Just about every sustainability magazine on the planet, much less the food ones seems obsessed with no-knead breads. No-knead is trumpeted by everyone on the planet as the easy, awesome way to make bread, the thing that will convert non-bread makers into converts. Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t really have a dog in this hunt – I’m certainly not opposed to no-knead, but I don’t see it as the miracle that some do.
I’ve had some utterly delicious no-knead breads. I don’t think they are bad - Kate at Living the Frugal Life demonstrated a lovely recipe that I’ve enjoyed a number of times. I particularly like the crust. I also have come to like this recipe with chocolate chunks instead of olives quite a lot. I just didn’t see why we were fetishizing not kneading.
You see, the most amazing part of no-knead bread is the crust, and the crust itself isn’t a product of not kneading – it comes from being baked in an enclosed dutch oven which traps the steam inside. You can get exactly the same results with just about any bread recipe by baking it in a pre-heated cast iron or enamel dutch oven.
The other part of the technique that is somewhat different chemically in no-knead is that the wetter doughs of no-knead bread allow for a particular crumb texture with lots of holes. I find I get pretty similar results using a sponge or pre-ferment with sourdough or yeast kneaded doughs, though. If you want a wet dough, using a mixer or no-knead techniques will be necessary, since most of us won’t enjoy the sensory experience of kneading really wet doughs by hand.
As for the rest, honestly, I don’t find no-knead bread to be any faster than kneaded bread to make – yes, you skip the kneading, but there are more total steps. Nor do I find them on average any tastier than good kneaded bread. What bothers me a little is the implicit statement that kneading is aweful -I don’t hate kneading bread, in fact, I rather like it. I t doesn’t take long, it isn’t hard and I find it satisfying. Now I can certainly imagine that for those with arthritis or other physical difficulties, no-knead bread is a godsend, but I admit, I’m a little mystified generally about why everyone is so passionate about it. You’d think kneading was like splitting locust chunks from the hype “NOW you can actually make bread!” Really? Was the saved 2 minutes and not having to punch some dough what was stopping most people?
I don’t really begrudge it – I suspect that no-knead bread has been a great advertisement for making bread. You take something people imagine is hard, and take out the part that people imagine is hard, and poof, people get excited about bread. And many of the breads are very good. I do hope, however, that kneadless breads will lead others to experiment with kneaded breads which can produce different textures and flavors. There are a lot of kinds of bread out there.
I also hope that people who find long-rise breads inconvenient will realize there are kneaded breads out there that can really move the process along – no knead bread is simple in one respect, but if you are out of bread at 4pm and want it for breakfast the next day, other techniques are more useful. If you are baking bread for a crowd, well, I can bake one huge loaf in my biggest cast iron dutch oven (I have the biggest size Lodge makes), but I can bake MORE loaves and MORE total bread in bread pans or on cookie sheets – which is useful for my family of six if I don’t want to bake as often (as in the warm weather). Making maximum use of oven space generally won’t lead to no-knead techniques for me.
For me the impetus to learn to make decent bread was pretty simple – 4 bucks a loaf for local artisanal bread xs the 10 loaves of bread my family can eat in a week (including four Challot) as toast, sandwiches, snacks, french toast, bread pudding, etc… I don’t think we need to spend $40 a week on bread when I can produce the same amount of high quality for about $4 in ingredients.
I have no quarrel with anyone who has found this to be a great way to make bread – it can produce fabulous results. What bothers me a little bit is that it seems to do so by buying into some of the more troubling cultural assumptions – basic cooking is hard, faster is always better, labor saving techniques/devices always result in labor saving, etc… Much as many “labor saving” devices implicitly teach us to assume that the work was too hard before, so does the emphasis on “no-knead” imply that kneading bread was necessarily onerous and should be eliminated.
Add in that no-knead doesn’t necessarily save energy for everyone (depending on how you are cooking and how many loaves you might need) or give the best results for every kind of bread you might want to make, and it does bother me a bit.
If no-knead bread really results in people recognizing how good homemade bread is, and encouraging people who can’t buy local or afford local artisan bread to make their own, awesome. I just worry that the whole idea that kneading is bad will prevent people from seeing that there are a lot of good ways to make good bread, and that bread ultimately is adaptable – this is one useful adaptation, it just isn’t the only one.