Of No-Knead Bread and Unmitigated Disaster

Edit:  If you don’t want the story or the moral and want to go directly to the successful no-knead bread recipe that I have tested since, go here.  Else, keep reading and enjoy!

Today I will tell you a story with a moral.

Or perhaps even a few of those (morals).  And no pictures.  And no recipe.  No, not today.  You’ll see (or not see, as it may be) in a minute.  But, you do get a moral, which is something I tend to like in my stories – hope you do too.

… Once upon a time, so it came to be that after being largely absent from the blog (and my kitchen) for a while, I figured that I would ease back into cooking after the essay-writing and being somewhat ill with something no more complicated than ordering a pizza or frying a few sausages to eat with a pile of arugula.  Something simple.  Easy.  Something everyone has been saying works, and is oh-so-easy to do – even a four-year-old can do it!

Yes, you’ve guessed it – I have decided to try that no-knead bread that virtually every food blogger wrote about in the past six years or so since it came out.  There are whole websites, with videos, dedicated to this and its apparently utter effortlessness.   So, I thought, this is the ticket – let me make this lazy bread and enjoy the fruit of my [not] labor tomorrow.

Now before I get into this… I have lived in USA.  I own a food scale which measures in metric and in pounds/ounces, and I own a measuring cup with American volume measures too.  Down to 1/4 cup.  And a calculator.  And a brain, too, though sometimes I do feel that might have misplaced it.

I faithfully wrote the recipe down – the version adapted for sourdough starter – and checked it against the original New York Times recipe.  Looked rather close, so I did not worry.  I did as the recipes suggested (and the video demonstrated) – mixed the dry ingredients, then whisked my sourdough starter into the water, and added that to the bowl.  Mixed further.  The dough became sticky and shaggy – and looked remarkably like what the video showed, to boot.  Ok, thought I, I’ve got it made.

But no.  None of the above has, apparently, helped.  Yesterday morning, I happily bounced into the kitchen anticipating carefree bread baking.  I floured my board and scraped the dough… I mean, poured the dough out on it.  It immediately stuck like glue despite my generous flouring (more so than the video demonstrated), and was nowhere near the consistency it would need to be to be stretched, and folded.  I tried to panickedly flour the board some more, scraping the dough off it, and add more flour to my hands, but to no avail.  While I was flailing about, the dough attempted to leak off the board and onto the counter.  That was the final drip (haha), and so after a few feeble attempts to get it to behave, I poured it off the board back into the bowl and contemplated it.  I really do not like throwing away food, and it did look fixable.  And not actually that far off from a really wet-but-possible-to-handle dough.

So I sighed, got out my handheld mixer and dough hooks, and more flour.  In all, I had to add 2.5 ounces (that’s about 90g) of flour before the dough could be handled.  With effort and a lot of flour on surface, hands, and virtually my entire kitchen, I heroically managed a stretch-and-fold, and allowed the dough to rest.  Then I said a quick prayer to the kitchen gods that it would not stick to my well-covered in wheat bran banetton, pre-shaped the dough gently and stuck it into the banetton.  The kitchen gods were, apparently, merciful, or else they were particularly well-disposed to my faithful banetton this day, for it was not ruined.  The dough did not stick.  So I proofed it, preheated my cast-iron pan, and baked it.

It was a total and unmitigated disaster.  The bread looked sort of ok, but once it has cooled and I cut into it, I found a combination of giant (not large, large is good – but giant!) holes and bricky, gluey crumb.  Which left me truly scratching my head and wondering what in the seven hells went wrong with it.  Other than my attempts to fix it by adding more flour later (likely at least a contributing factor), that is.

Having slept on it (well no, on my bed actually – I did end up tossing the bread out, as the results of this failure weren’t even fit to make croutons!), I have decided that I am going to do this again, until I have gotten it right.  Many photos of gorgeous no-knead bread beckon from the google image page, and besides, I am just too damned stubborn to let a recipe defy me in my own kitchen.  And gawdamnit, I am good at baking bread!  I should be able to deal with this touted-for-beginners recipe!  [insert foot stomp here]

So I did some more research, and I think I have pinpointed what went wrong – too little flour in the initial mix (I did follow the instructions, but I guess Swedish water is just a lot more wet *snicker snerk* – another site said that the consistensy should be adjusted if it looks too wet, thank you that first site for not telling me to begin with!), and possibly a too-long fermentation time as well (some authors suggest 12-14 hours, not 18-20, or else a refrigerator overnight – that makes sense to me, my levain usually does rise in about 8-10 hours and this is just a salted version of levain, essentially).  Some more photos of the mixed initial dough suggest it should be more solid.  In short, there will be a rematch, and this time, this time I will master and overcome!

