From “too-wet” dough… to perfect no-knead challah
Okay, I will spoil the surprise with a great shot of the finished challahs and the message that there is NO such thing (short of cake batter) as a too-wet dough. Are you cut out for no-knead challah baking? Maybe! Read on to find out.
When people find out I bake challah, their first question is usually, “do you use a mixer?” The assumption here is that making bread is onerous; so onerous that we need heavy-duty motorized tools to accomplish it.
Um, hello? For thousands of years people baked bread without mixers. Okay, they also did laundry without washing machines… so maybe that isn’t as good a point as I thought.
But here’s my point: making bread dough is easy, and you don’t need a mixer. Heck, you don’t even need to mix the dough at all. And if you play your cards right, your bread will be even moister and more delicious for the experience.
Aside: You do, however, need one important tool: a dough scraper. This is almost exactly like a paint scraper. You can see it in the picture of my dough, just down there below. I think this one cost about $10 in Kensington Market a few years ago when I was down there looking to buy something else. You could probably use a dedicated paint scraper, in a pinch, but it has to have a firm blade, not a bendy one.
Last night, I dug my good old dough bucket out so I could make no-knead challahs for the first time since our move. I used this "do-not-knead" challah recipe. I decided to halve the recipe, but then got so distracted and tired that I dumped in all the sugar and salt before I’d noticed. So then I upped the flour, water and oil so it’s more like 3/4 of the full recipe. You can play with challah dough; it’s forgiving that way.
Here’s what it looked like when I dumped it out of the bucket in the morning. This is the “slime blob” stage.
When you see your dough in this state, flopped out all over the table, don’t worry! It just means it’s time for the Stretch n’ Fold! This operation toughens up the dough, but gently, without losing all those great bubbles it’s been working to build up overnight. (Click here to find out more about the process.)
Here I go – wheeeee… took a minute to get back into it (at first, I just used the scraper), but then I remembered how much I love getting my hands right in the glop.
Here’s what it looked like when I was done. Sort of looks like it’s straightened its shouders, squared its jaw… nearly ready to face the world.
No? Well, anyway, it’s a definite improvement.
Now it’s time to rise again, back in the bucket. I took this picture to show you that even after I was done, there were still bubbles in the dough. You NEVER want to punch out all those bubbles.
After a rest, it’s time to roll it out. I don’t just pull off hunks of dough – this dough isn’t nearly strong enough to just roll them out that way. You can see the process a bit better in this post, but essentially, it goes like this:
Big ball o’ dough –> small balls o’ dough (I weigh them out on the scale) –> pancakes –> slugs –> snakes –> braid.
These are names I made up in my head for each of the stages, not some official baking-school terminology. You can see a few “slugs” in the top-left corner of the picture below, along with a finished braid that came precariously close to the edge of the table. By handling the dough in stages this way, you build up the “structure” of the bread so that it’s capable of holding the braid shape as it rises:
As you can see (scroll up), they turned out fantastically well. (A little squished because I had to fit them 4 on a pan, as you can see above. Our oven is tiny and I sometimes lack the patience to bake them in 2 batches.
As always on a Friday, I have to blog the bread before I taste it. Sure, I could wait ‘till after Shabbos to post, but let’s just assume they’re delicious!
If you’re wondering whether no-knead challah will “work” for you, the answer is: Probably. But be prepared (and prepare your family!) to endure a few weeks of experimentation, getting down and dirty, so to speak (it’s not dirt! it’s dough!), for the cause. Even this basic recipe that I call my Reliable Challah tends not to work the first time you use it, for whatever reason. Or people try it and say it tastes great, but they can’t get their challahs to look nearly as nice as mine.
The truth is that we endured years and years and YEARS of pitiful-tasting, gruesome-looking challahs. As a young newlywed, even my husband could make better-looking challahs than I could. His looked magnificent, like bakery-quality (he bragged that his experience with leatherworking had made him an expert braider!), while mine looked like flopsy, infested toads.
And guess what? It never stops, maybe because I love to experiment (or simply get bored). We still get a loser challah every once in a while, such as oh, 2 weeks ago, when I forgot to add the YEAST. So if yours turns out awful, laugh it off and then get back up on that challah horse and try again the next week.
If you’re as fascinated by no-knead challah as I am, you might also want to read…
Good Shabbos from sunny Kiryat Shmuel, Haifa!