Simple, No Knead Bread

I love baking bread – from scratch and by hand.  I grew up  with an artistic father (30 years in photo journalism in Chicago with half that covering Food and Fashion around the world) who developed a deep love of bread baking when I was young and had the distinct pleasure of watching him create incredible loaves -everything from a rich pungent potato bread (still my favorite) to zesty and fun pizza loaves.  It took a surprising amount of will to actually begin making bread myself several years ago – somehow it was always “Dad’s” thing.  And then there was the real fear of botching it.   Strange how such a simple and ancient thing -something that has been a part of human history since the dawn of agriculture- has become so mysterious and  aloof.  For years I have made bread following either James Beard’s (Beard on Bread) and especially Daniel Leader’s (Bread Alone) advice and have made some incredible creations with their help.  But (the new) “Dad’s” bread is still a luxury, with much of our sandwich bread coming from the store.  Leader’s artisan recipes can take literally days to make -and are worth it!- but with all the irons I have in the fire it is unusual if I make more than a loaf a month.   I believe that the simpler, or whole, the food the higher the food value.  Even organic breads have unpronounceable ingredients, and there are no local bakeries here in rural Jefferson County.  Last year I had experimented with the NY Times No Knead Bread as a means to make bread more expeditiously and was impressed but had fallen out of habit.  With the cost cutting measures as we tighten our belts I started making it again.  All home bread is cheaper (between $1-2/loaf) than store bought organic whole grains ($4-7) and it super fun to make with kids.

Yesterday was my true test.  Could I make a bold, light loaf of “artisan” bread while working a 13 hour day?  Yep!  If you read the recipe you will notice that the first steps take under 5 minutes.  I did it while the coffee brewed.   I wake up at 3:30 to allow me to get to work by 5am and I like to read a bit to settle my mind prior to work (my coworkers think I am insane – which may be true).  That means that I can let the dough rise for over 14 hours by the time I am home again and settled.  Step 3 entails scraping the now incedibly light and risen “sponge” onto a floured counter and kneading it about 30 seconds to deflate it and to form a ball.  My 7 yr old did it last night.  Then let it “proof” for 2 hours and 90 minutes in heat the oven to 450 degrees.  Yes that hot!

Here is the kicker that keeps alot of people from making the No Knead Bread – you need a dutch oven.  You can use a pyrex or cornell caserole pot too, it just needs to be covered and be able to withstand 450 F.  I spent $45 on a Lodge Enamel Cast Iron dutch oven I didn’t get the top of the line which meant I had to take off the plastic lid knob (only good to 400 degrees?!) and make one myself out of some bolts and washers.  It works great and makes a wicked chili too.

Put the Dutch Oven into the real oven while you preheat it to 450.  When the dough is ready just remove the D.Oven (use THICK mits!) and flop the dough in “crease” side up.  Cover the D.Oven again and return it to he oven and finish cooking per the recipe.  My D. Oven is rather large (6 Qts), so I get deeper loaves by doubling the NY recipe and adding 7-10 minutes to the covered cooking time.

Results?  This is what is possible while also working 13 hours or doing whatever:

bread-resize

In the pot:

breadwpan-resize1

texture-reseizeThe greatest thing about the No Knead Bread is that you can keep the dough INCREDIBLY light because you do not need to ad too much flour to make it “workable”.  That means that the texture, or “crumb” is very airy.  This is more like a white flour sourdough than the 50% wheat flour mix it really is.  Makes fabulous toast and pairs well with potato soups.  

I am still in disbelief that bread of this quality, flavor, and nutrition (no fat!) is possible while also working long days and making dinners from scratch.  And the kicker is that almost every loaf turns out this well – the typical variables like kneading vigor and having to rigorously follow the timelines of letting various rising stages of traditional bread are not present in this recipe.  It is really this simple.

