The Loaf Awakens: A No-Knead Bake-Off (Part One of Four)

A New Way to Bread

Of the many tens of thousands of words that food journalist Mark Bittman has written, perhaps none have had greater impact on how America cooks than an unassuming little installment of his New York Times column, The Minimalist, published on Nov. 8, 2006. Its headline read: “The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work.”

The column detailed an unusual bread-making technique developed by Jim Lahey at his Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan. Lahey’s method produces the kind of European-style rustic boules, with a bubbly interior and crackling crust, that are a staple product of artisan bakeries but rare from home kitchens.

The recipe quickly became known generically as “no-knead bread,” although the absence of kneading is really the consequence, not the goal, of the defining characteristics of Lahey’s technique:

  1. A very wet dough—so wet that it’s almost impossible to shape by hand.
  2. A tiny amount of yeast, as little as one-eighth of a teaspoon, and no starter.
  3. A long room-temperature rise, at least overnight and preferably 18 hours.
  4. A Dutch oven in which the dough is baked, with the steam from the wet dough creating the rustic crust.

As Benjamin Phelan noted in Slate, the technique ought to be called “slow bread”:

The most important part of the bread-making process is neither kneading nor not-kneading, nor measuring with scientific accuracy, nor any technique per se. The most important thing is to leave the dough alone for long periods of time, over and over again, which is easy to do.

Lahey’s technique was the kind of simple, breaking-all-the-rules idea that foodies adore. And they did.

Bittman’s column immediately went viral. Food writers and bloggers tripped over themselves to herald Lahey’s virtually foolproof technique and the remarkable results. The no-knead recipe went on to become one of the most popular Bittman ever published—top-rated by users of his 2010 How to Cook Everything iPad app and the first of “Mark Bittman’s Best Recipes from The Times” (published when he left the newspaper earlier this year to help launch The Purple Carrot, a vegan meal-kit delivery startup).

And it didn’t stop there. Other chefs, smitten by the frenzy, developed their own versions of the loaf, and a mini-industry of no-knead bread cookbooks was born. Lahey himself turned out a couple of books on the subject. Just about every PBS and Food Network chef seems to have his or her own take on the technique, and a few years ago Bittman himself published a variation that offered a shorter rise (more about all of this in Part Three).

No food fad lasts forever, but this one seems destined to stick around for a while. Baking bread the Lahey way is just so danged easy; fortunately for Chef Zuz, the technique is simple enough even for a dorkwad, and the results tend to blow the minds of dinner guests who haven’t tried the technique themselves.

Cuisine Stupide has spent the better part of several years trying out several of the most popular versions of no-knead bread, starting with Lahey’s himself (below). Subsequent posts will detail our findings. But first, it helps to understand exactly why the Lahey technique, which seems so simple on its face, was so revolutionary in practice.

No-Knead Bread

By Jim Lahey via Mark Bittman

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed

In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Next: Some Kneadless Exposition

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