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What I've Learned
Back in 2009, I wrote several columns documenting my experiments with no-knead bread. The method involved mixing flour, yeast, salt, sugar, powdered milk, oil, and water, then instead of kneading the resulting dough, simply setting it aside for five or six hours, letting time bring out the gluten.
I also wrote about baking no-knead bread in a slow cooker.
Since then – not because of my columns – baking bread in a slow cooker has become popular, as has no-knead bread.
You can spend five minutes mixing the ingredients, then have fresh-baked bread not once, but four times a week. That's a big payoff for so little effort.
If you require gluten-free bread, don't despair. There are gluten-free recipes that will work using this method.
It works like this. You mix your ingredients – a typical recipe calls for 3 cups lukewarm water, 1 tablespoon granulated yeast, 1 tablespoons salt, and 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour – put it in a large, lidded container with the lid not on tight, and let it sit for two hours.
Some people who do this regularly, drill a small hole in the lid to let gases escape. I just leave one corner of the lid of the plastic container up a bit, rather than snapping the whole thing down tight.
The five minutes it takes to mix the ingredients will yield four pounds of dough, enough for four one-pound loaves.
After two hours, the dough will have risen significantly, so make sure you use a large container. Don't punch the dough down.
If you can't wait, jump ahead and bake it now. However, it will taste better and be easier to work with if the dough is chilled, so put the container in the fridge over night. The dough will collapse on its own. That's okay.
The next day, take the container out, sprinkle a little flour on top, reach in, grab some dough, and pull. The dough will stretch upward. With a pair of scissors, snip off a sizable chunk. You want about a pound or one quarter of the dough. If in doubt about how much you need, use a scale to weigh it.
A short disclaimer is necessary for this next part. Some slow cookers (crock pots) require there to be liquid in them or else the crock will crack. Check your model to see if this is the case. With ours, this is not so. We've cooked chicken breasts, we've cooked foil-wrapped potatoes, we've cooked all sorts of things with no liquid and had no problems.
If your slow cooker requires liquid, you can bake your loaf in a bread pan in a conventional oven. If, however, your slow cooker does not require liquid, rejoice. You are only an hour away from fresh bread.
Form the cold dough in to a rounded loaf, set it on a piece of parchment paper, and lower it – parchment and all – into the slow cooker. Put the lid on and turn the cooker on high. Different models cook at different rates, so after 45 minutes, you might want to start checking the bread. You won't be able to tell by color, because the bread won't brown on top. You will need to gently poke the top with a finger. If it feels firm, not mushy, the bread is done.
The bread is not going to fill the crock pot. It's going to be a small, rounded loaf. Like all bread, it will slice better when cool. But like all bread, it's hard to resist when hot.
The bottom of the loaf will be browned, but the top will be blond. If you want the top to have more color, stick the loaf in a conventional oven and broil it for a few minutes until brown.
The dough in your fridge will keep for a couple of weeks. You could spend five minutes mixing it up on Monday and bake it on Saturday morning when guests arrive. Or bake a loaf every day. Or every other day. Whatever.
In this column, I'm just giving you the idea of how it's done. Specific instructions can be found by searching for no-knead crock pot bread. The website, artisanbreadinfive.com, for example, has tons of good info.