Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bread: the staff of life

Bread is one of the most basic of foodstuffs and has been baked for millennia. And yet, for the modern home baker, it seems to be a type of Holy Grail: how to produce a light, airy bread with a firm, chewy crust and a deep, almost nutty, flavor. Baking stones, bread machines, special flours, exotic ingredients and wood-fired ovens have all been peddled to everyday bakers hoping for the perfect bread. (I actually have a bread machine, and I hate the texture of the bread that comes out of it).
But Baker (he gets a capital-B because he's so good) Jim Lahey has a new idea. With a cast-iron pot, 5 minutes of mixing, and a little patience, you can produce amazingly light bread with a fabulous crust without getting tendinitis in your elbows from kneading. My Bread: the revolutionary no-work, no-knead method is all about the slow-rise. You mix water, flour, yeast and salt in a bowl and let it sit for 12-18 hours. Fold it into a nice shape, let it rise for a couple more hours and then bake it.
There's a little more to it than that - Lahey does a really nice job of explaining how bread bakes, what pan to use for cooking the bread, and how important cooling is for the finished product - but overall the technique is so simple you have to wonder why everyone doesn't already bake bread this way. But when you get rave reviews from Anthony Bourdain, Mark Bittman, Mario Batali and Martha Stewart, you know you're on to something special.
Once you have the basic technique down, you can expand into olive-studded loaves, ryes, beer breads, pizzas, sweet breads and more. Lahey also includes recipes for spreads, sandwiches and salads using your amazing home-cooked bread. What a perfect way to spend a fall weekend.

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