No-Knead Bread – Lessons & Variations

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, I experimented a bit with making a no-knead bread. That prompted me to make this post: Easiest Focaccia Ever.

I had previously also made a post sharing my grandmother’s bread recipe. But of course that’s an enriched dough (it has eggs, milk and butter) so it’s completely different than artisan bread, which is a lean dough (just flour, salt, water and yeast).

I’ve recently gotten into baking bread for its health benefits, which has culminated in this post with the recipe for 100% whole wheat bread made with Red Fife flour (an heirloom variety of organic, stone-ground wheat). The post also goes into detail about the health benefits of organic whole wheat, as well as debunking the myths about bread being unhealthy or fattening.

But a lot of the recipes online for bread made with red fife flour turn out to be no-knead, lean, artisan type dough. So while I was waiting for my whole wheat flour to arrive in the mail, I made a number of test loaves of artisan bread. The following is what I’ve learned so far, both in my reading and my experimenting in the kitchen. Scroll all the way to the bottom for the (very simple) recipe.

Note that these notes were about tests I did using only white flour. At the bottom is an “update” section which has some loaves I tried with whole wheat flour.

Lessons Learned

BREAD FLOUR: Bread flour has a higher protein (gluten) content than all-purpose flour. It absolutely makes for a better loaf of bread. (So if I’m going to try using the stone-gound whole wheat flour I just got, I want to experiment with adding gluten flour).

STEAM & HIGH HEAT: In order for the bread to develop the chewy crust you want, it has to be baked in a hot (450°) oven, and it needs steam. You can create this by baking your bread in a pot with a lid on it (like a dutch oven); or you can put a pan of water in the bottom of your oven.

RISE TIME: A lot of the recipes I read called for allowing the dough to rise for a long time, some of it at room temperature and some of it in the refrigerator. They mostly say this produces better flavor. (see note about fermenting) But then I accidentally let one loaf rise about 5 hours in a warm oven (after using fresh yeast + white bread flour) and its gluten structure was the best yet, without tasting like sourdough at all. So for proper gluten development, I think a warm-oven rise for about 4-5 hours is good, followed by a second warm-oven rise of at least 2 hours in the baking dish.

FERMENTING & FLAVOR DEVELOPMENT: A bunch of the recipes for no-knead bread call for letting the dough rise at room temperature for 8 hours, 12 hours, even 24 hours. I did this with one loaf, and the result was a tangier flavor, something starting to taste like sourdough. Other recipes call for letting it rest in the refrigerator for anywhere from 8 hours – 3 days. The cold temperature stops the yeast from working, but people say it produces a better flavor. I haven’t yet tried a refrigerator rest time.

SHAPING & PROOFING: My initial loaves were super flat, aka mostly crust. My initial thought was that the containers I was using to proof the dough and then bake it were too large, and enabled the dough to spread out too much. But I now believe that it’s because there just wasn’t enough gluten structure in the dough. This was from 2 things: 1) I had some yeast to use up, but it was old and expired and not pulling its weight and 2) only letting the dough rise for 2 hours (see note about rise time). I also think that the stretch and fold might be an important step in getting proper loft. (see next note)

THE STRETCH & FOLD: A number of recipes suggested a treatment for the dough after going through its first rise that involves stretching it out and folding it over itself 4-8 times. The idea is that it allows the gluten strands to form a better scaffolding, which leads to a nice loft in the oven. I had kinda dismissed it, but then when I did it once by accident (with apple bread), that was by far the loftiest bread yet. So maybe there’s something to it?

TOOLS: Plastic scraper. To get the super-sticky dough out of the mixing bowl and into a proofing basket, a stiff plastic scraper is awesome. Proofing basket. This primarily holds the dough and gives it shape, especially as compared to simply letting it proof on the counter. But a regular ceramic bowl (the right size for the amount of dough) does the same thing. The key thing you only get from a proofing basket is that it wicks away a bit of moisture from the surface of the bread, creating a skin. This is the secret to the chewy crust you want. Danish whisk. The dough is super sticky. The shape of this whisk is designed to scrape the edges of your bowl, while also allowing maximum combining of the ingredients with the least working of the dough.

DUTCH OVEN vs. OTHER METHODS: The advantages of a dutch oven are a) it has a lid so you don’t need to mess with pans of water in the oven b) it (theoretically) helps the dough retain its shape through the second rise. But the pecan-cranberry bread I did in a loaf pan turned out just fine (and putting a small loaf pan of water into the bottom of the oven actually worked fine too).

SLASHING THE TOP: It isn’t just for looks. It also pierces the skin created by the proofing basket (see Tools, above), allowing the bread to properly spring up in the oven.

Variations

I found one recipe that listed a whole bunch of different flavor combinations. I would think all of these would work with kneaded, enriched bread too? Each of the quantities listed below is for a small batch making a single loaf, using just 1-1/2c flour.