And so the moral of today’s story is this:  Don’t believe all you hear.  This is really rather important, and I normally do follow my advice – shame on me for failing!  And, I really should know better, and remember that it applies to everything, including “trusted” cookbooks.  I’ve been there before.  Trust your gut feeling – if it [whatever it is you are making] looks like it’s too [something] for what it should be, it probably is.  It’s not true just becase you’ve seen it on tv/read it on the internet.

In the words of Arnold the Governator of the State of California, I’ll be Bach.  And next time, no-knead bread, I will return victorious!

24 thoughts on “Of No-Knead Bread and Unmitigated Disaster

  1. Oh no! well at least it got you back into blogging, even if it was a disaster. i’m wondering if it could be an effect of altitude as well? i know that can have a great deal of influence on baking. but without knowing how far above sea level you are not much you can do about that! either way, best of luck with your next try, i’ve still not got round to no knead bread either, mostly because regular bread really isn’t that much more work!

    1. Julian, hi and thanks for visiting!

      I am in Stockholm, so I really don’t think it’s a problem of altitude (the recipe wasn’t written for particularly high ones afaik), but I suspect that it may have had something to do with giving flour in cups instead of weight (which ends up with not always consistent conversions to weight), and not making any commentary regarding the fact that some flour may have much higher moisture level – when a bread recipe is given so borderline on batter-liquidity, in my view it should give a warning to increase flour or decrease water to get the right consistency to begin with.

      I’ve found another version which gives the flour in weight and am now trying again, so we’ll see!

      As to regular bread – I don’t own a stand mixer, but I don’t even find it that much work despite that. My dough hooks on a tiny handheld do the job, and if not, then a few strech-and-folds do. But, I am curious so now I must make it work! Of course, by the time I am done making it work it won’t be the original recipe anymore, but that’s more than half the fun of baking, isn’t it?

      1. exactly! i don’t own any sort of mixer, but bread is one of the few things i feel ok making still. i tend to go by consistency/texture these days since i don’t really measure anything. but it usually turns out alright,

      2. Well, as one of the texts I read about baking bread on the net pointed out, people who have been illiterate and had no scales or any sort of equipment we do now, have, for thousands of years made sourdough bread by eye and consistency. It is forgiving like that. And more or less anything you can make at home is going to be better than most shop-bought stuff by the simple virtue of what you will not be putting in it (even more so than by the virtue of what you will).

  2. Dare I laugh? Heck, …. Wahahahahakakakakakaka!!!! *ahem* sorry but I really would have loved to see all that you’ve described on a video clip. You have the ‘bestest’ way with words and (gosh, it’s the middle of the night here) you’ve really got me in stitches!!
    I’ve been there in the same situation but with something simply stupid like pizza dough. How I’d got it wrong I still have no idea. (I’ve made some pretty good ones since then) :D
    Glad to hear you’re not giving up. Looking forward for you to be Bach, or Mozart or whoever suits your fancy. (Stupid moment here). :P

    1. Yes, yes you dare to laugh! I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when it all went bellyup, but I figure laughing is the better response.

      And while I don’t like throwing away food, at least a bit of flour is not too huge a disaster to throw away – not like ruining a 200sek beef tenderloin or such!

      And of course I’m not giving up, duh! I have another one fermenting as we speak, with slightly different proportions and shorter rise time – I’ll stick it in the fridge overnight I think and bake it sometime tomorrow. We shall see!

      And if I can’t be Bach, I’ll defenitely be Beethoven. ;)

  3. That was brilliant. I wish more bloggers wrote up their disasters – its nice to know that among pages and pages of tastiness that they fail too! I do have a vague memory of making the no knead bread, it didn’t go drippy, I think I made it and decided that, actually, not kneading it was boring and untherapeutic and thus went against the whole purpose of bread-making which is, of course, to vent your rage at the latest person who enraged you by pretending the dough is their head and punching it repeatedly whilst yelling obscenities for a good fifteen odd minutes.

