I’ve baked a fair amount of bread in my life, but not much in recent years. That’s what happens when you live within a mile or two of several great bakeries. Each sells a kind of bread I can only find there.
Turtle Bread for olive bread and a loaf of multigrain that tastes delicious instead of like twigs. Rustica for levain. Honey & Rye for rye. Great Harvest for whole wheat. Patisserie 46 for croissants. And Bill’s Imported Foods for the baked-daily pocket bread, for which you need to get there before noon because it sells out fast.
Out of curiosity, though, I decided to try a no-knead bread recipe. It seemed odd to me that you could even make yeast bread without kneading it. Isn’t kneading the whole point? Wouldn’t the bread fail to rise if you didn’t knead it? Skepticism. But I gave it a whirl.
What you do is mix flour and water and salt and a tiny, tiny bit of instant yeast in a bowl. Then you put it on your counter and do nothing. It sits there for a long time, like 12-20 hours. Then you dump it into a heavy, preheated pot with a lid, and you bake it in a very hot, preheated oven.
(Note: Given the simplicity of this recipe you would think I could follow it exactly. But no. I added more salt because I hate not-salty-enough bread. I didn’t have a Dutch oven or any heavy-enough pot with a lid, so I baked it in an enamel bowl half the recommended size and stuck a cookie sheet over the top. And I didn’t have instant yeast so I used active dry.)
It was the best bread I’ve ever made. One of the best breads I’ve ever had, period. So tasty that my youthful companion and I gobbled up the entire loaf in less than a day, straight out of the oven and slathered with butter, toasted and slathered with butter, broken up and tossed into bowls of soup, and I made another loaf the next day and another a few days after that.
Why this bread is so good is something I’ve been thinking about for days. It’s as basic as it gets: unbleached white flour, water, salt, yeast. But it’s dense and heavy, unlike most yeast bread that rises so high and light. Chewy. Delicious. Primitive. Interesting.
That’s the word that keeps coming to me: interesting.
The bread requires no human work beyond the few seconds that it takes to mix the ingredients in a bowl. But the yeast is working. For twenty hours, give or take a few in either direction, the yeast is working.
It’s working hard, too. This yeast is deprived. You use a tiny fraction of what you would use in regular, kneaded bread. That’s the first deprivation. You mix it into cold water instead of warm. More deprivation. There’s no sugar in that cold water, not even half a teaspoon, to help the yeast proof. There’s no kneading.
The yeast begins its life in difficult circumstances. Everything that it must do, it must do on its own.
The yeast works in the dark, metabolizing simple sugars and excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol and growing and growing and growing. If you peek at it during those long hours you won’t notice anything until near the end, when suddenly you realize that the ordinary lump of dough in the bowl has grown big and alive-looking. The shiny surface is pocked with tiny holes.
It’s at that point that you pick the whole thing up with both hands –it will come up all of a piece, like a sleeping animal– and put it in a hot pot and from there into the hot oven.
The taste of this bread is the result of deprivation and the hard work that comes in the wake of deprivation. And there’s a wildness in it that might also be the result of the wild yeast that floats into the dough from the air during all those long hours on the counter.
The difference between this no-knead, many-houred bread is the difference between the taste of a “baby” carrot pulled out of a watery plastic bag and the taste of a carrot pulled by its feathery green top out of the backyard.
It’s the difference between a page of writing scribbled out ten minutes before class and a poem that’s been gathering force for years on end, written and rewritten and rewritten again.
Now I’m thinking of long ago, when I used to teach Chinese at a big public high school, and the difference between, say, a Hmong student who had grown up in a Thai refugee camp, a student unsure of the year or day on which he had been born but sure of why he wanted an education, and a born-and-bred American student who had been given a new car as a 16th birthday gift.
I didn’t love one more than the other. I still don’t. But I recognize the difference.