Soft Crust No-Knead Bread featuring 100% Whole Wheat

There are numerous no-knead recipes on this blog now, to help put this revolutionary recipe in the spotlight. It can bring good bread at low cost, to the table of millions. This is my favourite no-knead recipe. It is also my latest variation, not my first. Which means I've developed a better feel for what I want and need, after trying different variations of the recipe. I decided that overall, I don't favour the artisan style. It comes with a hard crust that is difficult to slice (it requires a great bread knife, and a lot of pressure to cut the slice clean off, once you get to the bottom). It's harder on the teeth and puts crumbs all over the place. Make no mistake though, it has its benefits. It looks great, and has the deepest flavour, and makes the tastiest crust.

But I still yearned for the type of crust that I was more used to, which you find in most store-bought breads.  A soft crust, that is easy to slice, easy to eat, and doesn't spray crumbs everywhere. I added another challenge to this my next bread-making excursion, which was to make a 100% whole wheat bread. Up until this, I was pretty much afraid to even try. My efforts in the past resulted in doorstop-style bread. Hard, dense, flat bread that made slices that looked like party food. Not something you could make a decent sandwich out of. So in order to produce decent results, I gave in and usually made a mix of two-thirds white flour, to one third whole wheat. Or at best, half and half.

Organic Whole Wheat vs. Processesed Enriched White Flour

....Not this time. This time we're going all out, healthwise. This time, I'm using 100% stoneground organic unbleached whole wheat flour. Short of rye, and other specialty flours, it's one of the hardest flours to bake with good result. That's because it lacks the gluten of white flour. But we're going to try to get around that problem, by using vital wheat gluten powder.  Gluten powder may be a bit hard to locate, but you can usually find it at health food stores, or tucked away somewhere at your supermarket or specialty store, perhaps in the bulk food section. You may notice we're also using milk powder here. That will help create a softer crust, and adds nutrients.

So why not stick with good old white flour, which always produces the best results for bread? It is after all, what you find in most store bought breads, including those that look and claim to be the "healthy" type? Because it's really not that healthy for you. Besides lacking the nutrients of the bran, white flour typically comes with additives (check your flour bag to see what it contains). This will inevitably include synthetic nutrients in the form of vitamins, that manufacturers are forced to add, because they are lost in the processing (e.g. ascorbic acid, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid). But it's never the same as what it originally had.

Then there are often bleaching agents, to make the flour look white; ie. benzoyl peroxide. Yes, the same stuff in Clearasil acne medicine. That one is not allowed in Europe. China, if you can believe it, is also banning benzoyl peroxide. That's C-H-I-N-A. The land of lead-poisoned baby's milk and chopsticks made from recycled materials that haven't quite been sterilized. Some white flours also contain fungal alpha amylase, an added enzyme to help with rising. Hmmm, yummmm.... fungal amylase. Does that sound like something you want to be eating? Note that it's been known to cause allergies in some bakery workers. Some; ie. Robin Hood Bread Flour, contain xylanase; a dough conditioner. Also used for bleaching wood pulp, and makes a fine ingredient for producing bio-fuel.  Another additive, azodicarbonamide (used in Robin Hood Bread Flour, etc. as a bleaching and conditioning agent), is primarily used as an additive for foamed plastics. It is banned in Australia and Europe. You might also find L-cysteine hydrochloride in your white flour (used in Robin Hood Bread Flour, etc. as a conditioning agent and flavour enhancer).  It was commonly produced from human hair found on the floors of Chinese barbershops. No guff. Today, it is more likely to be produced from Chinese duck feathers. It has also been produced from pigs' bristles and hooves, and is sometimes derived from synthetic sources. See why you might want to avoid processed white flour, now?


3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 t instant yeast
2 t salt
3 T vital gluten 
1 T dry (powdered) milk, reg. or soya
1 3/4c water
olive oil or vegetable oil, as needed
Cornmeal or wheat bran for dusting (optional)

Note on Water Measurement

It's hard to give the exact amount of water to recommend per quantity of flour; as this will depend on the type of flour used, the brand of flour, the temperature and humidity in your place, even your altitude, among other factors. However, the amount of water you add is important. It will help determine whether your dough will be semi-permanently fused to your pot, or whether you will be able to drop it out of the pot with ease, once cooked. It also can effect how high it will rise. So rather than going by an exact measurement, it's best to get a feel for what the dough should look like when mixed. Mark Bittman, who popularized the recipe, says it should look "almost" like cake batter, when the flour and water are fully mixed. Don't do that. That will only ensure your dough is too wet. When finished mixing, the dough should be sticky, but not wet (or if you wish, wet, but not soggy). The measurement of water given should do the trick (some even recommend less for 3c of flour), and will probably work for most, without worries. But, it's up to you to determine whether there's enough water or too much, once the initial quantity has been added.