I was a skeptic years ago, and then I watched this video and became enough of a believer that I bought a $50 pot.  It works.  Its incredily easy.  Its uber cheap (ROI is like 12 loaves).  And oh, the FLAVOR!  Not to mention the nutrition -add some flax meal for Omega’s, throw in some wheat germ for protein, and experiment with whole wheat, rye, amaranth, and quinoa (just reduce the flour = to what you add), dashes of herbs add flavor and depth.  Your family will be better for it!

You can do this.  Start it the night before on a Friday and have fresh bread for an incredible lunch with soup on Saturday.  

Enjoy!!

-Rob

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Eco Vegetarianism Part IV: To Veg or not to Veg

So if you have followed the previous several posts you will be aware that I am struggling with my former belief that eating local organic vegetables was the most ecological way to receive sustenance. I no longer think that is true. Perennial pastures build soil fertility, lock carbon in the soil, and grass fed meat can be raised with virtually no petroleum inputs. But I also think that the difference between eating whole, local produce exclusively and getting a percentage of your calories from grass fed meat is very small. If I had to make an unscientific spectrum from least ecological to most, I would have CAFO meat (and if it doesn’t say 100% Grass Fed-it’s almost certainly spent at least some time in a CAFO) and processed foods (if you have to open it- it counts [processing adds another factor of 10 to the embodied energy]), then imported fruits (typically flown in), to processed organic foods, then a huge jump up in eco-friendliness to regional Organic Produce in season, local produce, then local organic foods and finishing with Grass Fed Meats. Further more, raising animals on an integrated farm actually makes local organic produce more ecological by producing the fertilizer on site. Plus animals add enough profitability to actually make a livable farm-only income feasible for a thrifty family. Sustaining a populated rural countryside is very important for biodiversity and our ability to produce our own food as a nation. Supporting these enterprises is a patriotic as well as ecological act.

But here is the kicker. I am still a vegetarian. The largest reason is that, for cattle and hogs at least, there simply are no humane slaughterhouses. Because the USDA and FDA mandate that their must be an inspector in each facility, and those inspectors are expensive, only the big One Size Fits All slaughterhouses can run. Guess who sets the ethical standards for these facilities? McDonald’s. No, I am not kidding. In an effort to forestall PEDA, they have set some ‘minimum’ standards:

Potentially graphic content warning-but if you want to eat meat you need to know this: Readers of Michael Pollan will find this familiar. When the cows are led into the slaughterhouse, they are sent through a chute that has them enter single file. Each cow is then killed by a piston shot into their forehead. When it works, it really isn’t too bad a way to go in my book: brain dead within seconds. But the piston misses. A lot. Because of McDonald’s there are now inspectors watching as the now dead cows are strung up for processing. It is typical that they shake around as their nerves fire, but these are not still alive. However, some of the cows will be visibly trying to get upright again. Those cows aren’t even stunned and they head in to the processing, which starts with skinning, very much alive. McDonald’s standards are maximum 5% still alive. That is about 1 out every 20 cows, and I refuse to support that industry. Though I do not find eating meat immoral, I find immense problems with torturing animals in our care. Therefore I do not eat beef.

Chickens are not as regulated and it is feasible to find local grass fed chicken. I can think of three farms off the top of my head within 10 miles where I could drive up to their door and buy a humanely slaughtered chicken. So why am I not doing it? Frankly, I am not sure if even I know why. Perhaps after all these years I find animal carcasses distasteful. Perhaps I am lying to myself and I do have an ethical issue with eating meat. Maybe it is just culinary inertia. But I do think that there is enough reason that given our current situation we have the means to eat vegetarian so we will continue to do so. I guess it is best summed up that I can think of no reason to start eating meat in our current lives. I also know that if we move out onto a farmette, we will need to keep animals to build soil fertility. At that point I will eat meat-animals will be necessary in our lives and I will personally be able to oversee their ends ensuring a quick, clean death solving most of my concerns. This is still untidy in my mind, which bothers me, but that is where I am right now.

