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Slow Rise And Shine: Bread Made Easy

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By Nancy Baggett
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I grew up in a baking family. As far back as I can remember, I baked with my mother and grandmother, enjoying the creativity, camaraderie and sense of accomplishment that came from turning out cookies, cakes, breads and pies. Later, in my own kitchen, I carried on their traditions, loving the feeling of tranquillity and connectedness to the past, and the extraordinary fresh-from-the-oven aromas and flavors.

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This lifetime of pleasure has convinced me that those who don't bake are truly missing out, so I'm always campaigning to bring others into the fold. Cookies, because they are simple, quick and forgiving, are an easy sell; bread baking is another story.

What with the kneading, worries about the yeast and other muss, fuss and time involved, bread baking is often perceived as too daunting. But I'm excited to report that all the obstacles that deter folks from enjoying one of life's ultimate foods -- breathtakingly fresh home-baked bread -- have evaporated. Anyone can make well-flavored, fine-textured yeast bread easily, conveniently and, so long as the yeast is fresh, completely reliably. As Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up.

One key to the breakthrough is the "highly active," fast-rising yeasts that came on the market in the 1980s. Though originally named and ballyhooed for their leavening speed, the easier-mixing and -handling properties of the new strains are more important. Those characteristics make it possible to eliminate the fussy, tricky "proofing" process, in which old-fashioned cake or dry yeast must be combined with water warm enough to activate it but not so hot as to kill it.

Instead, the modern RapidRise yeast from Fleischmann's and Quick-Rise from Red Star (as well as the yeasts sold for bread machines) can be stirred directly into dry ingredients, then combined with room-temperature or even very cold water. The upshot: Home bakers never risk the fate of my son and daughter-in-law when they tried their first bread -- a pizza dough -- which simply lay there dense and flat because of the untimely demise of the yeast. "The water must have been too hot," my son, David, reported dejectedly. "We kept waiting, hoping the dough was rising a little, but it never did."

The need to knead yeast breads has also put off many home bakers, but now, thanks to a clever method worked out by New York baker Jim Lahey and publicized last fall by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, kneading can be skipped, too. The cook simply stirs together the basic bread components, including a minuscule amount of the fast-rising yeast, then leaves the bowl unattended at cool room temperature for a long, slow rise of 12 to 18 (or sometimes 18 to 24) hours. There's no kneading and only enough stirring to combine the ingredients.

Next, the puffy, highly aerated dough -- with its texture-enhancing gluten somehow magically developed -- is deflated, shaped and set aside for a much shorter (final) rise, then baked. Because the Lahey recipe focuses specifically on creating a very crusty, artisan-style French bakery bread, his method does call for some hand-shaping (and associated kitchen mess), as well as for baking the dough in a heavy, preheated, lidded pot. By simplifying Lahey's approach a bit and adapting a cold-rise technique from Parisian baker Philippe Gosselin (featured in Peter Reinhart's award-winning "The Bread Baker's Apprentice"), I've been able to produce an exceptionally flavorful French boule requiring zero muss or fuss.

I've also adapted the slow-rise, no-knead approach to come up with a variety of excellent and easy home-style breads, including the all-purpose light wheat loaf, cinnamon-raisin bread (great for toast!), butter rolls and hearty caraway-beer loaf. All of these recipes are flexible enough to fit into most work schedules; are completely doable for even novice bread bakers; and require nothing more than a very large bowl, a big, sturdy spoon and a loaf pan, muffin tin or pot for baking. They also offer the convenience option of a shortened second rise for those who wish to finish the dough preparation after work and have fresh bread to serve for dinner.

In traditional bread recipes, kneading is vital because it develops gluten. The pulling-pushing action continuously exposes new flour particles to water, encouraging the formation of the strong, elastic gluten strands that give yeast bread good texture. So, how can kneading just be jettisoned? Actually, kneading is occurring "cell by cell," explains Shirley O. Corriher, an Atlanta-based food chemist whose highly regarded culinary science tome, "CookWise," will be followed by "BakeWise" next year.

"It may not seem like much is happening, but the dough's spongy, airy appearance at the end of the rise is a tip-off," she says. "As the yeast grows and releases carbon dioxide, the mixture bubbles and bounces the gliadin and glutenin proteins around and, eventually, they find each other." She adds that the relatively soft, wet doughs used in most no-knead bread recipes hydrate the yeast cells and the two gluten-forming proteins particularly well, facilitating extra bubbling and the hooking up of the gluten-forming molecules.

Despite their names, RapidRise and Quick-Rise yeasts are actually at their best when employed in a slow rise, which proves that first applications aren't necessarily the best ones. I put these products through a lot of testing when they first appeared and validated that, by loading a recipe with yeast organisms and revving them up with extra-warm rising environments, you can produce a finished loaf in about two hours. But often, there's not enough flavor accompanying the fluff. For the immensely rich, deep, pleasing yeastiness that has made people crazy over homemade bread since time immemorial, at least the first rise must be long and slow. The fact that a long, cool rise also dispatches the kneading is, to mix metaphors, just gravy.

Aaron Clanton, a baking instructor at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan., isn't surprised by my findings. He cites studies showing that a rising environment of 70 degrees or cooler (a slow rise) promotes the development of the acids, alcohols and other components that give yeast bread its enticing flavor and aroma. In contrast, a 105- to 110-degree environment (a fast rise) encourages mostly the production of the carbon dioxide that puffs the dough. "If I'm in a hurry and it's more convenient, I sometimes use a warm second rise to get things finished faster, but a slow first rise is essential for good-tasting bread," Clanton says.

For those who grew up proofing yeast, kneading, hand-shaping and completing the other time-honored steps of traditional yeast baking, the no-knead method may seem clinical and bloodless. I particularly miss the smooth, soothing feel of yeast dough in my hands. But I like not having to clean stubborn bits of dough or a shower of flour off my countertops.

I also love the convenience of starting a dough in just a few spare minutes, then coming back many hours later to find it airy, fragrant, fully kneaded and ready for a second rise. The ability to squeeze yeast baking into my busy schedule and frequently treat myself and my family to the wonderful smell and taste of a fresh loaf definitely makes up for the tactile loss. I always say I'll go back to the old-fashioned way -- just as soon as I can find the time.

Tip: Storing Bread:

Homemade bread must be stored carefully because, lacking preservatives, it stales and molds readily. (Unlike most cheese molds, some bread molds are toxic.) Once the bread has completely cooled, pack it airtight in a resealable plastic food storage bag or wrap it tightly in aluminum foil to prevent moisture loss. Set it in a cool, dry spot, but not in the refrigerator, for up to 2 days. Although refrigeration retards molding, it actually speeds bread staling by causing rapid retrogradation, a process that crystallizes the starch molecules.

To store bread longer than 2 days, freeze it in a heavy-duty/freezer resealable plastic food storage bag for up to 2 months. Some retrogradation will slowly occur, but it can be mostly reversed by wrapping the thawed bread in foil and reheating it in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Refresh individual slices or rolls by wrapping them in a dish towel and microwaving them on 50 percent power for about 30 seconds.

Nancy Baggett's most recent baking book is "The All-American Dessert Book." She can be reached through her Web site,http://www.kitchenlane.com.


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