You should have just enough water to eventually eliminate the dry spots of flour, once all is mixed. But you have to be very careful not to add too much water. So if there is still dry flour as you roll the dough in the bowl with a spatula (or your hands), then you only add about 1T of water at a time, until there is enough. But remember that as you mix, most of the moisture is now mixed into the dough ball, rather than on the outside. So you might have to mash the dough to bring the moister dough to the surface, which will then moisten the dry flour and incorporate it into the ball. And this way, you will end up with a stiff ball, but not an overly wet ball. If you were to simply add enough water to the dry flour that remains in the bowl, rather than try to incorporate it into the ball of dough without any additional water, then you will likely end up adding too much water, and have a dough that will be very sticky, very difficult to handle later, and bake poorly. (Yes, you can add flour later if the dough is too wet. But usually, this will never produce good results, like getting it right at the beginning).  If you have to err here, err on the side of too dry, than too wet.

Getting the rising right

The bread featured here in the photos here has a good and decent height for 100% whole wheat flour, baked in a small dutch oven. It's my second try at this, but I actually did better on the first try; which had more height, sponginess and softness. The difference is the flour had more water that time, but it was very difficult to remove from the pot, and I had to tear the sides off to get it out. But oh, was that bread delicious! On this second try, I believe the height may have been compromised a little, because I peeked to look into the microwave oven during the first rise, after a few hours. This it appears deflated the dough by an inch or so. The deflation however, which occcurred sometime overnight, could also be due to overrising (I started it the night before and baked it the next day. Over 12 hours of rising time, on the first rise. Only 15 minutes on the second rise).

I tried to compensate for the long rise by not going with my usual  method of adding a small glass of hot water into the microwave, along with the bowl of dough, to help with the rise. That can be overkill. You want the dough to rise slowly, but fully. Even the small micrwave space might be overkill. If the dough is rising too fast and then deflating before you are ready to use it, try placing it in a regular oven (turned off of course), during its first rise. Or simply not in an enclosed space. You know you're rise is ready when the dough's surface is covered with small bubbles.

Second Rise

If you're ready to bake the bread just as soon as the dough has fully risen and has not deflated, you may not strictly require a second rise. The time to wait for the oven to heat up may be enough to get decent results. I've done this before, after all. I'm suggesting it if you want to try it, but I would still recommend a full second rise for best results, if you have the patience. Full, meaning letting it rise again for one or two hours. During this time, either leave the dough in the original bowl you let it first rise in, transfer it to a tea towel, or transfer to a smaller "proofing bowl". There are special bowls made for this purpose, but it is ideally a small bowl with a narrow bottom and high sides, and preferably not metal. Grease the bowl with olive oil, if you prefer (not strictly necessary), to help with the rising.  Cover it with a tea towel, place in a warm or draft-free place.


Once you have completed the second rise of the dough, you are ready to bake. Preheat your oven to 350F. Grease a 5qt. dutch oven (or stainless steel pot with lid, if you don't have a cast iron one) with olive oil. Dust the bottom with cornmeal or similar (optional).  Pour the dough from the proofing bowl into the pot. Cover the pot. Bake for 1h 15 minutes, or until you like the color of the crust (do not expect it to be as dark as some of the other no-knead recipes here, that use a 450F temperature). Let it cool on a rack 20 minutes before slicing.

Do-Knead Bread: A Variation On A Concept

What if you want better performance for your bread? Take a good look at the photo above. This bread was made with 4 cups of 100% whole grain speciality flour. A combination of 3 cups of 100% whole wheat organic stoneground flour, and about 1 cup of organic stoneground rye flour (I also added 3 tablespoons of vital gluten flour to compensate for the whole grain flour, and 1 tablespoon of soy milk powder, as detailed in the no-knead part of this recipe). I think the results are very good, for this type of flour combination. Now, what did I do different?...


