13 January 2010
The Magic of Baking
A couple years ago, Mark Bittman from the NY Times ran an article about "no-knead" bread featuring Jim Lahey, creator of Sullivan St. Bakery. Lahey claimed he created a revolutionary method for baking bread at home. Every time I teach a baking class, someone asks me what I think about this concept. I often tell the students that I think it's cleaver but not revolutionary. For thousands of years, this is how bread has been made in Europe. Lahey uses a Dutch oven, the French use a cloche (a bell shaped clay pot that traps steam). Then I did what I never thought I would do...I ordered Jim Lahey's new book, My Bread.
My grandmother bought me a Dutch oven for Christmas. It was the only thing I really wanted. I've never owned one and I often wish I had one for making stews and such. Along with Lahey's technique, I do not find crock pots revolutionary. I see them as one more thing to find a storage space for. My Dad is the crock pot king (when he's not making kebabs on the grill). He can't understand why I don't have one. Any self respecting cook should own a crock pot, right? I love slow cooking but I use the oven to roast or the stove top to stew. Why add one more thing to my already crammed kitchen? That being said, I am willing to add the Dutch oven because it serves multiple purposes. It works as a pot for the stove, a pan for the oven, a really heavy brick when you need to press something flat, a torture device (have you seen the inside lid of the Lodge brand pot?)...
While I was relaxing at my grandmother's house in Maryland, I read Jim Lahey's book cover to cover. There are two big ideas in My Bread. First, it is centered around the use of the Dutch oven as a vessel to bake bread. The pot can hold the high temperatures needed to bake crusty bread and it traps the steam naturally released by the dough during the baking process. Second, the "no-knead" technique is explained. Basically, the ingredients are stirred together, not mixed, in a bowl. 12-18 hours later the mixture is turned out onto the table, folded and roughly shaped into a boule. This rests for another hour or two and is then turned into the pre-heated pot and baked. While the flour and water are getting friendly, the long fermentation time allows the gluten molecules to find each other and join together. This is creating the gluten network that kneading the dough or mixing on a machine would. Lahey believes letting time do the work creates more flavor and greater texture in the final product.
Not only did I read the book, I followed his basic recipe and I did another unthinkable...I baked bread at home. I never bake bread at home because I know it won't be the same as the bread I bake in a steam injected, stone deck oven. Here comes the revolution: The boule I pulled from the pot, nearly a day after starting the process, was incredible. The crumb was open and airy. The crust was thin and crisp. I'm sold! Though what Jim Lahey is preaching may have been done before (and he is quick to say this in his book), the revolution comes from the idea that great bread is now accessible for the home baker. Yes, I know the history of baking and how the modern technology came to be but I went to school for this and it is my business to know this. Lahey brought these ideas down to an undertandable, easy to grasp level. Baking his bread was so easy. Around 7pm, I dumped the ingredients into the bowl and gently combined them with my hands. The next morning, I turned the mix out and did the folding described in the book. I let the dough rise, baked it and would have had a nice specimen to go with dinner but it didn't last that long. I couldn't get over how great the outcome was and I ate the whole loaf.
Where's the magic? I see Jim Lahey's technique as revolutionary not because of the way he is baking bread but because of the way he has gotten people into baking. Millions read Bittman's article and they tried the recipe at home. It is one of the most downloaded articles in NY Times history. Jim Lahey did for baking what J.K. Rowling did for reading. Sure Harry Potter is just another fantasy series. There are lots of critics that say some older series books, like the Tolkien trilogy, are much better. They say there is nothing revolutionary about her books. The only reason I am mentioning Rowling is because I have been a huge Potter fan since day one. I'm one of the nutty adults who stood in line at midnight, with all the kids, when a new book was released. I cried when Dumbledore died. That is all to say that I always defend the books not because I believe in the stories but because I believe Rowling single-handedly got kids reading again. The video game generation suddenly began to pick up books.
Jim Lahey is single-handedly getting a generation of fast food, microwave junkies to get back to the basics and to bake bread at home. He has made it so easy that people who have always been afraid to bake are trying his method and they are getting great results. As soon as my bread came out of the oven, my mind quickly jumped to J.K. Rowling. The only difference is, I saw her vision from the begining. It took reading Lahey's book and trying his formula but now I see his vision too.