For the past couple of months I’ve been raving about a no-knead bread recipe that produces an astounding loaf. This is Serious Bread, slightly sour, chewy, with a great crust. And it’s embarrassingly easy. The dough is a very forgiving one, and it’s a godsend for those of us who physically can’t knead bread and (irrationally) feel like a food processor or mixer are cheating. (Not that I don’t use them for bread, I just feel funny about it.)
All credit for this must go to Mark Bittman, who wrote about the bread in the New York Times, and Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York who introduced it to him. The recipe has swept through the food-blog world, so my discussion of it is only one of dozens.
If you’ve made yeast breads before, let me warn you, this recipe is very different in several ways. The proportions of the ingredients is unusual, the dough is very wet, it’s handled differently, there’s a very long rise and a fairly uncommon style of baking. Even the water temperature is different. But the recipe seems very forgiving, and I would recommend it to an amateur as a lesson in just how relaxed bread baking can be.
The flour can be regular all-purpose flour or bread flour; I use King Arthur’s bread flour because I have it on hand. You can substitute whole wheat flour for some of the flour, but I wouldn’t advise it until you’re familiar enough with the whole process. It’s much more difficult to tell when the bread is done, I found, than with other whole wheat loaves I’ve made in the past. I have no good explanation for this.
Bittman’s original recipe called for instant yeast. All I had on hand the first time was regular yeast; I used the same amount and dissolved it in the water before I stirred it into the flour. That worked well. The amount is far less than in regular bread recipes because the rising time is so much longer. The quarter of a teaspoon is not a misprint.
Equipment? One very large bowl for the rising—you may mix the dough and let it rise in the same container without washing it out. A large cotton towel that isn’t terry cloth; a clean pillowcase will do if you haven’t a dish towel large enough. And a 6 to 8 quart heavy covered pot is essential. It can be cast iron, enamel, Pyrex, ceramic, Corning Ware or, as I use, a heavy cast aluminum Dutch oven. Mine has a plastic knob on the lid. I worried about that melting and tried the oft-repeated instruction to cover the knob with a wad of aluminum foil. That seemed to work well, but one day I forgot it. Know what? Nothing happened. I make no guarantees about your plastic knobs, however. That lid is important; you must have it.
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon yeast, preferably instant (see above)
2 teaspoons salt
Cornmeal for dusting
In a large bowl, stir together flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cup water (room temperature or cool) and stir until blended. Dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise at normal room temperature at least 12 hours, up to as much as 18. I often mix the dough after dinner so that it can rise overnight.
The dough is ready when the surface is dotted with bubbles and when tipping the bowl shows the long strings of dough that are produced by gluten. Don’t obsess over this time limit. I’ve moved on to the next step in as little as 10 hours and the results were nothing to be ashamed about. I’ve never had to go more than 14.
Flour a work surface and turn the dough out onto it. A large rubber spatula will help. Sprinkle the dough with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice more. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to relax about 15 minutes. While it’s resting, coat a large, smooth cotton towel with cornmeal. (You could use flour but cornmeal is far superior to prevent sticking and this wet dough really wants to stick.)
Flour your hands and shape dough into a ball. This will be difficult; fortunately you don’t have to be precise. Place it, seam side down, on the prepared towel. Dust the top with flour or cornmeal. Make sure there’s cornmeal on the towel beyond the edges of the loaf; it will spread as it rises. Cover it loosely with plastic wrap and let it rise for about another 2 hours. Check it occasionally; it’ll want to stick to the plastic wrap and grow out beyond the edge of the cornmeal. The dough will be ready when it’s more than double in size and will not readily spring back when you poke it with your finger. In my kitchen, which is chilly even with a heating oven, this takes more than the stated time. That’s okay.
At least half an hour before you think the dough will be ready, check that one of your oven shelves is in the middle position. Put a 6-8 quart heavy lidded pot in the oven. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. And, no, the pan is not greased.
When the dough has risen, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Remove the lid. Slide your hand under the towel. (Be warned, the remaining cornmeal and flour will fall onto the counter as you lift the dough.) Turn the dough into the pot , seam side up. As Bittman says, "It may look like a mess, but that is O.K." Give the pan a shake or two if the dough is unevenly distributed, but it will straighten out as it bakes. Put the lid back on and return pan to the oven. Bake 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake another 15-30 minutes until the top is deep golden brown. The loaf will sound hollow when it’s tapped. Remove from the oven, turn out the loaf and let it cool on a rack.
The aroma is wonderful. The loaf will crackle as it cools, and the urge to slice it before it cools is almost irresistible. It’s bread that reminds you why bread once was considered a meal.