Well, first, I decided I wanted to go a little wetter. So I added a bit more water than I might normally (roughly somewhere between one and a half, and one and three quarter cups water). I felt the harder grain of the whole grain flours could do with more water. When mixed together, the dough wasn't sopping wet, but it was somewhat sticky. Not so sticky that bits of it end up glueing themselves to the preparation board. But sticky enough that I thought it could do with some kneading. So I proceeded to knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until it was smooth, and no longer sticky.  This was then placed in a large bowl tightly covered with a plastic bag, and placed in a microwave oven overnight, with a small glass of hot water. Total rising time: about 10 hours.

After this, the dough had risen fairly well in the bowl, but it was unusually dense. It did not spring back to the touch, but it was not covered with bubbles, either. When the bowl was tilted, it did not easily tear away from the sides, with stretching strands of dough. I thought this had "doorstop" written all over it, but I determined otherwise, in the next step.

Kneading and Proofing

The next step was to remove the dough to a preparation board ( not floured, because the dough was not very sticky, and this was not necessary). The process for kneading (as I describe in detail in other no-knead recipes), is to stretch the dough out a bit, fold one third of it over itself, then the other third, then do the same on the vertical side. So that I ended up with a ball, with the folded ends on the bottom. For the first time, I placed this ball of dough in a makeshift proofing basket (just a small straw basket, really, that had a nice cone shape). To the basket, I added a linen towel, that had been dusted with flour. Then I dropped the ball of dough face down into the towel-lined basket, with the joined ends now on top. Finally, I topped the basket with a tea towel that had been soaked and drained with hot water. (This adds the needed moisture). Then the basket was placed in a microwave oven, with the glass of hot water, to proof for a second time for about 1 hour. It roughly doubled in size, which is what you want.


The last step was to bake the sucker. This time I used an oversized, large enamelled cast iron dutch oven. This meant the dough would not be right up against the sides, as there was plenty of space around the dough. Though this would change the moisture levels, it would also ensure that I could remove the bread easily after baking, without worrying about coating the pot with oil or anything. Another first, is that I covered the bottom with organic flax seeds (why not?!), instead of my usual corn meal. Good way to get the benefits of flax in your diet!

.....And the result is what you see in the picture above. It's a very smooth, "polished" crust with a nice soft, rather than hard, bite to it. The crumb (or bread itself) is dense, more dense than I would have liked. Which is not unusual, given the coarse hard flours used. But it still has a decently good height, it is soft with some sponginess, and a really hearty flavour.


Anonymous said...

So... you're NOT pre-heating the dutch oven along with the oven itself before baking these beauties, do I understand it correctly?

The Recipeless Cook said...

This is my version of no-knead, so if I do not specify pre-heating the dutch oven in the recipe, then I did not do that. I know Jim Lahey (the bakery genius who developed this method) is big on pre-heating the dutch oven. I usually do not, to cut down on the overall time it takes to make a bread, but also because I don't find it necessary.

It's really a matter of taste. Pre-heating the dutch oven in the oven will create a crustier, darker, more "flavorable" crust. But it will be harder to bite down on, harder on your teeth, and send crumbs flying everywhere when you go to slice it. Thus, I am seeking these days to create a more softer crust, not a harder one. Something closer to what you get from store-bought bread.

I haven't posted a recipe on this yet, but it involves not only not pre-heating the oven, but not taking the cover off at all during cooking (very un-Jim Laheyish...).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for answering me - which I didn't quite expect, some 4 years after you wrote this.
So you say this is going to yield a softer and more manageable crust. Well, you made my day. I have a relative with not-so-good teeth, who'd be more than happy with this bread. And if he's happy, I'm happy too. :)
Thank you kindly for coming up with this adjustment, and, again, for taking the time to explain it to me further.

Anonymous said...

Tried it! Loved it! Cold pot, one hour and 15 minutes, lid on the whole time.
Definitely more similar to the commercial bread: thinner, friendlier crust - though not lacking crispiness. Thank you. Finding your blog was a stroke of luck!

Anonymous said...

...reproducing the results: the key to a scientific approach. :D
So, today I did it again. Using this recipe
but baking it your way (lid on, cold dutch oven, not too hot, one hour and 15 minutes. It's the best bread I've ever made, no doubt about that.
Now I have a sure method, thanks to you. :)

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