This baker's punch line: He has a need to knead

The Baltimore Sun

Every once in a while, it feels good to punch something. That is what I missed when making bread with the new, no-kneading method. I missed thwacking the dough, stretching it out on a floured table, manhandling it.

The no-kneading style of bread making is popular these days. It sprang to attention in 2006 when New York baker Jim Lahey revealed his no-knead bread to The New York Times. It has been building ever since. The folks at King Arthur Flour in Vermont have posted about a dozen recipes on their Web site instructing bakers on how to make everything from cinnamon rolls to pizza crust to focaccia, without kneading. Allison Furbish of King Arthur told me the flour makers are flooded with queries from bakers about the technique. To top it off, there is Nancy Baggett's new book, Kneadlessly Simple, which contends that, thanks to modern machinery and better yeasts, kneading is obsolete.

Baggett, a Howard County resident, established baker and best-selling cookbook author, says that if dough is allowed to take a long, slow rise, then carbon dioxide gas bubbles released during fermentation perform the same tasks as kneading. These bubbles help the bread rise and give it its "crumb," the small holes in a slice that are the mark of a well-made loaf. At least that is my understanding of the chemistry of not belting the bread dough: Time does what walloping used to.

I used to regularly bake bread, employing the old swat-'em style. So on a recent weekend, I gave the new, kinder, gentler method a try. I made two loaves of sandwich bread using a recipe in Baggett's book.

I mixed the ingredients by hand, and let the dough sit in a covered bowl. It was there quite a while, from midday Saturday to late Sunday morning, about 19 hours.

On Sunday morning, the dough looked soft, puffy, elastic and moist. It felt soothing as I handled it briefly. I wanted to stretch and fold it, to engage in that tactile if time-consuming practice of kneading, a practice handed down though the ages from flour-covered baker to flour-covered baker.

I was reminded how fond I was of handling dough. It was therapeutic. If you had a tough day at work, you could take it out on the dough. If your favorite team lost, you could calm the tempests by working the bread dough. I was massaging the dough, but it was working on me as well.

Instead of getting physical with this dough, I simply cut it in half with a knife and placed it in two bread pans. There it sat covered with plastic for another two to three hours, for a second rising.

After I put it in the oven, the whole house soon filled with that intoxicating aroma of baking bread. It drew a crowd. The bread turned out well - it had a nice, crisp crust and a good crumb. The flavor was good, not great. But it was a first effort, and as veteran bakers know, first efforts are easily improved the next time around.

Later, I paused to compare the two styles of bread baking: the no-kneading, and my old method of mixing baguette dough in a food processor and forming it into a boule.

The no-kneading method was much neater. There were no bits of dough stuck to my fingers or to the countertop. It wasn't faster. No-kneading calls for a long first rise, which gives the bread flavor. It was relatively easy: I simply mixed ingredients in a bowl, waited, and then put the dough in bread pans.

But with no-kneading, there was less hands-on time with the dough. That meant it offered no outlet for daily tensions, and no sense of struggle.

I guess I am saying that if you are a well-balanced person, you can happily bake bread with the no-kneading method. But for those of us who are a little twisted, who harbor pent-up frustrations, we need kneading.

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