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There’s a common misconception that making bread takes a lot of work. That’s only true to an extent, as good bread, more than anything, takes time.
If the forearms of a baker are nowhere in your sights, then you can bypass the process of kneading with a no-knead bread technique, swapping the hard work out for time.
Cook like an Italian host, Silvia Colloca, says her trick for making simple no-knead bread is to create a shaggy, wet dough and let it sit overnight on the bench. She then shapes the dough, lets it rise again, and places inside a cast iron pot which then goes into a cold oven turned to high heat. After about 50 minutes, out comes a golden crusty loaf.
But kneading dough by hand has a purpose, creating the strands of gluten that give bread its pleasant chewy texture, and formation of air pockets – so why does this no-knead process work?
The answers lie in the extended resting time. Letting the dough sit for a number of hours allows the gluten to form naturally, and ages the dough creating a pleasant depth of flavour.
"It doesn’t matter how it’s moved, as long as it’s manipulated the moisture will be more evenly distributed."
Owner and founder of BakeClub (and author of the Bakeproof column), Anneka Manning, explains the process of resting dough overnight creates the gluten network in two ways: one by ensuring even hydration of the dough activating the glutenin and gliadin molecules which form the gluten network, and two through the subtle movement caused by carbon dioxide creation, which agitates the dough helping to align the proteins.
“Without that gluten network it’s very hard for the bread to capture and hold the carbon dioxide…. If you don’t knead and leave your bread to proof and rise [for an extended period], that action of the carbon dioxide expanding is a form of manipulation and kneading. It doesn’t matter how it’s moved, as long as it’s manipulated the moisture will be more evenly distributed," she says.
With the no-knead process this all happens overnight, but Manning warns that the correct temperature is key to success
“If it’s mid-winter and you’re in a moderate climate [that’s ok], but if it’s mid-summer in QLD overnight then sitting it on the bench will be too much. Yeast proves between 0.5°C and 54°C. It’s happiest between 25-28°C and a regular dough will double in size in about an hour [at this temperature range], but it will take overnight in the fridge. Above 32°C you run the risk of proving too quickly,” she says.
“When you proof yeast, it’s fermenting by consuming the sugars and the starches in the dough and feeds on that essentially."
“When you proof dough, the yeast is fermenting by consuming the sugars and the starches in the dough, creating carbon dioxide and a little alcohol as a by-product,’ says Manning.
“If dough is left too long to prove, the yeast will continue to ferment and consume the starches around it and there won’t be anything left. It can produce excess alcohol which can make the dough bitter and give the bread an unpleasant brewery-like flavour.”
Some bakers get around this by folding their dough in regular increments during the main stage of proving, known as ‘bulk fermentation’.
“What the folding does is it not only helps the manipulation and hydration of the dough and therefore assists in the development of the gluten network, but it also interrupts that fermentation of the yeast, deflates the dough, reinvigorates the yeast and starts the process again.”
The only bad news is if you overproof at the final stage just before baking it can be detrimental for texture and taste, but mistakes are all part of the learning experience.
“With a no-knead method, you’re going to get variations because the method is so reliant on the temperature you’re proving at. It’s all going to be great. You know it’s homemade and that’s the best thing about it.”
Want to go pro? Find the Bakeproof guide to sourdough here.
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Find Silvia Colloca sharing family secrets from her very own kitchen in the brand-new series Cook Like an Italian on SBS On Demand. Head to the website for recipes, articles, tips and more. Follow the 'like an Italian' series here.