Some Kneadless Exposition
As far as we’ve been able to determine, Jim Lahey was the first to put together the four essential elements of what has come to be known as no-knead bread—wet dough, little yeast, long rise, and Dutch oven—or at least the first to tell the world about them. But each of those elements existed previously and separately, as part of various bread-making techniques, both ancient and modern, from around the world.
(Disclaimer: Most of the information in this installment comes from Chef Zuz reading a lot of cookbooks and internet articles, and most certainly NOT through years of baking or anything that resembles actual expertise. As usual at Cuisine Stupide, it only looks like we know what we’re doing.)
The long rise, for example, is key to almost every recipe that calls for a preferment—also known as a starter. In Italian bread-making, it’s called a biga; in France, a pâte fermentée or poolish; in American kitchens, it’s often referred to a sponge. The number of variations on the preferment technique is truly mind-boggling, but the basic idea is that a small amount of dough is created and allowed to ferment, usually overnight or longer, and then combined with the main ingredients. The method tends to give the finished bread a richer flavor and better texture than that of a short-rising loaf.
In addition to the long rising period, some preferment methods foreshadow other elements of Lahey’s technique. For example, a poolish often consists of a very wet dough and utilizes only a small amount of yeast.
In the years leading up to Mark Bittman’s big reveal, other bakers and chefs were developing the precursors to Lahey’s technique. No history of no-knead bread would be complete without acknowledging Suzanne Dunaway and her 1999 James Beard Award-nominated book No Need To Knead: Handmade Italian Bread in 90 Minutes. Dunaway, too, used a wet dough but only standard amounts of yeast and normal rise times. The catch? Her recipes work best in producing a low-loft bread like focaccia. Many of her other breads require a sponge and an overnight fermentation.
But the earliest of the no-knead precursors, at least in print, may have come from none other than celebrity chef Jacques Pépin, who devoted several pages of his 1995 book Jacques Pépin’s Table: The Complete Today’s Gourmet to the subject of “long-proofed breads,” including one he dubbed Farmer Bread:
When creating the recipes for this book, I found I liked the results I got when I used a minimum of packaged yeast and let the dough proof a long time. The resulting loaves have a thick, crusty exterior and will stay fresh—at least the larger loaves—for up to a week if stored in plastic bags. (Page 475.)
Later (that is, post-Bittman), Pépin would add another Lahey-esque element to his recipe: the Dutch oven. Pépin’s particular innovation, published in 2008, was to use the pot as a mixing bowl, a further simplification of the process that would produce one of the more popular competitors to Lahey’s seminal technique: Pépin’s One Pot Bread (recipe below).
Slow and Easy Bread in a Pot
2 1/4 cups tepid water (about 90 degrees)
1 teaspoon quick-rise yeast
1 tablespoon salt (or more to taste)
4 cups all-purpose flour (about 1 pound 5 ounces)
Combine the water, yeast, and salt in a nonstick saucepan (Pépin’s is 3.2 quarts) that is about 8 inches across and 4 inches deep. Add the flour and mix thoroughly with a sturdy wooden spoon for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the dough is well combined. Cover with a lid and let rise at room temperature (about 70 degrees) for 1 hour, until it bubbles and rises about 1 inch in the pot.
Even though the dough is only partially proofed, scrape the inside of the pot above the level of the dough with a rubber spatula to collect any soft pieces of dough clinging to the sides of the pot. Still using the rubber spatula, bring the edge of the dough in toward the center to deflate it. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 12 to 14 hours.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Uncover the pan and bake for 1 hour, covering the bread loosely with a piece of aluminum foil after 45 minutes if it is getting too brown. Remove the bread from the oven and set aside for about 5 minutes to allow the bread to shrink from the sides of the pan. Unmold and cool on a wire rack for at least 1 hour before slicing.
Next: Copycats and Contrarians