Putting a lid on bread baking

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Humans have been baking bread for centuries, so I was shocked (amused, really) to learn there is a "revolutionary, no-work, no-knead method" to make bread at home.

The rebel behind this "revolution" is Jim Lahey, owner of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City and co-author of "My Bread" (Norton, $29.95).

Like most revolutions, the result is the product of compromise. Anyone who has baked bread knows it takes work and kneading to get a good result, and Mr. Lahey's method is no different, but that little-noticed fact is for later reflection.

What Mr. Lahey does is dust off the ancient technique of using a heat-proof container as a miniature oven. Chad Robertson of "Tartine Bread," another "no-kneader" with a cookbook, touts the same approach.

While I suspect the real reason why these guys call for a pot is because their doughs are so wet and gooey that they lack the structure to bake free-form, the pot produces lovely results with most doughs, gooey or not.

Commercial bakeries essentially bake their breads in a giant pot, a tightly sealed container with injectors that fill it with steam that makes a nice crunchy crust. A covered vessel preheated in a 500-degree oven at home functions the same way.

The lid holds in the moisture given off by the dough, creating the crunchy crust as well as a dark brown color, something called the "Maillard reaction" as the heat caramelizes the sugar in the grain.

The lid does away with those usually ineffective attempts to fill the oven with steam, and I've tried most of them, except Julia Child's more extreme effort -- heating the head of an axe red-hot over the gas range, then plunging it into a pan of water in the bottom of her oven.

(I now have the best system: I cover a four-sided oven tray with wet towels and insert it just before the loaves go in. And, you have a very nice set of hot towels for facials when the bread's done.)

The pot also largely eliminates the need to shape the dough, although it still needs some work to fashion it into a cohesive lump that can be dumped into the container.

The Lahey/Robertson doughs call for wet hands, lots of flour and a dough scraper to pile up the mass into a manageable shape, while standard well-kneaded breads should be formed into a rough ball.

Then, it really comes down to following a set of steps to put the pot oven into service.

Step 1 is choosing the pot. Needed is a round or oval form that's ovenproof to 500 degrees -- forget tagine cookers -- with a tight lid. Capacity should be between 4 and 6 quarts for a loaf made from 3 to 5 cups of flour.

I've used a cast-iron bean pot, a Le Creuset casserole pan (plastic handle removed) and a Romertopf clay vessel, but the best device is a rather costly "cloche bread baker" ($59.95), a ceramic gizmo from a Virginia pottery. It's available from the King Arthur Flour company (kingarthurflour.com).

Using a baking stone helps even out the heat, but isn't required.

Step 2 is having a pair of industrial-strength oven mitts. You will need to pull your scorchingly hot pot from the blazing oven and set it someplace where it won't set the kitchen on fire and cause yourself third-degree burns.

Step 3 is having the dough close at hand and the determination to work fast because you need to take off the mitts, slip the dough into the pan, put on the mitts, get the pan into the oven, slam on the lid and shut the door. Whew. Oh, then turn the temperature down.

Step 4 is to hang around for 25 minutes, at which point you should remove the lid and give the bread another 20 to 25 minutes to finish baking. Then get those mitts back on and pull out your crackling crust creation.

As for the bread itself, it doesn't really matter what goes into the pot. Any type bakes up nicely, providing it has enough bulk to fill up the pot sufficiently to rise into a round shape.

Bake times and temperatures, though, need to be adjusted for doughs with largely whole-grain content such as whole wheat or rye. Those breads respond to longer baking times at temperatures from 300 to 350 degrees once they're dropped into the 500-degree pot.

For instance, a completely whole-wheat bread should bake for 90 minutes at 350 degrees once in the pot. Whole rye likes 300 degrees for two hours.

How to bake bread in a pot

Preheat oven and uncovered pot of your choice to 500 degrees for at least 45 minutes.

After the dough's initial rise, shape it on a floured surface into a rough circular form small enough to drop into the pot. Either leave the dough on the surface covered by a damp towel or plastic wrap (a little oil from a spray can on the dough keeps the wrap from sticking) or place the dough in a suitable basket lined with oiled plastic wrap or an oiled bowl, then cover with plastic wrap or damp kitchen towel. Allow to rise 30 to 45 minutes at room temperature.

When the pot's hot, wearing oven mitts, take it from the oven and place on heatproof surface, possibly as close as you can to the dough, then shut the oven door.

Remove mitts and flop the dough into the pot. Now is the time to score it, if you like, with a single-edge razor blade dipped in water.

Move the pot back to the oven, fit the lid and set the timer for 25 minutes. If making a largely white-flour loaf, lower temperature to 450 degrees, even lower for whole-grain recipes.

Remove lid after 25 minutes and give the loaf another 20 to 25 minutes, longer for whole grain as indicated above.

When the bread's done, remove from oven, slide from pot and cool on a rack.

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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