  • Whole Wheat Pecan Cranberry. Add 1/4c each dried cranberries and pecans to the dry ingredients. Use at least partial wheat flour (rather than all white bread flour).
    This one is so far my favorite; but perhaps that’s because I did it as a double loaf and made it in a loaf pan so it came out with a much lower crust-to-inside ratio than the others I’ve done. It was also the one I made with whole wheat bread flour, as opposed to the red fife.
  • Seeded. Mix 1t each sesame and flax seeds, 1T each sunflower & pumpkin seeds and 1/2t chia seeds into the dry ingredients. Sprinkle the top with another 1T of each sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
  • Seeded #2. Mix 2t each millet & quinoa, 4t amaranth and 1t poppy seeds into the dry ingredients. Dust the proofing basket with amaranth, sesame seeds and fennel seeds.
  • Parmesan. Add 7oz shredded parmesan to the dry ingredients (7oz seems like a lot?)
  • Honey oat. Add a scant 1/2c rolled oats to the dry ingredients and 1T honey to the wet.
  • Roasted garlic herb. Roast a whole head of garlic while the bread is doing its first rise in the bowl. Turn it out and stretch it into a square, then spread it with the roasted garlic and 2t of whatever chopped herbs you want (rosemary, thyme, dill…) Fold the dough four times over itself to incorporate. Brush the top with olive oil and flaky salt.
  • Garlic and rosemary. Add 3 cloves minced garlic, 1T chopped rosemary and 3/4t black pepper to the dough.
  • Cheddar jalapeño. After the dough has risen in the bowl and you’ve turned it out to shape, add 2oz diced cheddar, 2oz shredded parmesan, 1 sliced pepper and 2 sliced green onions. Fold the dough four times over itself to incorporate.
  • Cinnamon raisin. Use milk for half the liquid; mix 1/2c raising and 1T brown sugar into the dough. After you turn it out, sprinkle 1/2T cinnamon (would cinnamon sugar be better?) and fold it just twice to create ribbons of cinnamon through the dough. Brush the top with milk and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
  • Apple artisan bread. Fold 1c diced granny smith apples, 1T sugar and 1/2t cinnamon into the risen dough. Pour directly into a cold dutch oven and rise for another 2 hours. Put covered into a COLD oven set for 425°. Bake for 45 minutes covered, then an additional 10 minutes uncovered. Serve with maple butter. (1 stick of unsalted butter creamed with 2T brown sugar, 2T maple syrup and 1/2t cinnamon).
  • Pumpkin bread. Add 1/3c pumpkin puree + 1/2T honey to the wet ingredients; reduce water to just 1/2c. Seed the top with pumpkin seeds.

Basic Recipe:

1-1/2c bread flour
1t salt
1t yeast
3/4c water, at 110°

Mix everything in a bowl for just a few strokes. It will turn from goopy to just plain sticky. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface to shape it into a loaf. It will still be sticky. Put into your proofing basket, seam side up. Let it rise in a slightly warm oven (just the pilot light on) until doubled, 4-5 hours. Turn it out onto a piece of parchment paper. At the same time, turn the oven on to preheat at 450° and put the dutch oven in to heat up too.

Updates, using whole wheat flour:

I made a loaf of garlic-dill with the Hard White Spring wheat, which is labeled as bread flour, using yeast that says it was expired. The dough was much drier – less shaggy – than the ones with white flour, and it hardly rose at all. The whole thing was so stiff and dense and hard it didn’t occur to me to slash the top. But then the crust came out so stiff, it occurred to me that maybe the lack of a slash was in fact inhibiting it from spring up in the oven. As far as flavor, the 2 medium cloves of garlic I used gave a nice while not overpowering hint of garlic; while the single teaspoon of chopped fresh dill was hardly detectable. As much as the density wasn’t what you want, the flavor was still good.

I made a loaf of pumpkin bread with whole wheat flour (I think that’s what I used?) but finally using nice fresh yeast. It turned out nice and fluffy, and was super delicious with cream cheese! I don’t remember much else now …

I made a loaf of seeded dill using King Arthur white flour, just to try out the other variables. I used fresh yeast; then let it proof in the basket. I turned it out onto parchment while the small cast iron saucepan preheated. It made a perfectly good shape – except that the top pressed into the handle of the lid, which I had to put on upside down to make it fit in the toaster oven. It tasted great; but let the record show, I started having headaches – maybe from the pesticides in the white flour??

I made loaf of apple bread using regular white flour and fresh yeast, and let it do its first rise for almost 5 hours, in the glass bowl I mixed it in. The recipe I got it from said to put it into a cold dutch oven to let it do its second rise. I was concerned about it sticking to the pan and boy oh boy, did it ever! I absolutely should have put it on parchment paper and then into the pan. (although the crust was a super awesome crispiness that might have been partially due to the direct contact with the metal?) That said. The bread itself was the first one that actually achieved the kind of chewy, airy artisan bread these recipes are after. I’m curious to try it with the whole wheat flour; but at least with white flour it’s clear that:

  • You absolutely have to use fresh yeast! Every loaf I made when I was still using up tired old yeast was meh; every loaf I’ve made with the new yeast I bought has been better.
  • I’m beginning to believe that letting it rise for many hours is essential to allowing the gluten to develop. (I did this with my second attempt, labeled “fermented honey oat,” and it didn’t loft any better. But I was also still using up my tired yeast at that point)
  • The other thing I did with this bread that might have contributed to the terrific volume it achieved is that I performed the stretch and fold between the two rises. That’s a technique that some recipes have suggested is essential to helping the gluten strands form the scaffolding, if you will, that helps the bread rise.

    After it had risen for ~5 hours, I needed to incorporate the chopped apples. This dough was not having that; so all I could do was stretch out the dough, spread out the apples, then try to fold the dough to sorta tuck in the pieces of apple. Because while I was using a bit smaller dutch oven – meaning there was less surface area for the dough to spread out on – it absolutely achieved a higher loft than any other loaf I’ve made, by a lot. (the seeded dill might have rivaled it; but of course it bumped into the handle of the lid and was impeded)
  • The last thing to note is that I did not score the top. It had a bit of a skin, just from sitting there for 2 hours (although I covered the top of the pan with plastic wrap). But I guess it wasn’t the kind of skin that comes from the banneton basket whisking away some of the moisture that necessitates slashing it to enable it to loft in the oven.

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