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no-knead disaster

perrin, Feb-19-07 04:41:06:
I tried the Bittman bread.  It was pretty much a total failure.  It was so wet that when I got to the step that says to "form it into a ball" I had something that resembled paste and didn't hold a shape at all.  I did bake it, and it tastes fine, but is very flat.  It stuck hard to the Dutch oven too, and had to be shaken out.

I've been thinking of things that might have gone wrong:

- I used weight measures instead of volume (he gave the weights in a later version of the column).
- My apartment is certainly not 70 degrees F in February.  Maybe I should let it rise in the oven with the pilot light.
- I used instant yeast instead of rapid rise, but he did say this would work in his later article.

Any advice?  How wet is it supposed to be after the first rise?
sarahamiller, Feb-19-07 23:34:44:
Hi Perrin, It's been way too long since I checked in with The Recipe Files, but I hope that my advising privileges have not expired.

I have been making this bread about twice a week since the article appeared in the Times.  Sometimes, Patrick and I just eat a loaf of it with olive oil and wine for dinner.  I'm going to try to give you some tips, but it seems like every one who has posted something about this recipe on the web has modified it in a different way.

Here's a link to a Pittsburgh food blogger who has sort of been keeping track of the whole No Kneed phenomenon:

1. I use less water.  I don't have a scale, so I'm sure that my flour measurement differs every time, but I never add more than 1 1/2 cups of water, and sometimes as little as 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons.  You want your dough mixture to incorporate all of the flour, but not sit in a puddle in your bowl.  And, as it rises, it will become more liquidy.  I've used different types of yeast, and I've only used all-purpose flour because I can't seem to find bread flour in these parts. 

2. I sit my bread right in front of a heating duct while it rises, which makes for an environment well over 70 degrees.  I've let it go 28 hours and I've done as short as 6 hours for the first rise.  Longer is better, but not tremendously better.

3. When I plop the dough out of the bowl for the second rise, I've found that I need to coat my hands and "work surface" with a good amount of flour.  I fold the dough over on itself a few times, adding enough flour to my hands to keep it from sticking directly to me or the counter.

4. I've ruined a couple of "non-terry" towels by setting the dough directly on it for the second rise.  These days, I'm using a Silpat liner underneath, which seems to work pretty well, but you still have to cover it with a towel.  Sprinkle flour under and on top of the dough before covering it. 

5.  I think that the second rise really helps with the "flatness" issue.  I've also found that a 2 hour second rise is better than a 1 hour one. 

6. Heat up your baking container a full half hour in your oven before you put the bread in, and make sure that your oven is really hot.  If your container is hot enough and if your dough ball has enough flour sprinkled on the outside, it shouldn't stick.  The dough will still be pretty loose when you put it in the pot.  You can't really pick it up and transfer it.  You have to pick up the surface it's rising on and flop the dough in  upside down.  Shake your baking container a bit to even out the dough if it folds over on itself.

7. I have never cooked the bread for as long as Bittman suggests.  I do 30 minutes with the lid on and 10-15 with the lid off.  My bread starts burning after that.

8. This bread is really good with oil-cured black olives and rosemary.  I add extra stuff of this sort as I'm taking the dough out of the bowl for the second rise.

This recipe is really worth tinkering.  I haven't bought a loaf of bread in months.

steveandsarah, Feb-20-07 02:13:44:
It sounds like Sarah is more expert than me at this, but my best guess would be that your proportions were somehow wrong.  You might try doing it by volume instead of by weight; maybe Bittman's calculations were off.  I've always done it by volume.  I don't think it should feel really wet after the first rise, though, just somewhat sticky.

If your kitchen is really cold then rising it in the oven with the pilot light is probably a good idea, though I don't know if temperature could be to blame for the wetness.

I'd encourage you to give it another try, though.  It might have just been some weird unreproduceable fluke that messed it up for you the first time.  I've even been so lazy as to skip the second rise, and it still came out OK.
perrin, Apr-16-07 00:36:42:
Here's the report from round 2.  This time I used the volume measures, with the addition of some rosemary, a full tbsp of salt, slightly more yeast, first rise in the oven, and cornmeal for dusting.  Still had a sad little puddle of dough after the first rise.  I added what seemed like a lot of flour (at least 1/2 cup) and got it up to paste consistency.  I couldn't really fold it into a ball, and the second rise looked questionable, but it did bake up pretty nicely, and didn't stick to the pot at all this time.

Next time I will try the suggestion of using less water, since clearly the amount in the recipe is not working out correctly for me.  I do have some pretty decent bread to show for it anyway though.
steveandsarah, Apr-22-07 01:10:19:
Jeffrey Steingarten has an article in the latest Vogue about this recipe.  He did some experimentation and came up with these proportions:
  3 cups bread flour
  2 tsp fine salt
  1 tsp instant yeast (that's right, 4 times Bittman's amount)
  1 1/2 cups water
It's rising now; I'll let you know how it turns out...

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