In last week's Curious Cook column I wrote about the recent rise of minimal-work, maximal-moisture bread making, which seems to been instigated in late 2006 by Mark Bittman's description of the no-knead, bake-in-a-hot-pot method developed by New York baker Jim Lahey.
There's nothing new about labor-saving bread books.
In my testing, the current crop of minimal-work bread recipes is a mixed bag. Wet doughs are quick and easy to mix but also tend to produce wet, heavy loaves unless they're baked into relatively flat focaccias and ciabattas. Large doses of yeast that raise the dough quickly also give it a harsh flavor that obliterates the taste of the grain, unless there's plenty of whole-grain flour in the mix.
The Lahey method remains a standout. It calls for a small amount of yeast, a moderately wet dough stirred together, 18 unsupervised hours for the yeast to raise the dough, and baking the dough in a preheated covered pot, which traps steam from the dough's moisture and produces a good oven spring and an open-textured loaf. It also calls for enough salt to make a flavorful loaf. I found a number of the new wet breads to be undersalted and bland.
For this column I consulted with Michel Suas, founder and director of the San Francisco Baking Institute, which is devoted to artisan bread making. Mr. Suas recommended looking for recipes that call for small amounts of yeast, doughs made with a proportion of water no more than 75% the flour weight, and salt at 2% of the flour weight.
He and instructor Frank Sally also showed me how they had outfitted a cheap electric oven for home bread baking, and demonstrated just how well it works with a 68% hydration dough formed into elongated batards.
Two of the oven's racks support inch-thick concrete slabs, for baking on and for absorbing high oven heat and releasing it evenly. To produce a strong blast of steam at the beginning of baking, Mr. Suas had filled a large cast iron frying pan with dozens of inch-diameter ball bearings--he suggested a length of heavy steel chain as an alternative--so that the pan and its contents weighed about 20 pounds. He placed it on the oven floor, and preheated the oven, the pan, and the concrete to 550°F, the oven's maximum. He had also prepared a thin steel pie plate by punching a number of small holes in it, and now filled it with ice cubes.
Once the bread was loaded into the oven, Mr. Suas placed the pie plate on top of the ball bearings and closed the oven door. When the ice began to melt and drip through the holes onto the large hot surface area of ball bearings, it turned into steam, accelerating the melting of the rest of the ice and its vaporization. The result was an audible roar, steam escaping through oven cracks and crevices, and 30 minutes later, superbly light and crusty loaves.
Mr. Suas and the SFBI have published a comprehensive book on baking, Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach (2008).