    1. Glad you liked it, and hope you had a good laugh at the expense of the much-abused dough! As to posting about disasters – no one is perfect, and anyone who pretends to be is lying! Ahm.

      As to the no-knead bread, I am curious to see how it works. I am furthermore curious to see what I can learn from this different method. So far it’s been a brilliant learning experience, if a bit lacking in the bread department, but future shall tell.

      Besides, I think this technique (IF it works) could be used to make fantastic cheese bread – lack of kneading ought to make mixing cubed cheese in rather painless. But, it’s got to work first!

      P.S. Yelling obscenities while punching a piece of dough is something I’ve done myself. Though usually when I am calmer, I’m far more disposed to the stretch-and-fold. But… “momma always said there’d be days like these!”

      1. I just made my second no knead sourdough bread fail, so I’ve got you beat! The second one is cooling now so don’t know how it will taste, but it looks more like flatbread. Back to the drawing board, or maybe the kneading board.

      2. Hey!

        If it looks more like flatbread, then I suspect you had the same exact fail as I – too much water. It often happens if you use one of those recipes that gives flour amounts in cups. I tend to try to find the original in grams or oz, because flour weights don’t lie – while flour volume can vary hugely between cup and cup.

        Feel free to prod me if you have questions and good luck!

  4. Hi
    I have just had exactly the same problem, and its nice to know its not just me.
    Like you I followed the recipe this time for a part wholemeal version that called for 300g bread flour, 100g wholemeal flour, 300ml water, 1/4 teaspoon yeast and 1.25 tsp salt and after mixing it all I was really happy with how it went last night. However I got up this morning to a goo that stuck to everything and wouldn’t hold it’s shape for anything and the smell in my kitchen was like a brewery. I didn’t leave it too long and I know it wasn’t anything to do with heat or altitude as we are only 200 feet above sea level plus it is winter and it snowed last night so my kitchen was like a fridge when I got up.
    Like you I couldn’t handle it at all as it was at pouring consistency so I tried my own version of a resurrection.
    I am new to bread making and have had the most success following the Richard Bertinet method of kneading and as that works well with high hydration mixes I though I would try a little slap and fold and see if I could bring it together that way. Initially I seemed to be getting somewhere but the moment I stopped working it would start to fall apart and stick to everything once again. I tried adding a little of flour but that didn’t work either so after a frustrating and totally unsuccessful hour or so it was back to the Internet and look for a solution there but to little avail.
    However when I did a search about the strong smell in the kitchen a few people suggested the yeast may have eaten all of the nutrients and some suggested you should add more yeast but no one said how much so I added 1/8 teaspoon of instant yeast and worked it a bit more with another couple of pinches of flour and more slap and fold to mix it all in. A lot more effort on my part and finally it started to come together so it’s currently sitting in a bowl proving, it’s been about 45 minutes and at least it is rising.
    Alas I don’t have the experience to know what I should do next – should I treat it like one of Richards mixes and fold it, let it rise again shape and cook in a bread pan or should I continue treating it as a no knead bread despite all my work and simply shape and cook it in a Dutch oven – I really don’t know!
    But the way things have gone with this bread I don’t hold out much hope for it producing anything remotely edible so I may just go for broke and cook it in the Dutch oven anyway, if I do I will report back and let you know what happened but your morel of the story is true you just can’t believe what you read especially on the Internet the recipe I used came from a so called ‘expert’
    I can add another moral to that through as this has taught me one thing it is that if you have a recipe that works stick to it and save experiments for when you can afford to throw away the results of all your efforts

    1. Rita, hi and thank you for sharing your story!

      If you would like advice, I’d say bake what you have or toss it, and start over with a lower hydration. I have actually had success after lowering the hydration as advised by another bread aficionado – try this one if you like and see if this works better for you!

      Good luck and please do let me know how your experimentation worked out!

      1. Hi Veronika
        Well I cooked it and while it looked pretty awful I was suprised that it didn’t taste as bad as it looked which was most unexpected.

        The addition of a pinch of yeast( approx 1/8th teaspoon) , one or two light sprinkles of all purpose flour and far too much stretching and folding did the trick as far as producing a dough that at least finally came and stayed together; it was still rather wet but at least it looked and felt more like dough.

        It rose beautifully the first time round but I think my next mistake was patting it down, forming it as a round and after a second rise cooking it in my dutch oven since it didn’t rise as much the second time round and what came out of the oven was nothing more than a brown cooked version of what went into the oven.

