Super frugal baking: slow cooker sourdough

I’ve been a little crock-pot happy the last few days (with good reason of course: Crock pots are awesome!). After my happy realization that I could cook dried beans using far less energy than the stovetop, using my crock pot, I decided to take another plunge into the world of slow cooker baking.

I made bread in my slow cooker once before (and strangely, that is consistently the most clicked-on post on my entire blog since someone pinned it on Pinterest), but it was a bit strange, with a very hard bottom crust.

But after checking numerous sites, I found out the reason for my earlier flaw: direct contact with the bottom of the slow cooker with create a very thick crust. This is easy to avoid by cooking it in another cooking vessel, inside the slow cooker, and raising that vessel up a tad off the floor of the crock pot.

So I decided to try with my current favourite sourdough rye bread (a spiked “epoxy” dough from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads book–which means it has some sourdough, some soaked dough, and some commercial yeast added on baking day). This morning I got the final dough together and gave it a first rise. Then, without a final proofing, and also without pre-heating the crock pot, I degassed the dough and put it into a well-oiled pyrex bowl which I then perched on a canning ring inside my crock pot.

I let it bake for about 2.5 hours, until I could see the top starting to firm up (the top finishes last in this type of baking since the heat doesn’t really make it up that high).

Now, bread gourmands would be shocked at this bread I’m sure. It was slightly browned on the bottom, but there was no crackly crust, no maillard reaction, no grigne to speak of. But it was bread. It was even quite good!

The crumb was open and creamy, as it seemed that the proofing happened inside during the crock’s warm-up. It was well-risen indeed. Actually it seemed a touch over proofed, but just a touch. Still certainly enjoyable.

I have to admit, it was very light and fluffy, which I would love to attribute to my amazing kneading skillz, or the crock pot proof, but I think it was probably because I ran out of my usual stone-milled whole wheat and supplemented with some supermarket “whole” wheat stuff that is really just white bread with a bit of bran thrown in. Blush.

Some tweaks

For future experiments–and I will be doing this again, oh yes–I plan on finding a better baking vessel, maybe a coffee can? I would like something with straight sides, as with my bowl method the dough actually rose up and touched the inside of the lid, which meant some condensation got on the bread which made some really nasty gummy spots.

I might also try preheating the slow cooker while I proof the bread a bit outside the oven, to see if I can get it “baking” a bit sooner and lose the over-proofed yeasty taste.

In any case, I’m excited for summer baking. I can put my slow cooker on my balcony and enjoy fresh bread without heating up the house! And it also gives me hope for another summer plan: solar cooking! Stay tuned . . .

Slow Cooker Bread–for real???

I believe it was Suzanne who left a comment on my “Heatwave” post about using a crock pot in the summer to avoid heating up the house. That got me thinking. I’ve been doing a lot of reading over on A Year of Slow Cooking, and have been feeling very inspired about my crock pot. Apparently they’re very efficient little cookers, letting off very little heat, which also means very little wasted energy.

And then, I think it was the Roasted Garlic Spoonbread recipe that got me thinking . . . is it possible to bake bread in a slow cooker? Is that crazy? Or is it a wonderful, wonderful way to make bread all summer long without heating up the house?

In the end, I think it is somewhere in the middle, or possible both: a little crazy and a little wonderful (though I’m willing to go a little crazy to try to amp up the wonderful, in classic Frugal + Urban experiment stylez).

Parchment-lined loaf pan baking inside my slow cooker

So what I did is this: I made a batch of miraculous no-knead bread and stuck it in the fridge over night. Then this morning, I hacked off a hunk of dough, shaped it and stuck it into a parchment-lined small loaf pan. I let it warm up to room temperature and then I stuck it into the slow cooker on high, which I had warmed up for 15 minutes beforehand.

My slightly misshapen loaf

After about an hour, the delicious aroma of baking bread started filling the house. I let it bake for about 3 hours total, until I could see the sides were browned, and it had a nice hollow thump sound when I knocked on the bottom. I removed it and let it cool out of the pan.

In the end, it tasted very good! A little misshapen, but that was because of my sloppy parchment papering. The weirdest thing was the crust: it was crunchy and browned on the bottom and sides, where it had come into contact with the heat of the pan, but soft and pale on top where no heating element had the chance to crisp it up, and where it may have been exposed to a lot of moisture falling from the lid.

That didn't last long!

But none of that stopped us from eating the whole loaf.

It was good enough to inspire me to try more experiments! For my next one (two loaves of bread in less than 24 hours!!!) I hacked off my hunk of cold dough, shaped it into a small boule, and stuck it directly into the cold slow cooker. I’ve turned it on low, and I’m going to leave it on all night. What will I be greeted with in the morning? Hopefully breakfast 🙂

The morning loaf, baked on low overnight

June 23 update: Another yummy loaf of bread! This one, baked right inside the slow cooker insert, without a baking pan, was only crisp on the bottom, and, maybe because I let it cook longer, the top was not as soft. I did vent the lid with a toothpick before going to bed (just used the toothpick to hold the lid open a tiny crack, enough for some steam to escape), which may have been a factor in the improved top crust. I didn’t leave it overnight, but woke up around 4 or so and went and shut it off. In any case, it worked out well because the loaf is halfway eaten already!

All this bread baking is a clear inspiration to go and pick some local strawberries and make a big batch of jam!