Monday, January 16, 2012

Adventures into a scary place... baking bread with a toaster oven

I've been reading this book about a blogger who decided not to eat out in NYC for 2 years. Kim was talking about this book over Thanksgiving and I thought it sounded interesting, and I am always willing to check out new literature, so I put a hold on it from the library. I read the first few chapters really fast but haven't picked the book up in like 3 weeks now. I keep renewing the due date because I'm determined to finish the book. Since this post isn't supposed to be a book review I'm just going to skip over my thoughts and write about what I came here to write: my forays into No-Knead Bread!

In the book, the author ponders over buying pre-made food and decides to try her luck with making her own bread after she hears about a popular New York Times recipe. It sounded easy enough and after I read that she could do it, I was pretty confident that I'd make a tasty loaf, even though I'm not really a great baker. I bought some yeast a couple weeks ago while I was at the store and finally this weekend I set out to make my own bread.

Things got off to a rocky start and went downhill from there (but I'm going to spoil this blog and let you know this story does have a very happy ending, so carry on fellow readers). As I started to gather together the ingredients (flour, yeast, salt and water) I realized that I was lacking the full 3 cups of the most essential ingredient, flour. I wasn't sure if maybe I hadn't unpacked the rest or if maybe I just had brought it over to someone's house and forgotten it there. (Probably the latter, oh well, flour is inexpensive!) I had about 2 cups and some change so I decided to cut the recipe by 1/3. Since there were countless blogs about people making this bread, doing stupid things and still making a perfect artisan delicious looking loaf, I figured I couldn't mess this up!

I started the bread at 9pm on Saturday night and didn't start baking until about 4pm on Sunday. The reason why this bread is so popular is because it requires no work beyond throwing minimal ingredients in a bowl and letting it sit for 12-18 hours. This is trick #1. The yeast love a wet environment and this dough is sticky and moist. Since you aren't kneading the bread to release the gluten fibers (as you would in the days of old, before us lazy bakers came around) you need to let this baby hang out on your counter all night.

You can make the loaf completely how it is written or you can add extra ingredients. The reason why I'm not a really good baker is because baking usually requires precise measurements and I'm a non-recipe, improvisational type cook. I live to throw together random delicious meals from whatever I have in my fridge or cupboards. I don't even own a teaspoon/tablespoon set! Thankfully I have a measuring cup, or else I'd be completely lost.

I cut some branches off my rosemary bush, chopped up a large clove of garlic, found some dried lavender flowers I had picked on a walk a few weeks ago and took a few pinches of Murray River pink flake salt and put them all into little spice bowls that I use when I cook.

I added the dry ingredients all together in my big red mixing bowl. I love the color red and love my mixing bowl. I wasn't sure how the lavender was going to fair in the recipe but at least it added some pretty color. I took a picture of this step but really I am just showing off the oils and other random items that I use most often (and that would fit behind my stove top)

Then it was time to cover it with plastic wrap and wait. Since it was about 9pm, I decided tomorrow afternoon would be a good time for baking! I wanted to make sure that the yeast had enough time to do their thing and I was instructed to not bother the dough until I saw little bubbles.

It was a cold night (for Portland) and in the morning I decided to bring the bowl into my bedroom because it was warmer. The dough is supposed to be left at room temperature (about 70F) but I'm pretty sure my kitchen was colder than that. As I was drinking my coffee I heard a lot of gurgling and popping next to me - it was like the dough was alive! I saw the little bubbles and smelled the yeasty smell that everyone says they love. I don't really love the smell of raw uncooked yeasty bread, but every blogger who wrote about this recipe seemed to wax poetic when they talked about this smell. Whatever - my dough was (almost) done!

The next stage is probably the most labor intensive stage. I started to laugh when I wrote that because for me this is where I realized I made a big mistake and it did turn out to be quite a bit more work, but for everyone else, it's really not hard or labor intensive at all, I promise! You might get some sticky dough on your hands if you don't coat them well with flour. It seemed like a lot of people used a spatula in this step though.

The recipe says to turn the bowl upside down and plop the dough out onto a well floured surface. Fold it over onto itself once (this is where the spatula comes in I think) and then let it rest for 15 minutes. I don't understand that but I followed the directions! My dough was really, really sticky and wet. At this point I realized that I used the wrong flour. I also found the other flour, the one I was supposed to use. Note: you can use bread flour but it isn't necessary, but make sure you at least use all purpose flour.

