Thursday, February 25, 2010

No Kneading Needed?

"No Knead Breads" have been hugely popular for years now, with my own foray into bread baking starting with experiments with no knead recipes. While I can't say I've ever made a very good no knead loaf (kept burning the bottom), even as a n00b I could see the potential of the technique. But as a charter member of the "the longer it takes and the harder it is to make, the better it's going to taste" cooking school of thought... I still have had trouble believing you don't make superior bread by getting your hands (or stand mixer) in there for a bit. Of course, while I've made much better bread using Reinhart's techniques than random "No Knead" recipes on the internet, that doesn't mean that the 10-15 minutes of kneading is the difference... indeed Reinhart's new No-Knead book would suggest even he doesn't think kneading is necessary for great bread. And now, for perhaps the final word, we have Harold McGhee in his Curious Cook column doing a no knead investigation:
Several things became clear from my experiments. Wet, unkneaded doughs can make very good bread. Manipulating them for 10 to 15 minutes usually didn’t affect the results. Firm doughs do benefit from a few minutes of kneading, but only because it helps mix the flour evenly with the smaller proportion of water. Prolonged kneading didn’t make much difference in the finished loaves.

So why did we ever bother to knead? Mr. Suas explained that like supermarket breads today, homemade bread in the 1970s was modeled on English pan loaves, with a tight, even, fine-grained interior ideal for tidy sandwiches.

A firm, well-kneaded dough makes good sandwich bread, but not the open, irregular interiors of “rustic” loaves now in vogue. These are best made, Mr. Suas said, with a looser, wetter dough and gentler handling to preserve the pockets of gas from the yeast fermentation. The elastic gluten network develops slowly as the dough rises, and the baker helps out by occasionally lifting the dough edges and folding them over.
I guess, pretty much like everybody else, I'm a huge fan of the "open crumb" of the rustic loaf... still having nightmares about the dense brick breads of my youth... and thus have always leaned more to wet doughs. So maybe I'll have to get Lahey's and/or Reinhart's new books out of the library to see how they come out... because, even with all the evidence, testing, and testimonials, I still find myself skeptical that kneading makes no difference. However, the video's on Amazon for Reinhart's "Stretch and Fold" technique involves using an 80% hydration dough... which is pretty crazy, and maybe too open for me. We'll just have to see, I suppose.