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Review Wed Mar 04 2009

Recipe Review: Jacques Pepin's Pot Bread

One of my colleague is a venerable veteran of bread making, with more than 20 years under his belt, during which time, rumor goes, he hasn't bought a single loaf of bread. Since I discovered the fun of bread making (and also the fact that he was a closet bread maker), we've been spending good ten minutes every Monday morning discussing what we'd done in the bread department in the preceding weekend. And we steal a few minutes here and there during the week, too, talking about bread. During a recent chat, he told me about an improbable bread recipe he saw on PBS. He called it "Jacques P├ępin's pot bread."

"I just don't see how it can be any good," my colleagues added, "it defies all that I know about bread."

Curious, I asked him for the recipe. When it arrived in my inbox, it literally had three lines, including the ingredients. Line 1: In a large pot, mix tepid water, flour, salt and yeast and stir. Line 2: Let rise at room temperature for an hour and a half. Stir again and stick it in the fridge overnight, covered. Line 3: Bake it at 450 degrees.

That's it.

I had to agree with my colleague. There was no way that this bread would have any texture. As far as my budding knowledge in bread making goes, mixing the salt with the yeast water at the beginning is a no-no; salt inhibits the yeast metabolism. I couldn't imagine not kneading the bread, either; without kneading, the bread cannot develop the gluten structure that creates and sustains the shape of the loaf.

So, when I made the bread, I mostly did it for the perverse entertainment value of it. As I stirred the dough for the first time, my conviction--that this bread will be a flop--grew only stronger. The dough was wetter than many, but stirring clearly wasn't enough to incorporate everything into a smooth dough that I'd become accustomed to. The dough didn't seem to have improved much when I gave it another stir before sliding it into the fridge for the overnight rise. And it still didn't look much better when I took it out the next day. Sure, it had risen a fair amount, but there were a handful of dry-looking patches on the surface; the bubbles just under the surface didn't look very uniform; and worst of all, it didn't have the seductive, baby's-bottom silkiness that successful bread doughs seemed to have. Ah well, I thought, as I pushed the pot (well, a Pyrex, since I didn't have an oven-resistant Calphalon that Jacques used) into the oven. At least the neighborhood birds will be well fed and happy.

Wrong! I still don't know why, but the recipe works beautifully. Forty minutes later, the thing actually looked and smelled like bread. All the dry patches had magically disappeared. With big air holes just under the top crust and heavier crumbs toward the bottom, the bread is similar to those rustic Italian bread some restaurants serve. It was on the salty side, but with cultured butter slathered on, it was great. If someone had served me that bread and told me that the bread was never kneaded, I wouldn't have believed it. It was bread, nothing less.

I don't know if I'd bake Jacques' pot bread again, though. The problem? Without the non-stick, oven-proof goodness of a high-end Calphalon, the bread gets inseparable from the container. It clings to the pot like it's found a long-lost mother. It took my sturdy husband a good ten minutes of vigorous pounding, shaking and shoving to get the bread out of the Pyrex. Because the dough is mixed right in the pot, it cannot be pre-greased, which would make it easier to get the bread off. When I finally buy a larger cast iron pan (I only have a tiny 6-inch cutie), maybe I'll go back to try this no-knead bread again. Until then, I'll stick with the good old knead n' bake method.

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Kevin / March 4, 2009 8:41 PM

Sounds a lot like Bittman's No-Knead bread. Which my wife makes, and is awesome. Check out the Bitten blog on the NY Times, and you will see. I think he did a follow up post with an improvement to that recipe.

Sandra / March 5, 2009 10:54 AM

All you'd have to do is mix the bread, take it out of the pot and put it into a temporary holder, then wash out the pot, grease it and put the bread mixture back in, let it rise and then cook.

Yu / March 5, 2009 5:50 PM

If I had to wash the pot before putting the dough back in, doesn't that kind of cancel out the point (and fun) of the recipe, though?? For me, at least, the beauty of this recipe is the fact that you can bake the bread in one pot, no more, no less.

Mary / March 6, 2009 6:04 PM

Please tell me I am not the only bummed out that this bread does not actually contain pot?

Christopher / March 9, 2009 3:16 PM

Now, I'm curious. Can you actually post the recipe?

Yu / March 9, 2009 8:21 PM

All right, I finally found the recipe--so to speak. A complete episode of "Fast Proof" from Jacque Pepin's More Fast Food My Way is posted on PBS's website. I know it can be kind of annoying to have to watch the entire show for a single recipe, but I really don't feel like posting someone else's recipe online. Enjoy!

Frances Quinn / January 21, 2010 1:17 PM

You might be interested to know that you can purchase inexpensive hard anodized pots and pans from QVC. I am not afilliated(?) with QVC in any way except to purchase their products which I find very reliable.

Breadlicios / November 29, 2012 6:41 PM

I realize this is an old post but am making a correction for those that want the correct info.

@Mark March 4 2009
The "No Knead" bread was from Jim Lahey. Bitman was only the NYT reporter presenting the recipe on Lahey's behalf. Lahey wanted everyone to have it freely.

Pepin's recipe is also a bit wetter than even Lahey's recipe. I was shocked and a bit skeptical at Pepin's outcome in the episode so I went in search of comments on the web. Surprisingly most comments are extremely positive and I'll be trying this myself in the next day or so.

Hermione Hairpie / December 18, 2012 11:36 PM

You won't make this bread again because you're too cheap to buy a simple nonstick pan? M'kay... Listen honey, if you're so penurious then maybe you shouldn't be so preoccupied with gourmet fare, nes't pas you twit?

Cindy French / June 16, 2014 2:02 PM

THIS IS THE BEST BREAD EVER! I agree with H. Hairpie, make the bread like it says and it comes out beautiful every time, you cheap &%$#$. I already had teflon pans and the temp is 400 degrees not 450. It is to die for.

Gwen / January 26, 2015 12:53 PM

I know this is an old post, but I thought I would try to add a little insight.

When you knead bread, the objective is to not so much to combine everything as to develop and strengthen the gluten strands that give bread its texture. With these long-rise breads, the activity of the yeast actually does this work--in essence kneading the bread for you. It's obviously a slower process (yeasts have little tiny hands after all), which is why these breads often require a 12-18 hour rise at some point.

I haven't tried Jacques Pepin's recipe (I'm about to), but the other long-rise breads I've tried all create a very rustic loaf--perfect for a bread bowl for soup or stew.

As to the difficulty of getting it out of the pan, in the episode where this recipe aired, he clearly says to use a non-stick pan. I suspect you could do this like the Lahey/Bittman recipe and cook it in a parchment paper lined Dutch oven, but I'm going to procure a hard anodized non-stick pot to see/taste he difference for myself.

Jacques Pepin's recipe can be seen here (it's very near the beginning of the episode):

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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