18th Century No-Knead “French” Bread

Jonathan Townsend

Posted on July 09 2012

18th Century 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

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.

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.

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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