The topic of no-knead bread reappeared in the Dining and Wine section of the New York Times last week in an article by Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking. McGee baked loaves of differing wetness (hydration) with and without kneading and provided an explanation for why kneading is unnecessary to produce rustic style breads with irregular hole patterns.
What he didn't mention was the success possible with sourdough starters. McGee used commercial yeast, but I’ve been consistently making no-knead bread with my own wild yeast starter since I posted a recipe on this blog at the end of 2008. Commercial yeast can yield a great loaf of bread, but wild yeast makes sublime bread with unmatched depth of flavor and nuance.
The photo above is from a recent loaf of bread I made a few days ago from my original recipe. I’ve experimented with kneading the dough in the past, but it never turns out as well. Instead, I mix my dough and let it sit overnight for about nine to twelve hours (nine for the recent loaf). I shape it and put it in my baking pan, letting it rise until it is ready (less than hour this time). I bake the loaf until the crust turns dark and crisp. The interior, well you can see the yeast’s work. I eat it plain; no need for butter.
My loaves do not taste like San Francisco sourdough. They are not sour. My starter is mild, more like a French levain. The sour flavor, isolated by USDA researchers in the 70’s, comes from a specific type of lactic bacteria. By controlling the temperature and feeding of a starter you can control the acidity. Maintaining starter temperatures in the upper 70’s promotes less acetic starters. If you are interested in more details, post a comment and I will reply.
Starters are not mystical, delicate creatures, although I almost killed my favorite starter last Autumn. I had been keeping it in the refrigerator when I wasn’t making bread regularly, but I neglected it for a few weeks, maybe a month or so. When I finally looked at it, the starter had a quarter inch of ill-colored vinegar smelling liquid on top. I’m not sentimental, but I felt a tinge of guilt and couldn’t throw it out. I refreshed it and refreshed it, nursing it back to health. Even if you don't plan to make bread, try making a starter. Seeing it bubble and froth and shouting, “It’s alive!” is worth the time. Show your kids; get them extra credit in science. You don’t even need the squirt of honey I mentioned in my recipe. Just flour and water.
Recently, I’ve created a new starter from a recipe in an article by James MacGuire in The Art of Eating (Winter 2009). He writes a fascinating story about the history and current state of pain au levain in France and his bread recipe involves minimal kneading by folding the dough at hourly intervals. The folding benefits his dough, which is dryer than mine, and his rising times are shorter. The dough has great oven spring and the finished bread is another example of the beautiful harmony of wild yeast and lactic bacteria.