Michael’s ‘Real’ Bread

Apr 6, 2007 by Chef Michael

Last fall, I discovered an amazing way to bake the best bread.  I spent the winter perfecting a system that allows anyone to effortlessly bake loaf after loaf of premium artisan goodness.  Everyday . . . without kneading the dough!  With more than 100 loaves under my belt, I’m averaging 5 minutes per loaf.  A bold claim, yes – but true. After 20 years of professional baking I thought I knew it all.

The New York Times broke the story first.  Mark Bittman – one of my favourite food writers – got a tip that Manhattan baker Jim Lahey was onto something new.  Together, they revealed a revolutionary new way to make bread.

Several things distinguish Mr. Lahey’s method. 1) It requires very little yeast; 2) the dough is very wet; 3) no kneading is required; 4) the bread rises for a long time and 5) you can use a closed, pre-heated pot for baking.  Together, these factors add up to the tastiest bread I’ve ever baked.  Naturally I’ve played around with the original recipe quite a bit, mostly in an attempt to add more whole-wheat goodness to it.  Everything I’ve learned is included in my version.  I call it ‘Real’ Bread.

The Magic of Great Bread
Great bread is born of Mother Nature and Father Time.  Just four simple ingredients transformed with patience and heat – wheat flour for structure, water for elastic dough, salt to enhance flavour, living yeast to inflate the dough, and 18 hours to make it all happen.

Bake bread and you can taste the unmistakable flavour of time.  Live dough is the secret – the older the better.  Some bakers even rely on an ancient sour dough starter.  They know that a little bit of yeast goes a long way when it’s allowed to live a little!  As it eats, breathes and multiplies, the dough’s flavour deepens and matures. But that’s not all that time can add to dough…

In chefs’ school, we were taught to knead bread – to fully develop the elasticity of the dough so it could trap the “breath of the yeast” and expand.  Rise.  Like most professional kitchens, we had giant kneading machines that did the work for us.  We’d stand around and watch the machine beat the dough into submission with a powerful hook.  We’d then let the dough rest, relax, and release the pent-up stress of its bout with the hook.  It took kneading to make great bread.  But trust me, there’s more to life than kneading bread all day long.

Knead No More!
Long ago I swapped time spent kneading bread in my kitchen for the schedule-freeing convenience of a bread machine.  My model did all the heavy lifting and was even programmed to be patient.  It made at least a hundred loaves of great bread a year for a long time.  But it’s retired now.

You don’t need a bread machine to knead ‘Real’ Bread.  Time does it for you!  You can simply stir its moist dough together and swap tedious kneading for an overnight rest.  The high moisture content of this dough makes it easy to stir together, but sometimes there’s so much water that conventional kneading just doesn’t work.

Fortunately, kneading isn’t the only way to form elasticity in your dough.  Strong dough captures CO2 from the busy yeast and swells dramatically.  As the dough rests, the water gradually combines with the gluten naturally present in the flour, forming the elastic structure of great bread.  The bread can then rise.  An 18-hour rest will save you twenty minutes of hard-core kneading!

Crispy Crust
The last secret to ‘Real Bread’ is the baking.  Professional bakers have long known that the secret of a perfectly crisp crust is moisture.  Baking bread in a moist oven keeps the surface supple and allows it to stretch fully before the heat of the oven sets the crust.  They also have ovens that inject just the right amount of moist steam, at just the right time.  I don’t.  But I do have a covered casserole dish.

Baking your dough in a covered pre-heated container works very well, but can be a tough step because if the bread pan is in the oven pre-heating, it’s not available for the bread to rise in.  This means that you have to transfer the dough after it rises from your counter to a hot pan – without disturbing the dough at the moment when it is most delicate.  Although not an easy feat or ultimately necessary, it is do-able with practice.

Freestyle Bread
My ‘Real’ Bread bread recipe presents several options. If your goal is the crackling perfection of a very light, crisp crust than follow the instructions for baking within a pre-heated covered pot.  For the more conventional route, bake the bread in a normal loaf pan – the same pan it rises in.  You’ll be rewarded with a beautiful loaf with a little thicker crust.

I’ve also included measurements for two different sized loafs. You’ll find the smaller perfect for filling a standard loaf pan.  The second one makes a larger loaf in same easy process as the smaller.  Baking in a large, round pot or casserole dish is better – with or without the lid.
Bread flour is slightly higher in gluten than all-purpose flour and so it produces a lighter bread.  The difference is not dramatic though.  You may find it easier to use all-purpose flour

My version includes lots of whole grain power.  For many bakers though, the gold standard is a simple loaf of white bread.  If you like, you can substitute more all-purpose or bread flour for the whole-wheat flour and leave out the added grain mix.  This will lighten the bread a bit and its crust and texture will resemble that of a classic French baguette.

The key is to experiment.  After just one or two loaves, you’ll have confidence in the method and you’ll be able to explore your options. Once you get used to the timing, you’ll find it easy to incorporate into your busy schedule.

It’s really is amazing how well this works.  But be careful – you will impress yourself in your own kitchen so much that you just might get sucked into a bread making vortex like I did!  It’s hard not to when the results are so excellent.  And besides I’m supplying four other families now!