        However I was loathe to throw all that hard work into the bin so I let it cool down and to my total surprise it doesn’t taste at all bad

        The crust is crisp and crunchy but the surprise was the crumb which is really nice – what a shock.

        Hats off to Richard Bertinet his slap and fold techinque really does make for a light airy and tasty crumb. It isnt quite as light as my regular white version but it wasn’t heavy either nor is it dense and that was so unexpected because I worked it for hours so it had to be completely overdone.

        At the moment I will stick to my slap and fold style loaves during the week as its the end of the year and I should be working on my accounts but next weekend I will have another go at making one of the no knead varieties as I have no intention of letting it beat me so I might try your receipe then but one question how do you make a sour dough starter. I keep reading recipes that call for adding one but I have no idea how to make one and its not something you can just go out and buy in the UK.

      2. Hi again!

        Great to hear that you didn’t have to throw the bread away – you have more fortitude to go on with things that aren’t working out than I do, it appears!

        Regarding sourdough starter – I wrote a primer on how to make it here. If you have any questions, by all means leave me a note and I’ll try to answer them!


      3. Hi Veronika
        Thank you, the fortitude comes from necessity and a general lack of funds thats part of how I got into making my own bread in the first place as my weekly shop was getting far too expensive and I needed to find ways to reduce my expenditure.

        Your instructions for making the starter are very interesting but there does appears to be quite a lot to it and I would have to buy in things like the pineapple juice, Rye Flour, live yogurt etc as they are not on my regular shopping list so that would mean extra expense.

        At the moment I run a small business so I am very limited for time or money; I am in the craft industry and the string of recessions has really hit hard so I have to put in lot of hours trying to earn any income and get very little in return. If things ever improve and I don’t have to spend so much time desparately trying to break even I will have more time for my bread making and I will be able to experimentfurther but for now at least I think I will have to stick to making two to three sandwich loaves with the ingredients I already have at the weekends and freezing two so that hubby has bread for his daily sandwiches.

        I am in my 60’s and if things don’t pick up on the business front I will be retiring pretty soon anyway which will give me more time for experimentation; mind you whether I will be able to afford to do much on a state pension of just £130 a week (approx $200) remains to be seen.

        Thanks for all your help and advice I will watch out for your other posts as they make very interesting reading.

        Best regards Rita

      4. Rita, hi!

        Thank you for writing and sorry for the slow reply!

        In case you are concerned about costs, you should realize that the yogurt and pineapple juice aren’t necessary – they are troubleshooting tools. All you really need is flour and water, and a jar. Lactobacilli live everywhere in our kitchens, so it is not a necessity to introduce them specifically – and the yeasts should come from the flour itself. Also, if you really worry about the acidity, you can add a little bit of orange juice instead of the pineapple – while it’s less reliable, it also supposedly works.

        Best of luck with your business! Do you have a website for it?


      5. Hi Yes
        http://www.woodlandteddies.com but since it has nothing to do with bread I didnt include it.
        I make animals for collectors and do everything by hand but unfortunetely people either dont understand what is involved or just dont want or cant afford to pay for the time it takes to hand make things in the current economic climate.
        I design everything myself and while I can make the more basic animals in 3-4 days my most detailed creations can require in excess of six weeks to hard dye and put together.

        Take a look at Evenstar my Rainbow Bear http://woodlandteddies.com/catmenu.htm
        Sherbert http://woodlandteddies.com/catmenu.htm my Brown Cat or
        Archie http://woodlandteddies.com/Archie.htm my Cairn Terrier
        The raw materials to make one of those can cost more than £150 and I have to add something to cover six weeks work so they are not like the cheap mass produced animals you see everywhere. aIn addition they are make the way bears were first created over 100 years ago so the components mean they are not the sort of thing you would buy for a child so they are only made for adult collectors which limits the market, that said I never had trouble selling them but then the banks screwed everyone, the world fell into recession and as the saying goes the rest is history.
        All the same I appreciate your interest.

      6. If you’re making bread already you could always just keep a bit of it back to use as a starter for your next loaves.

      7. Jules, hi and thanks for stopping by and commenting!

        And while you can use bits of old bread dough as starters for new sponge, it won’t actually be real sourdough, since the yeast in it will be the wrong species and it will lack the lactobacilli and acetobacteria cultures.

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