18th Century No-Knead “French” Bread

No-Knead “French” Bread

There have been a number of videos floating around on YouTube the past few years which present an interesting method of baking bread. It’s called “no-knead bread.” It’s an easy recipe that uses a simple dough baked in a Dutch oven.

I would encourage you to watch the video that seems to have started it all. It’s very worthwhile. No knead bread, because of its ultra-simplicity and great flavor, is a very innovative technique.

But, shhhhhh…I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s not a new idea. In fact, no-knead bread has been around for hundreds of years.

Take for instance this recipe from Eliza Smith’s 1739 cookbook, The Compleat Housewife.

Eliza Smith

The Compleat Housewife, by Eliza Smith, 1739

Or this recipe out of Richard Brigg’s 1788 cookbook, The English Art or Cookery:

Richard Brigg

The English Art of Cookery, Richard Brigg, 1788

And finally, this recipe from Elizabeth Moxon’s 1764 cookbook, English Housewifery:

Elizabeth Moxon

English Housewifery, Elizabeth Moxon, 1764

Each recipe instructs the baker to work the dough as little as possible. Mix the ingredients with your hands and simply walk away. Nope! Don’t even think about kneading it!

Each of these recipes is for “French” bread. Now 18th century bread came in dozens of forms, differentiated by size, shape, and weight, as well as by ingredients and the quality of the flour. The boulangeries de Paris offered a cornucopia of bread styles, as did the bakeries of London and Philadelphia.

One particular bread, however, familiar to Englishmen and American Colonists alike was what they called “French” Bread. The name with which they christened this bread may have been just as much a commentary on French-style cookery as it was a delineation of its national origin. The French were known for their extravagant dishes and sauces which were often dripping with butter fat. French cooks were in demand for this reason in the higher British societies.

There are numerous other 18th century English recipes for French Bread. We found nine total. By the way, there are probably hundreds of 18 century English recipes that used French Bread as an ingredient, but we’ll talk about that later. All of the English recipes for French bread called for the use of milk instead of or in addition to water. Some also called for butter, and still others called for eggs. So it seems apparent that the term “French Bread” refers to an enriched bread.

Most English recipes for French bread called for fine white flour, however, we also found a recipe in Eliza Smith’s book for a French brown bread that used coarse-ground flour, grated bread crumb, and…wait for it…milk.

Eliza Smith

Brigg’s recipe for French Bread is preceded by a recipe for “English Bread the London Way.” By his heading and the juxtaposition of the two recipes, it seems apparent that he was making a comparison between the two styles. The most pronounced difference was the use of dairy fats in French bread.

Pain de Mie may be a modern descendant of such bread. Pain de Mie, or “bread of the crumb” is a fine white bread, similar to American “Pullman bread” that is baked in a special pan, resulting in loaf with a very thin or non-existent crust. Interestingly, some historic accounts suggest that Pain de Mie may have been introduced to France in the early 1900s by English tourists — a seemingly ironic twist of the dough.

Crust chips and raspings were often used as an ingredient in other 18th century recipes.

While most modern bread enthusiasts enjoy the crispy-crackly crust of a properly baked artisan loaf, all of the English recipes we found for French bread required that the crust be either rasped off with a grater or chipped off with a knife, leaving nothing but the mellow white crumb structure beneath. It was in this crust-less form that French bread was most commonly used as an ingredient in so many other English recipes. The crust chips and raspings were also used.

Here’s our take of an 18th century English recipe:

No-Knead “French” Bread

Most original recipes called for the use of fresh barm, which was the suds or “croisan” skimmed from the top of a brewing batch of ale. Unless you’re a homebrewer, it’s unlikely you have access to barm. You can make an imitation barm by mixing the following ingredients:

1/2 cup water (or you can use a good imported ale)
1 Tablespoon flour
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon INSTANT yeast

Set your barm aside.

In a large bowl, mix together 3 cups of all-purpose flour with 1-1/2 teaspoons salt.

In a separate bowl, whisk together 3/4 to 1 cup milk with 1 egg white. In yet another bowl, whisk together 2 Tablespoons butter (just melted and not too hot, lest you cook your yolks) with 2 egg yolks. Finally, stir together the milk mixture and yolk mixture. Stir in your “barm” as well.

Egg yolks and melted butter

Now you may be asking, “Huh? What was the point of all that?”

Egg yolks are a natural emulsifier. They are made up of protein strings that are receptive to fats on one end and water on the other end. By mixing the egg yolks first with the melted butter and then with the milk, you are combining the butter fat with the milk at a molecular level. To mix them otherwise, the butter would simply float to the top of the milk in coagulated chunks. Yuck!

Enough of the science lesson.

