Easy Bread

Bread right out of the oven has a taste that beats most anything that can be bought in a store. Even in stores that sell bread baked on the same day, it has usually been sitting around for hours. But baking one’s own bread is generally a hassle. Bread machines make it much easier, but like all machines, they aren’t quite as easy to deal with as one first imagines. They take up space; they sometimes break; they have to be cleaned. (The one I once owned featured an impeller that had to be dug out of the bottom of each loaf.) Nonstick surfaces make cleaning easier, but don’t entirely eliminate it.

A few years ago, I was sent a pointer to an article by Mark Bittman describing a method for making bread without kneading. It was further billed as a “truly minimalist” bread. But when I tried it, the effort required was not minimal enough for me. There was a lot of rigamarole about flouring the ball of dough, manipulating it two hours prior to baking, and preheating a pot to bake it in. Bittman calls himself “The Minimalist”, but he didn’t minimize this one.

The trick to minimizing it is to bake the loaf in a silicone mold. Stuff doesn’t stick to silicone, so when the loaf is done baking, you just turn the mold upside down and the loaf falls out. No greasing, flouring, or anything else is required for this to happen. I don’t even clean the silicone between loaves; it isn’t left immaculate, but the slight residue doesn’t harm anything.

The minimized recipe uses the same ingredients:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon yeast
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • about 1.5 cups water

Just about any sort of flour will do; flour without any gluten in it (non-wheat) will produce a dense, crumbly loaf, but that’s not a big deal. The salt can be omitted, or doubled, or whatever; it’s just for taste. Mix the dry ingredients for about a minute (they’re easier to mix dry), then add water, mixing, until the mass is completely wet, but no further. The amount of water needed depends on the type and brand of flour; the number given above is just a rough approximation. There shouldn’t be any mounds of unmixed flour hiding below the bottom of the mixture, nor any parts of the mixture whose surface is dry and which protrude a bit. But don’t add any more water than that, or you’ll get a rather wet loaf. For that matter, even when done right this yields a pretty wet loaf. Not that the wetness matters much; it has no effect on taste and not even much effect on texture.

Anyway, the next step is to wait 12 to 24 hours for it to rise. Or longer, if it’s cold; the original recipe specifies 18 hours at 70 degrees F, but those numbers are not critical. The long rising time is what makes it unnecessary to knead. It also allows for the development of a rich microbial flora, which provides the excellent flavor achieved with this recipe. Or, well, rather, I hope that’s not the case. And I don’t believe it is; the flavor has been quite uniform, which wouldn’t be the case if random germs were providing it. That’s much less yeast than is normally used, but still, it seems, enough to provide the vast majority of the inoculum. But, uh, best not to spit in the stuff while mixing it, or to mix with your hands. The baking will kill most germs that happened to get in and grow, but some might survive in spore form.

The next step is to transfer the mess to the silicone baking dish, and bake at 375 degrees F (190 C) for an hour or so. Exact timing is not critical. If you like a burned, er, “dark” crust, do as in the original recipe and increase the temperature and decrease the time.

The only part of this exercise that still seems like a hassle is cleaning the mixing bowl. Bread dough is sticky and doesn’t wash off easily. I tried doing the mixing in the baking mold, but that didn’t work well: silicone is thin and floppy, and the mold has square corners unconducive to mixing. Besides, when bubbles form in the mold as the bread rises, they form against the walls, so instead of a smooth crust one gets a crust with bubble holes in it. But perhaps it deserves another try. In any case, even as it is, this is competitive with bread machines for ease: probably somewhat worse, but not that much worse.

Once the bread is out of the oven, wait half an hour or so for the heat to continue penetrating into the interior, finishing up the cooking process.

Then, any part that isn’t eaten right away is best sliced up and put in the freezer, for later microwaving. That preserves most of the right-out-of-the-oven taste. The only trouble with doing that with this loaf is that the slices tend to stick; that’s the downside of having a wet loaf. The way to avoid sticking is to pack the slices in a pessimal fashion: instead of trying to pack them tightly, try to pile them up so as to leave space unused, so that they’re not touching each other very much. They’ll still stick, but generally can be pried apart without much trouble. (Still, people with weak hands might want to just pack the slices in a single layer so that they don’t stick at all.)