No knead brioche, who knew..
I’ve been into the no knead peasant loaf for a while. Like most people who know what I am talking about, the lightbulb moment came with Mark Bittman’s article in the New York Times in 2006 (in collaboration with Jim Lahey). Naturally, I was curious about the whole idea because it was pretty revolutionary for a cook wannabe baker who learnt her basics in another era. With all the new science to back up what many fiddling bakers have already figured out, it seems that all it takes is time and enough water to sufficiently develop the gluten. From the get-go, I had decent results with plain bread (flour/water/salt/yeast). But brioche? Browsing through the new Ideas In Food book by Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot, my eyes popped when I saw it.
In my boulangerie course at the Cordon Bleu last year, one of the twenty or so standard doughs we tackled was one our teacher called ‘Instadough’, even less finicky than Lahey’s loaf. You mix all the ingredients, wait a day, then shape and bake. Ok, it didn’t have the complexity of some other more labour intensive loaves, but it was very good. All in one movement, I could even put the salt in right away; although salt inhibits yeast action, it would be sitting overnight so that was alright. A longer fermentation time meant more water was needed (77% hydration). I learnt that wet was ok, I could always add flour when shaping.
Bitten by the baking bug, in the past year, I have experimented with all kinds of dough, mostly the kind made the same day that involve some kneading, with different starters and pre-ferments. I was drawn into this new, fascinating world of miracles, spending every spare kitchen moment covered in flour tinkering with the variables and observing; I wanted to fully understand, all while more practically building a personal repertoire of favourites for the restaurant. Throughout my bread adventures, I had no choice but face the reality of logistical constraints – timing, oven space, customers.. Needless to say, there was not a small amount of stress getting my bread on the table for dinner time amidst everything else.
Eventually, I found that starting the day before definitely suited me best. Besides a preferable long and slow fermentation, I didn’t want to be getting up at 5am, which would mean no sleep. I couldn’t get the same-day breads down without close catastrophe; busy with too many other last minute service details, they would overproof or need to go in the oven when it was full, or worse not be ready for service. My Leonard starter (my muse for months) eventually got on my nerves, so demanding and expensive, never giving me a nice crust. After I kissed a stinky Leonard goodbye, I came to rely on the Instadough when I didn’t have the time for more. It became my back-up. Whether I made other special breads or not, at least I knew I would have something in the basket when the customers showed up. Fresh out of the oven, brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, perfect or not, homemade bread is just about always a beautiful thing anyway- overall so complicated, yet surprisingly forgiving.
I successfully modified many of my recipes to fit a 20 hour schedule- Fougasse, Rye, Viennois, often throwing something wild into the mix.. But I never ever considered making brioche any other way than the traditional way. I knew I could easily let a rich dough finish rising overnight because it develops slower by nature. But leave out the kneading when it comes to brioche? No matter how rebellious I am, I never dared. Brioche is a different beast because of all the butter. I’ve made quite a bit over the years, but always the same way, thinking that it had to be made just so. I was taught by an expert baker that it had to be made in stages, adding the fat at the end, and then working it big time, because the fat inhibits gluten formation. By machine, we would beat in the solid butter for a difficult emulsion, letting it whack, whack, whack for 10-15 minutes (poor machine) to the desired smooth texture and springy feel. In my Boulangerie class, I had to make it by hand and Geez, there is not a work-out like it, our teacher acting as boot camp coach yelling at us to keep kneading to a beat lest we throw in the towel. Why would everyone be going to so much trouble if there was another way?
No really. Why knead if you don’t have to?
Ok, so apparently all I have to do is start 18hrs in advance, make the dough moister, diminish the yeast.. No problem. Inspired by Ideas in Food, I decided to stick to my own brioche recipe (not so different than theirs) but I started it the day before, changing nothing except that I melted the butter for the initial mixing following their lead, then replaced heavy kneading with waiting. I leisurely kept an eye on temperature and fermentation progress, watching as it transformed from cake batter to dough (about 3hours at my kitchen room temperature) at which point I folded it over a few times and stuck it in the fridge. After a couple of hours on the counter the next day, it was ready to shape; an hour later, it was ready for the oven (when my finger dent stopped wanting to spring back); 350F for an hour.
I was so sceptical. But, do you know what? IT WORKS! Maybe I have to do a few more tests to talk nuance, but honestly, I see no difference. With a little foresight, I save on muscle and electricity, definitely on stress, no sweat. Sweet.
I’m amazed. Giddy with excitement, I couldn’t shut up about this all evening at work; the waiters baffled by their geeky chef (who is usually more serious), not getting what the big deal was, even though they thought the brioche was phenomenal. Typical really - the front of the house, waiters and customers alike, are rarely aware of our kitchen acrobatics. As long as they are well fed, they don’t know or care whether we are killing ourselves kneading or not. Which is fine. But for me, quelle petite triomphe, only more to toast to at the end of the night. There is always so much to learn or revisit.