Now it’s simply a matter of adding your wet ingredients to your dry ingredients. While all three original recipes above tell us to use our hands to mix the dough, Brigg is meticulous in describing how you should hold your fingers together at the tips.

Our experience suggests it’s fine to dig right in as long as momma’s not looking. You’ll want to mix it well, incorporating all the flour.

The dough is going to be very sticky. That’s good. Whatever you do, DON’T EVEN ATTEMPT TO KNEAD IT, otherwise it will not be No-knead bread!

Now in our video demonstration above, we suggest using a damp cloth to cover it. You probably need a couple of layers of damp cloth, because you don’t want a tough skin to develop on your dough while the yeast is doing its thing. A better choice is plastic wrap. Just press it right down on top of the dough.

Now set your dough aside in a warm spot to let it rise for 12 to 18 hours. We realize that’s a long time, but trust us, this will enhance the flavor of your bread. For another science lesson on why it does, check out Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 of our 18th Century Breads video series.

As the time approaches to bake your dough, you’ll notice it will have a spongy appearance to it. That’s good.

If you’re baking this at home in a Dutch oven, go ahead at this point and place your Dutch oven in the oven and preheat it to 450 degrees (F). Once the Dutch oven is preheated, sprinkle a little corn meal or wheat bran into the bottom of it. This will help keep the dough from sticking to the pot at it bakes.

If you are preparing your bread on a hearth or campfire, preheat your Dutch oven over a fire, from which you will gather your embers for baking. Once you have sufficient embers, form a circle of embers on the ground or on the heart floor over which you’ll place your Dutch oven. Then cover the lid with additional embers.

Back to the dough…

Turn it out onto a floured surface and with floured hands gently press it out into an oval or rough rectangular shape about 1 – 2″ thick.

Choose one of the short ends and fold it over about 1/3 of the distance to the far edge, slightly stretching the dough as you lift up and fold.

Then fold over the opposite edge, again slightly stretching the dough as you go.

Repeat this process on the each adjacent side, stretching and folding.

Now place your folded loaf into your preheated Dutch oven and close the lid. If your baking over a embers, you’ll want to check to make sure they don’t go out during baking. Also, it works well to rotate your Dutch oven over your ring of embers every 5 minutes. This will ensure even heat distribution.

Bake your bread for 30 to 35 minutes. Other modern recipes for No-knead bread (baked in a conventional home oven) suggest taking the lid off your Dutch oven and baking for an additional 15 minutes. Our bread, however, is enriched with lots of fats and will brown without this additional exposure.

Again, if you’re doing this at home and you’re shooting for consistency, the internal temperature of your bread should reach between 190 and 200 degrees (F) before it is removed from the Dutch oven. You should allow the loaf to cool for an hour before grating, chipping, or slicing.

All of the original recipes called for a wood-fired oven, not a Dutch oven. Dutch ovens, however, were commonly used for baking bread in the 18th Century (We invite you to watch our video on the Dutch ovens offered here at Jas. Townsend & Son). The high moisture content of the dough, combined with the high temperature and enclosed baking environment of the Dutch oven results in a crispy crust. Baking this bread in a bread oven or conventional oven (minus the Dutch oven) will likely result in a softer crust, which is likely more accurate to the intentions of the original recipes.

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32 Responses to 18th Century No-Knead “French” Bread

  1. Doc Mannheim says:

    Great video!! I prepared and baked the no knead bread the next day, it turned out great!! My question now becomes, what to do with the crust I rasped off? Are there any recipes that include the crust shavings you can do? Thanks!!

  2. Kevin Carter says:

    Hi Doc. Grated bread crusts and chips were commonly used as ingredients in 18th century recipes, as was the crumb (the center of the loaf) — often in soups as a thickening agent, in forcemeats as a binder (e.g., ground meats, sausages, and meatloafs), in possets as…well, the main ingredient, as stuffing for fowl, and as a coating for meats. I’ll post a few of the many (too numerous to include) recipes I found. I’ll include links to online word-searchable versions these cookbooks as well.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Love watching your videos! When you make the barm, could you use ale instead of water like in your other bread videos for this type of bread?

    • Kevin Carter says:

      Hi Jennifer. Absolutely. Using a good imported ale or even a homebrew in the barm mix instead of water will add a bit of flavor to your bread, and will likely result in your bread being even more authentic.

  4. Czad Cummings says:

    I have now made four half batches of bread. I have found that this method is quite resilient and have substituted 2/3 of the flour with whole wheat and rolled oats (along with a handful of nuts and dried fruit). One thing I have been wondering about is what food stuffs would be in the period pantry.