When I was packing to move into my current apartment, I hastily filled and labeled my resuable plastic containers with bulk items, like flours, sugars, rice and beans. I didn't have enough containers, but tried to get most of my baking items stored away. When I got the remainder of the flour out to coat my cutting board, I realized it was pastry flour because of the way it felt. I confirmed this when I dug through a box and found my all purpose and a small bit of bread flour. I really need to unpack everything....

In an attempt to save my bread I added some wheat gluten and coated everything with bread flour. I also took my really wet dough and folded about 1/2 a cup of flour into it then formed a ball with the folded seam side down, like it said in the recipe. I think that the dough is supposed to be pretty darn sticky and a dough ball probably isn't easily achieved but don't fret, just do what you can. It'll cook into a nice round shape and if it's a little funny looking it just looks more homemade, and therefore, even better!
The recipe instructed to put the dough on a cotton cloth coated with flour but I wasn't about to put that dough on anywhere that would be a pain to clean. I sprinkled some parchment paper with flour, folded it up loosely and then wrapped the whole package in a bamboo cloth.

I then put the dough on top of my warm rice cooker to proof it. You don't need to do this. I only did this because of my flour mess up. I also did a bit of kneading to make up for lost time. The best thing though was 2 hours later when I checked my dough - it had risen and it looked beautiful!! I think that the way it is supposed to look might be a bit more wet than mine, but they will cook beautifully too. Remember, it is okay to coat the outside with flour because you can always brush off the excess after it is baked. I read that you can coat the bread with other things before the two hour mark, but I stuck to flour.

Before the dough is done rising here is trick #2 - you need to preheat your oven to 450 degrees with the pan you are going to cook the bread in. Before you even attempt this recipe you need to make sure you have at least a 3-4qt pot/dish with a lid. Preheat the lid too. One of my next purchases is going to be a le crueset dutch oven knock off (because they are $300, whaaat?) that is small enough to fit inside my toaster oven, but big enough to bake bread.

The reason why a lid in imperative is because it traps in the moisture. As the bread cooks and releases all that water that is in the mushy wet dough, the humidity levels stay high in the pan. I am pretty certain this is what creates the chewy (but not too chewy) crispy perfect crust. Preheating the dish with the lid on means you're already bringing the pan and the air inside up to temperature, which makes for a quick bake!

Be careful when you remove the pan to plop the dough in because it is really hot! I would advise to pull out the oven rack a little, take the lid off and let the dough fall off the parchment paper into the pan seam side up. Put the lid back on and set your timer to 30 minutes. The best thing about my toaster oven and the fact that I only had a small pyrex dish and a round cheesecake baking tray as my "lid" is that I was able to watch it cook.

The downsides to a toaster oven is not knowing if things will come out properly or even cook. The lack of space is a big issue too. Since I only had a small dish I split my bread into two balls at the end and made two loaves.

Here is the bread after I put it in the oven:

10 minutes into cooking and it's starting to rise - I started feeling like I may have been successful at this point:

25 minutes into cooking and it's looking great!:

After 30 minutes the lid needs to come off and the bread should be baked for about 10-15 more minutes to brown it up. Since I was cooking a smaller batch I pulled the lid at 25 minutes and then let it brown for 5 and it came out looking like something I wanted to eat right away. I was so hungry and it smelled wonderful. This freshly baked bread yeast smell is the one I like!

You're suppose to let it cool but my loaf was tiny and I couldn't wait so I cut off the first piece, took a couple pictures and dug in. I added a sliver of butter and it was so amazing that I actually ate the entire loaf before the second one was done cooking. Clearly, this was a big win!

Yay! My toaster oven has proven itself worthy! Doesn't it look delicious? Now you should go make some too! Let me know what flavor combinations and herbs you put in your bread. I have a few good ideas for my next loaf.

nom nom nom! Happy Noshing!

Here is a link to the official recipe. Have fun!


  1. Haha! I love that you made the bread. Since reading the book I have wanted to try making it but always seem to forget when I am bored and looking for something to do. I am in on the challenge. I told Cliff about it and he was all like " Oh yeah. I know about that. I wanted to make it in college. I think I have the recipe saved in a file on my computer." Well la-de-da. It looks like we are finally making bread!!! :) I will keep you posted on how it goes and I might even have to steal your idea and post about it on the family blog (I hope that is ok!).

  2. Yes! You must post about your bread adventures too. I bet yours will come out lovely :)