use less salt than Lahey suggests. Drop it down to 1 tsp next time, and keep going down by 1/4 tsp until you get the flavor you want without the saltiness you don't need.
- Try fermenting for longer periods. Don't be afraid of 24 hours fermenting. Use a container like the 5min/day people use for the fermenting (not a bowl as Lahey suggests), so you can actually see when it is doubled. Mark the starting point with some masking tape on the side.
- Try Lahey's whole wheat recipes and rye recipes, but with more wheat and rye than he calls for, even try 100% loaves.
- Try Lahey's method with some sourdough starter.
- Incorporate some of Reinhard's ideas for prefermenting, and combine those things with the wet dough at the moment of shaping the loaf
- Get a real cast iron Dutch Oven pot and try this on the barbeque, or on open fire coals when camping.
- The crock pot works good for a boule; for a different shaped loaf (e.g. a mini-batard), try a longish ovensafe casserole dish and see if that works