The goal of this batch of bread was to merge No-Touch No-Knead techniques with Julia Child's famous recipe for true French bread in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This was my second attempt, and the results were close to perfect! I'd rate this bread as 4 stars--it would be 5 stars but the crust on my first attempt was crisper than this one.
I started with No-Knead dough and let it rise for 12 hours. I then performed a No-Touch knead on the dough for one minute. Effectively the dough was now at the end of "Step 2: Kneading" of Julia Childs recipe. Julia calls for 5 to 10 minutes of kneading. The no-knead 12 hour rise took the place of most of her kneading. The steps below match the numbered steps in her Pain Français (Plain French Bread) recipe. It's on page 57 Volume II (at least in the first edition) of Mastering the Art of French Cooking..I strongly suggest studying Julia's recipe before trying my adaptation below. Julia packs a lot of information in 22 pages to describe the technique.
Step 1: The Dough Mixture
Make the dough using the standard No-Knead recipe: 15 oz flour, 10 oz water, 1.5 teaspoons salt, 1/4 ounce yeast. In my first attempt, I accidentally added almost 11 ounces of water, and the dough was sticky and hard to shape into loaves. Here's a photo of the dough ball at the first no-touch knead for both attempts. The too-wet dough is on the left.
Julia recommends using an all purpose unbleached flour with a gluten level of 8 to 9% to match typical French flours. I used King Arthur Unbleached All Purpose Flour which is 11.7%. Bread Flour can be as high as 14%.
Step 2: Kneading
Let the dough rise for roughly 12 hours, and then do a No-Touch knead for about a minute to replace Julia's ten minutes of hand kneading. You can stop early, if the dough ball becomes firm and hard to work.
The unkneaded dough just after being dumped on the mat is at left; and the one-minute no-touch kneaded dough ball is at right. If the dough is too wet to form a ball like the one on the right, work in some flour a little at a time.
Step 3: First Rising 3 hours or until dough triples
Step 3: First Rising 3 hours or until dough triples
Dump the dough back into your rising-container and let it rise until the dough triples in size--about 3 hours.
Step 4: Deflating and Second Rising 1.5 hours or until dough triples
Dump the dough onto your Silpat Commercial Size Baking mat and use the Zyliss Silicone Spreader to pull the four sides of the dough into the center to form a ball. Flatten any bubbles. Four pulls on the dough are all that are required, but a few more won't hurt. Dump the dough back into your rising-container and let rise for 1.5 hours--the dough should triple.
Dump the dough onto the no-stick baking mat and flatten using the spreader and/or your hands--whichever is easier at the time. Use the spreader to divide the dough into three equal pieces. I cut the dough by pressing down with the spreader as shown in the photo. Don't use a knife on a silicon baking mat.
Step 5: Cut and rest dough before forming loaves
Use the silicon spreader to form 3 dough balls. If one ball is larger than the others, you can pull off some dough and add it to one of the other balls. It's best to weigh the dough balls to make sure they are the same weight so that you get consistent loaves.
Step 6: Forming Loaves
The drawings and instructions in Mastering the Art of French Cooking are extremely helpful when forming the loaves.
In summary: lightly flour the mat, flatten the dough into a long oval, fold in half lengthwise, repeat. Then roll it with your hands on the mat like you would modeling clay to make a long thin cylinder. You need a little flour on the mat during this process. If you have too much, the dough slides around the mat rather than rolling. If you have a floured baker's couche, you can use it as a mat for rolling out the loaves.
I used my hands and the Zyliss Spreader--whichever seemed easier at the time. Flattening is easier using your hands, the spreader is helpful when starting to fold the dough, and rolling has to be done by hand. Fortunately, the dough isn't sticky at this point--if it is, you need to add a little flour to the dough and mat.
Rather than using Julia's technique for rising and moving the dough around, I used a baguette pan as both a rising form and a baking pan--there's no need to touch the dough once it starts the final rise. This was easier, the loaves were better looking, and it was No-Touch. The crust wasn't quite as thick and crispy as my first attempt, but it was still very good.
The dough after the first fold. Although pieces didn't pull off and stick to the mat, the dough stuck enough to pull at the surface. Per Julia, you want to form a "coagulated gluten cloak" on the surface. I added flour for the next flatten-and-roll to minimize disturbing the surface of the dough. Next time, I'll flour the mat before the first flattening.
The rolled out dough is easy to pick up and place in the pan. At this stage, it is somewhat firm and dry due to the folding, rolling, and added flour.
Below are the loaves in the baguette pan which I used as both a rising form and a baking pan. The dough has been touched for the last time. You won't have to touch the risen and fragile dough.
Make the loaves about two inches shorter than the pan--the dough will grow in both length and height. These loaves could have been a little longer and still fit the pan but this was the longest I could roll them out. The final loaves turned out to be a good size: 1-1/2 inches tall and 2-1/2 inches wide.
Cover the dough with a floured cloth and plastic wrap. Next time, I'll try to get the cloth to more closely follow the shape of the loaves. If the cloth had more contact with the bread, the crust may have turned out crisper.
Step 7: Final Rise 2.5 hours or until dough triples
Thirty minutes before this rise is finished, start preheating your oven to 500°. If you're using a baking stone, it may take 45 minutes to bring the stone up to temperature. The stone helps hold the heat under the baguette pan to mitigate the temperature drop when you open the oven door.
Step 8 Unmolding risen dough onto baking sheet.
If you're using a baguette pan, you can skip this stage.
- - In my first attempt, I put the couche with the unrisen dough on the baguette pan. Julia suggests using rolling pins to make a form.
- - At the end of the rise, I lifted the couche off the form.
- - I rolled the risen dough from the couche onto a Silpat baking mat with the intent of lifting the baking mat across the room, into the oven, and directly onto the baking stone. However, the dough was too heavy and the mat too flexible. (Two people grabbing all four corners should work.)
- - After a couple of failed attempts, (which deformed the risen dough), I slid the mat and dough onto an upside down sheet pan and then slid the mat and dough onto the baking stone. In the process the dough became misshapen and deflated--thus the ugly flat loaves. This would have avoided distorting of the loaves.
Step 9 Slashing the top
Step 10 Baking for 25 minutes
On my first attempt, I placed an upside down foil steam table pan over the baking stone in the oven to function like the Dutch oven lid in Jim Lahey's recipe. I lifted the pan and heavily sprayed the loaves every three minutes the first 9 minutes of the bake. That bread had a better crust than this batch--possibly the water spray, possibly rising directly on a floured cloth (baker's clouche).
On this attempt, I made a steam oven by putting one cast-iron griddle on the oven rack above the baking stone, and another cast-iron griddle on the oven rack under the the baking stone. I preheated the oven for 40 minutes. The two squeeze-bottles below were filled with hot tap water. Immediately after placing the baguette pan and bread in the oven, I quickly squirted water onto both hot griddles filling the oven with steam. (I hope all the moisture doesn't cause problems with the oven.)
I lightly sprayed the loaves every three minutes for the first 9 minutes of baking. I also added water to both griddles each time.
I kept the oven at 500° for the first 15 minutes of baking--until the bread was half browned. I turned down the heat to 400°for another 10 minutes.