Hopefully this has helped some in their quest for more ecological eating, or at the least spread some knowledge on sustainable agriculture. Those interested in further reading on that topic can check out:
Gene Logdson’s The Contrary Farmer and All Flesh is Grass. Gene is a cool guy.
Joel Salatin’s books are designed for those wanting to farm, but he is a blast to read.
Periodicals to check out include Acre’s USA, and the Stockman Grass Farmer

And those interested in ethical eating shold check out Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book is great, but he gives Whole Foods a raw deal.

Remember-eating is a political, ethical, and ecological act.
Be the Change.

We are what we eat.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Mia and I are making a concerted effort to reduce our ecological footprint. Going back to when we lived in Iowa City in ’97 we started shopping at The Co-op and started to eat more natural foods. This is also when I first started toying with seasonal vegetarianism (Ever the contrarian, I took summers off to grill brats…) at Mia’s urging. As we matured and read more we shifted to more and more organic foods, and with the birth of our son almost 5 years ago we switched to virtually 100% organic. At first it was stunningly more expensive-but at that time we were still trying to eat the same, just organically. That meant lots of organic packaged and frozen foods, and that meant we had the double whammy of paying for the convienence-and for the organic premium. When we switched to vegetarianism that helped, as did driving out to Whole Foods which had significantly lower prices than the urban markets and the organic foods sections of traditional grocers.

But the main reason Organic is considered more expensive is, well, because it is. Organic Red Peppers are about $4.50/lb. Organic Milk is a little over $5/gallon. Both are easily double their conventional equivalent. I have no problem with that because I know I am not forcing future generations to foot the other half of my bill in soil erosion, cancer epidemics, and collapsed local economies. When some of our friends once asked what charities we give to-we replied “we buy organic foods”. That covers everything from supporting biodiversity to water quality to farmer direct subsidies in domestic Fair Trade pricing. And frankly it is worth every penny.

But that begs the question that Organic really is more expensive lending it to attacks of it being elitist. Before my career took off it was hard to find the money. Or was it? At the time it felt that way-but we found another $50/month for Internet service. Oh and then there was the other $50 for the cell phone. We’ve never had cable, but 90% of Americans do. Chalk up another $75/mo. Don’t get me started on the latte’s. In fact Americans use significantly less of a percentage of their income on food (about 10%) than any other country in the world (15% in Australia, Mexico is about 25%, India a whopping 50%) and half the amount we paid even just 50 years ago. And that is with real wages flat for over 30 years. Basically it comes down to choices. Why is it that we will pay for wuality in our clothes, our cars, our computers, schools, well just about anything, but when it comes to our food we almost invariably side with price as the leading issue on whether or not we’ll purchase it? My, and my parents, generations were raised on incredibly low cost food driven primarily from the shift in Farm Subsidy theory in the 70’s from trying to maintain prices to protect farmers, to trying to drive prices down to protect Big Business in the name of the consumer. The Result? The 99 cent double cheeseburger at Wendy’s, and the death of the small scale American Farm. Adding about $50 to my weekly bill seemed like a very fair trade for helping out my kids, and without cable I am still ahead of the game.

Earlier I mentioned that we were still trying to ‘eat the same’. When we switched from eating a lot of meat to almost none (we won’t make a scene if we’re served chicken at a dinner party) we modified how we ate. If we went from Meat and Potatoes to just Potatoes we’d be malnourished wrecks by now. Of course we studied up on building complete proteins (it’s not hard-add a legume to a whole grain at meals, eat dairy and dark green veggies [veganism is a whole different story]) and spent more thought on our meal planning-especially when raising healthy vegetarian infants. So if we changed our eating habits when we went Veg, it (now) seems odd that when we switched to Organic it took so long to switch to eating whole foods: those you have to prepare instead of open.