  5. tigelle says:

    A really fabulous post. English \”French Bread\” is a wonderful bread. I am particularly fond of Henry Howard\’s recipe published in his Newest way in all sorts of Cookery 1708. I want to comment on the place this bread had in British cuisine versus the place that the current no-knead recipe has in our cuisine, and to say something about kneading in general with a particular look at the roll kneading has played in American culinary culture.

    The British French Bread fell between bread and cake. The point of not kneading it to maintain as much as possible a soft cake-like texture. Chewiness — breadiness — is developed two ways — one way is through kneading and the other is through a long slow fermentation. It is important to note that this 18th century no-knead bread is leavened quickly and also it is always lightly enriched. It references the enriched breads of France of its period — what came to be classed together as \”pain à la mode.\” In 18th century France the breads the English referred to as French bread had specific names. Pain a la Montoron is one — it was made with milk.

    The modern American no-knead bread is referencing the core French bread tradition which is for unenriched levain breads — flour, water, leaven, and salt — and usually combines a slow rise with the no knead technique. The slow rise develops the glutens so that a slow-risen no knead bread has the chewiness and bready structure of a kneaded French bread.

    The British no-knead 18th century bread is closer in conception to our industrial breads. In those softness of crumb is a priority and various systems are used to minimize the development of the gluten. The French brioche has its own tradition and is also so enriched that it falls outside the pain à la mode rubric, but nonetheless I think it helpful to keep brioche (which in France is always sold also in a loaf form) in mind in the context of these \”French bread.\” I think it also not too much of a stretch to see these French breads in the context of the more or less standard British American sandwich bread recipes that are made with milk or a little fat.

    The modern no-knead bread through its slow rise achieves must of the same effect as a well kneaded dough. Part of its cultural importance is to liberate American culinary culture from the cult of kneading. Nineteenth century American cookbooks were very big on kneading — the woman of the house worked the dough the more she demonstrated her love for her husband. Good bread was a marker of being a good wife — and the no pain no gain ethos was applied to the task. Of course, it is quite true that bread was worked for 30 minutes in the 18th-century but as a rule we are talking about huge batches of dough mixed in dough troughs. As a practical matter, except for stiff doughs that were worked with a brake (a pole attached to a wall on a pivot) or with feat no one part of the dough was worked anything like the times given in cookbooks (even now) for working the small batches that we make at home. Thus, in practice, given the comparatively wet dough used to make the modern no knead bread, there may not be such a massively different level of dough working than there was when a couple bushels of flour were being mixed in a dough trough.

    I think part of the excitement that surrounds the no knead recipe is the excitement of seemingly (this is from an American cultural perspective) getting something for nothing — a terrific bread with no work.

  6. rhonda bowling says:

    I don’t really have a reply but was wondering if it would be possible to use a sourdough starter instead of the barm?
    thanks

    • Kevin Carter says:

      I suspect so, though sourdough starters generally require more time to ferment than barm and may result in a different texture. In terms of historical accuracy for the 18th century, the references we have found in our research would cause us to conclude that it was highly unlikely sourdough starters were purposefully cultivated and used in English breadmaking; but then again, we can’t be too critical, given that our loose interpretation of barm is admittedly one based on modern conveniences (an instant yeast mixture as opposed to actual ale kroisen). Using a sourdough starter would be an interesting experiment.

      • Sourdough starters were reasonably rare in high status households in 18th century England. That said, there are cookbook references to sourdough use in bread from the 1590s cookbook, The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, in Gervase Markham’s English Housewife (1615), in Hannah Glasse in the 1740s, in William Ellis in the 1750s, and so forth. But these are each minor references that imply a some knowledge of a sourdough tradition but by no means introduce sourdough as a preferred system for leavening bread. This said, the implication in Markham’s 1615 recipe for “brown bread” for the field workers is that breads made for low status people may often have been sour leavened and been essentially unkneaded. I tough on this a little in my history of bread, “Bread, a global history.” William Rubel

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  9. Cheira B says:

    I just made this bread and it turned out beautifully! The texture was a tad brioche-ish. Love it! Thank you for posting this. Merci.

  10. dantae says:

    I loved the video but what size dutch oven do I use…is 4.6 quart okay?

    • Kevin Carter says:

      Thank you, dantae. A 4.6-qt Dutch oven should do. We used a 9-quart in the video, but as you can see, plenty of room remained in the oven to accommodate the bread’s expansion.

  11. dantae says:

    If I culd just ask another question…does it matter if the dutch oven is seasoned (regular) cast iron or enameled cast iron? Is either one better for a crispier crust?

  12. dantae says:

    Another question!…Do you bake rolls, as opposed to loaves, in a dutch oven, too? And it says in the tape to use instant yeast but can I use active dry? And do I keep the lid on the dutch oven the whole baking time?

