What does ocean water have to do with good bread?

A different take on Irish brown bread

I love the taste of Irish soda bread and Irish brown bread, and make one or the other every year, as I've posted on this site before (the Healy’s, on my Mom’s side, are proudly Scotch-Irish and whenever we would be stopped at a red traffic light, my twinkly-eyed grandmother would urge, “Go Irish!”).

But “traditional” Irish soda bread has always seemed a little heavy to me, as if the whole point was for it to be dry and hard to digest. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about soaking grains, an ancient method for making them easier to digest, and it didn’t make sense to me that a traditional food would use just grains and baking soda (or a baking soda/baking powder combination) to leaven them: After all, commercial baking soda has only been around for a couple of hundred years and is fairly arduous to produce, as a recent article in Local Banquet discusses, and baking powder has been around for even less time.

I was looking for something moister - like this:

Traditional breads are made from flour, water, salt, and air-borne yeast plus, all importantly, time, which allows the grains to ferment, stretch, and bubble.

Amazingly, the proportion of water to salt in leavened breads is the same as the salinity of ocean water, and ancient Romans very likely mixed flour and Atlantic sea water to form the prototype of bread (for a fascinating modern-day example, read about one intrepid bread baker's "Ocean Bread'). If these ancient  peoples used the same dough-mixing vessel over and over again, they likely would have had a bit of yeast left over each time to jump-start the fermentation and leaven the dough - all without commercial yeast, baking soda, or baking powder.

This is all very similar to the no-knead bread method, my current favorite method for baking bread. In the no-knead bread method, you make a fairly wet dough with ¼ tsp. of yeast to jump-start the fermentation and a long, slow rise of 12-18 hours. The result is a wonderfully moist bread that has a hint of sourdough flavor – and if you bake it in an oven-proof pot, which simulates a clay oven, you get a great crackly crust.

Moist no-knead Irish brown bread with currants, developed by Jim Lahey

While the recipe below doesn't use ocean water, it does use stout and buttermilk to soak the flour for a uniquely delicious St. Patrick's Day loaf. I used King Arthur artisan bread flour, Gleason Grains whole wheat flour, Butterworks Farm buttermilk, and Rock Art gnarly stout.

Jim’s Irish Brown Bread

2 ½ cups white bread flour

¾ cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbs. wheat bran

¼ tsp. instant or other active dry yeast

1 ¼ cups currants

1 cup stout, at room temperature

1 cup well-shaken buttermilk, at room temperature

Additional wheat bran or flour for dusting

In a medium bowl, stir together the flours, salt, wheat bran, yeast, salt, and currants. Add the beer and buttermilk and, using a wooden spoon or your hands, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 12-18 hours.

When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. Using lightly floured hands or a bowl scraper, lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.

Place a tea towel on your work surface and generously dust it with wheat bran or flour. Gently place the dough on the towel, seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with wheat bran or flour. Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1-2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475, with a rack in the lower third, and place a covered  4 ½ to 5 ½ quart heavy pot in the center of the rack.

Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel and quickly but gently invert the dough into the pot, seam side up. (Use caution – the pot will be very hot). Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burn, 20-30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly.

From My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method, by Jim Lahey