Now let it be said that my wife is a fantastic cook and I am spoiled rotten-we weren’t living on TV dinners and microwave popcorn before! But over the past 6 months or so (almost exactly the amount of time I have had my Insight…hmmm) we have made a concerted effort to prepare more of our own food from scratch. I started baking bread-kneading it by hand and making amazing pancakes from scratch each week with the kids. At the time I was looking for hobbies to fill in for my autoracing after I sold my sports car, but it had a huge impact on our psyche. In truth it goes back farther… to the end of last summer when we had more garden veggies than we knew what to do with (plant 4 zucchini plants at your own peril!) and Mia outdid herself in her succesful quest to let None Go to Waste, and to the summer before that when we subscribed to a CSA which pushed our culinary paradigms with its diversity.

Last month we found Good Harvest and for a variety of reasons chose that moment to switch to buying more bulk, and getting our milk from Crystal Ball Farms, one of the only dairies rated by the Cornucopia Institute at 5 Cows. Crystal Ball sells their milk in reusable glass bottles that you must return for your $1.50/bottle deposit and it is wicked good: I liken it to the the magnitude of the shift in flavor as we got from going from conventional to Organic milk. So we now buy very little that is ‘ready to eat’, instead buying bulk flour, pasta, rice and couscous, seasonal veggies and fruits (only enough to augment the garden), Tempe instead of Quorn, and steel rolled oats instead of organic cereals.

And a funny thing happened… we cut $50 off our grocery budget the first week and have sustained it ever since. I would put our weekly, 100% Organic bill up against almost anyone’s conventional, processed bill for a family of 4. Sure Milk is still $6 gallon (Crystal Ball is the BMW of dairy), but 2lbs of steel rolled oats are like $1.25 and make 3 weeks worth of breakfast, that much organic cereal would be $27. Organic isn’t elitist unless you want your Cake (convienence) and to eat it too (chem free). This is simple economics and there are no free lunches; something has to give. You either get convienent and cheap (while burning up soil fertility and poison our water supply), convienent and expensive (‘best ‘of both), or slow and wholesome, which I maintian is the best of all. Granted, plain oats are rough fare-but throw in a healthy quantity of seasonal fruit (raspberries, apples, strawberries) picked fresh from the garden, add a tsp of vanilla and some sugar and salt and its delicious for pennies a bowl. Good Harvest also has great bulk items-even eggs. For the excruciating pain of putting the eggs into a carton yourself you save over $1/dozen. Organic Peppers may be $5/lb-but only when you try to buy them out of season and get them shipped in from Chile without chemicals and waxes to keep them ‘fresh’. The ones from my garden cost about $0.20 per plant, that is about $0.02 per pepper for higher quality. Now that they are seasonal in the stores the price is halved so even city folk can save money shopping the seasons. Conclusion-Going Organic need not be more expensive-just go Whole Hawg and make a lifestyle switch to Slow Food and reap the numerous benefits both budgetary and ecological. Organic isn’t elitist unless your priorities are on speed.

How far this will take us remains to be seen. When we were at Prairie Dock Farm this week, Greg asked if we had any interest in joining his Dairy Coop-seems that he wants to get a cow next year, not to sell the milk but just for his family. But they don’t need 30 gallons of milk, nor do they want to have to milk it twice a day every day. So he is looking for about 10 families to ‘buy in’ on the cow, each taking a milking time along with all the milk they can glean from ol’ Bossy for the price of 1/10 of a heifer (about $150-200). 2-3 gallons of whole milk would meet our milk needs and let us make our own yogurt and perhaps even some soft cheeses. That just on milk alone could save us $15/wk, meaning a stake would pay itself off in under 3 months. If we made our own yogurt, figure another $10/wk. Add in the benefits of uber local (4 miles) milk and total ownership of its supply chain (hybrid or bike distribution network!), and the only down side is some nebulous concerns over food safety (one raw milk outbreak every 2-3 years despite tens of thousands drinking it daily-that is about the same as the number of people getting samonela from buffet lines) But especially with our kids still under 5 we will research this in a very real way.

This decision is still at least 6 months out so look for updates on my Raw Milk Rsch Project-and knowing that some of my readers drink their own raw milk I would love some insights on risk management.

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