  13. dantae says:

    And also why is there no proof, or shorter
    second rise?

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  17. Thanks so much! Very interesting post. I’ve been meaning to make some French bread.

  18. Marie says:

    Does the crust have to be rasped off? Is it that dense and hard? Or was that just 18th c practice?

    • Kevin — could you share the source for the crumb being warmed after the crust was chipped off?

      In reply to Marie — no — the crust didn’t have to be removed (or reduced). Tasping or chipping was a custom. It was based on the idea that the crust was difficult to digest and that sedentary people — all those who didn’t live by manual labor — had weak constitutions especially with respect to foods. Thus, owing to the idea that crust was indigestible to people who were affluent, it was removed.

    • William Rubel says:

      A more complete reply. The breads were baked to have their crusts rasped, so, yes, they were that hard. Remember that the air in a wood fired oven, if used with a sealed door, is full of steam so the crusts were exceedingly deep and crisp. Also, no, this was not jus and 18th-century practice. It will have had at least a couple hundred years of custom behind it.And the practice carried through the 19th-century into the early decades of the 20th century, but by then, it was an anomalous practice.

      • Kevin Carter says:

        Thanks, William. Elizabeth David, in her book English Bread and Cookery has a bit to say on this matter as well. Quick ovens would naturally produce breads with hard crusts for the very reasons you mentioned. She mentions that Manchet breads, to the contrary, were baked longer in cooler ovens, which would have resulted in softer crusts.

        I have often wondered if the custom of rasping crust was borne out of necessity. We need to keep in mind that in general, dental hygiene was not the same then as it is today.

      • William Rubel says:

        Kevin.

        Thank you for posting the cover to my bread history.

        Elizabeth David is correct that manchets were baked in a slow oven. I’d estimate at around 225F. They bake for one hour and the crust is not supposed to brown. I would not, however, say that the crust will then be soft. You can test this.

        The manchet seemed to have ranged from 6 ounces of dough going into the oven (William Harrison in his History of England in the 1570s to 1 pound of dough going into the oven to Dawsen’s 1594 “The Good Hus-wifes Handmaide in the Kitchen.”

        Bad teeth could have been a reason for rasping, however, I have never come across a period source period source for that idea, have you? The reasons for rasping are clearly medical up to the 19th century when I have found a text that suggests aesthetic reasons. Also, of course, as rich people rasped it became, by the 19th century, a practice that was aped by the upwardly mobile. See, for example, Dickens use of the practice to ridicule Miss Tox in Dombey and Son.

        If bread were being consumed after being broken into soup, analogous to our use of crackers in the soup, then the crust would not have been hard. And then, one could have also simply eaten the crumb and left the crust on the plate. Chipping, especially, is time consuming and labor intensive. Further, as you suggested in a previous post, the bread might have then been put back into the oven to re-crisp.

        There are many period texts that expound on the idea that crusts were difficult to digest for people who did not labor for a living. You could look at my Gastronomica article some years back on English Horse Breads from the Early Modern period for medical references on that subject.

        The 1924 Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School cookbook mentions re-baking the rasped French roll. Do you have a different source?

        All my best,

        William

  19. Kevin Carter says:

    Rasping the crust was vogue in the 18th century. One reference that we found just recently suggests that the crumb may have been warmed up in the oven after the crust was rasped or chipped off.

  20. Kevin Carter says:

    Hi William. Didn’t mean to take quite so long to respond. The only other references to baking rasped loaves that I can recall having found thus far are recipes for stuffed French loaves. A second baking was done to crispen the loaf once it was filled. I’ll keep an eye out, however, and will let you know if I come across anything else in my future searches.

    I agree that the conventional wisdom for chipping or rasping bread crust was out of gastronomic concern — something I admittedly omitted in my initial response. Thank you again for your contribution.

    Can you provide me a link to the article you mention about horse bread? That is one of topics we are presently researching.

    Also, on a different subject, if you are open to further communication, I would love to discuss with you any observations or findings you may have regarding the advent of chemical leavening in North American cookery, i.e., by those in 18th century Dutch and German communities. I’ve run across some interesting things lately that had sent me on a number of rabbit trails.

    • Kevin –

      I’ll work out how to post the article to my website and post that link.

      I am always open to further communications.

      I haven’t studied chemical leavenings. However, I do have an opinion! It is my opinion that they represent a reasonable response to the extreme North American climate. Hot or cold your cake will work while yeasted doughs would be hard to impossible to control a a freezing winter or a boiling hot humid summer.

      Have you been in touch with Peter Rose or William Woyce Weaver? Right now, my specialty is more yeast and sour leavened doughs.

      William

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