April 4th, 2014

Bread In Your Slow Cooker: Not Slow Enough

IMG_8957The slow cooker. It’s a rediscovered favorite of foodies everywhere. But yours truly was a bit slow to embrace the ‘ol crock pot.

Not because I consider slow cookers passe — far from it. But the limitations of a wee apartment made it hard to justify such a bulky item. At my house, where we’ve squeezed extra storage into every conceivable space, we have a pretty high bar for any kitchen appliance that plugs in. Ice cream maker — nope. Toaster oven? Sadly, no. Food processor bigger than three cups? (Oh, how I want a real food processor!) Not a chance.

So my little kitchen and I pined for a slow cooker for years before I scored a cast-off (thank you, Brian and Julie!). Because, with it being free and all, and just a 4 quart size — how could I say no?

Yet despite my enthusiasm, and the slow-cooker renaissance of recent years, we don’t get as much mileage out of our little crock pot as we could. That’s due in large part to my fear of leaving the thing unattended all day. (Leave something cooking? While no one’s here? Yeah, yeah, I know — that’s the whole idea. But … really??)

IMG_8940 I digress. The point being, we have this thing taking up space that gets pulled out quarterly, if that. Now, I won’t be giving this trusty machine up — that quarterly slow-cooked pork we make is far too delicious for that — but It would be easier to justify its presence better if I found more uses for it.

So … why not bread? Yup, it’s true — you can bake bread in your slow cooker. Who knew? Well, lots of slow-cooker trailblazers, apparently, who have put some effort into perfecting it. And since we love making bread, I decided to give it a go.

I did some hunting around for tips, with some additional help from Adam. I stirred, I proofed, I shaped and I slow-cooked. And the bread was good.

Buuuut … my verdict? Honestly, I don’t really see any particular benefit to baking bread in a slow cooker. It just isn’t slow enough, you see. In the end, it takes about the same amount of time, at least the preparation I made, as baking it in the oven.

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While my loaf didn’t need a second rise, which takes about an hour, it took an hour longer in the cooker than my typical oven technique. And during the last 20 minutes or so of cooking, I had to keep checking the bread’s internal temperature to ensure the final product would be neither under- nor overcooked.

In the end, the crock pot neither saved me time, nor baked slowly enough to give me the freedom to wander off and go shopping, much less go to bed or to work. And you can’t get a nice, browned crust without putting the baked loaf under the broiler to finish it off.

Don’t get me wrong — the bread was delicious. The texture was as good as my oven-baked preparations — though perhaps a wee bit drier. There was no difference in flavor. The only added benefit, as far as I can tell, is if you need to bake bread while your oven is otherwise in use. Or if you want to bake bread on a sweltering day and your oven, like mine, makes your entire kitchen unbearable. Or you just want to justify keeping a slow cooker in your tiny kitchen.

For some cooks, the novelty of telling your friends, “Did you know you can make bread in a slow cooker?” may be enough of a benefit to try it out.

Slow Cooker Bread

I riffed on the no-knead bread recipe and technique from the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes folks. You’ll find their full instructions here.

I cut their original recipe in half, which made two small loaves (I baked one in the oven, one in the crock pot). If you have a large crock pot, you could try making a single loaf, but I didn’t test that out. 

I also found this post from The Kitchn extremely helfpul — lots of great tips. Also, as I mentioned, the slow cooker won’t give you the browning or crust  you expect with a loaf of bread, so you’ll see some instructions below for finishing it off under the broiler. 

1 1/2 cups lukewarm (not hot!) water IMG_8942edit

1/2 tablespoon yeast  (I used granulated)

1/2 tablespoon (or so) salt

3 1/4 cups (1 pound) flour. I used about 1 part whole wheat, 2 parts all-purpose)

Mix water, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Pour in the flour in one go and stir until it’s all well-incorporated.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap punctured with a small hole (I pricked it once with a pen tip). Let it sit for about 2 hours. It will grow and get bubbly!

At this point, I formed two balls from the dough for two small loaves (I baked one in the oven and one in the crock pot).

Put the ball on a large piece of parchment paper and carefully place it in the slow cooker, set to high.

Now comes the tricky part: slow cookers are all very different. You want your bread to reach an internal temperature of 110. Lower and you risk gummy bread, higher and it will be too dry. You’ll want to check your bread temperature with a cooking thermometer after about 45 minutes to check its progress.

Ultimately, my cooker took about 2 hours, total. Cooking time may vary.

Your loaf won’t be browned, so crank up your broiler and pop the cooked loaf in on the middle rack, for a few minutes. Watch it closely — I probably didn’t pull it out fast enough! The broiler will quickly give it a nice, browned crust.

Now, the hardest part of all: waiting! Don’t slice your bread before it’s completely cooled. True bread bakers insist it will mar the texture of your loaf, and they would know!

Finally, the Artisan Bread in Five folks shared this disclaimer, and it seems very wise to me: “Check with your crock pot’s manufacturer before trying this, since some model’s instructions specify that the pot has to be at least partially filled with liquid to avoid safety or durability problems. And never bake in a crock pot unattended.”

 

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Posted in Dear Diary

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