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

Copycats and Contrarians

The outpouring of attention that the food world gave no-knead bread in the wake of the 2006 Mark Bittman column inspired many other chefs to work up their own versions of Jim Lahey’s technique. Not surprisingly, it also inspired a small backlash against the idea of making bread in such an unconventional manner.

Cooking shows and celebrity chefs were fairly shameless in presenting their own variations on no-knead bread, sometimes with no acknowledgement of Lahey’s original technique.

Jacques Pépin, on his 2008 KQED series More Fast Food My Way and the cookbook that accompanied it, demonstrated a one-pot method that used the Dutch oven for mixing and proofing the dough as well as baking it. It’s worth noting, however, that Pépin’s 1995 long-proofing “Farmer Bread” predated the Lahey technique by a decade (see previous post).

Alton Brown‘s 2008 recipe for “Knead Not Sourdough” is identical to Lahey’s in most respects, calling for more flour, slightly less water, kosher salt, and, most humorously, a 19-hour proof instead of Lahey’s preferred 18 hours (the culinary equivalent, perhaps, of Nigel Tufnel’s “goes to 11” amplifier). Brown, too, was making wet-dough breads pre-Lahey, including his “Everyday Bread” from the cookbook I’m Just Here for More Food (2004).

Cook’s Illustrated unveiled a significant variation, titled “Almost No Knead Bread,” in 2008, adding beer, vinegar, and a few seconds of kneading with the goal of creating a less rustic, more sandwich-ready loaf. The public television show America’s Test Kitchen demonstrated the recipe in 2009.

Peter Reinhart, widely considered one of the best bakers in America, developed his own version of no-knead bread, documented in the 2009 cookbook Artisan Breads Every Day, that relies on a simple “stretch and fold” technique that functions like kneading to create a better texture.

Mark Bittman, who had first unleashed Lahey’s recipe upon the world, published his own variation in 2010, using whole grain flour, a bread pan, and more yeast to reduce the proofing time to less than five hours—a change of which, even Bittman acknowledged, “Lahey wouldn’t approve.”

L.V. Anderson, writing for Slate’s “You’re Doing It Wrong” series, argues against the no-knead technique entirely, calling it a “supposed innovation (that) destroyed half the pleasure of making bread in the first place.”

Of all the offspring of Lahey’s mother recipe, the one developed by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë Francois seems to have won the most converts. In the 2007 cookbook Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (and an updated edition in 2013), the authors introduce a significant innovation: making dough in bulk and storing it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, using portions as desired during that time for fresh bread (the “five minutes” being the time it takes to tear off a chunk of dough, shape it, and place it in a preheated oven).

Unlike Lahey, Hertzberg/Francois use the conventional baking stone and water pan to develop a crispy crust; they offer only a one-sentence acknowledgement of the Dutch oven method in the book’s second edition, although they do offer a more complete overview of the method on their website.

Like Reinhart, Dunaway, and even Lahey himself, Hertzberg and Francois use the basic recipe (below) as the departure point for a whole range of bread styles.

The Master Recipe: Boule (Artisan Free-Form Loaf)

By Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë Francois
from The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Makes four loaves, slightly less than one pound each

3 cups lukewarm water (100 degrees F or less)
1 tablespoon granulated yeast
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Add yeast and salt to the water in a 6-quart bowl or, preferably, in a lidded (not airtight) food container or food-grade plastic bucket. Don’t worry about getting it all to dissolve.

Add all of the flour at once, measuring it in with dry-ingredient measuring cups, or by weighing the ingredients. Mix with a wooden spoon or a heavy-duty stand mixer (with paddle) until the mixture is uniform. You’re finished when everything is uniformly moist, without dry patches.

Cover with a lid that fits well to the container but can be cracked open so it’s not completely airtight. Allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse (or at least flattens on the top), approximately 2 hours, depending on room temperature and initial water temperature. Longer rising times, up to 5 hours, won’t harm the result.

You can use a portion of the dough any time after this period. Fully refrigerated dough is less sticky and easier to work with than dough at room temperature.

Prepare a pizza peel by sprinkling it liberally with cornmeal to prevent the loaf from sticking to it when you slide it into the oven.

Sprinkle the surface of the dough with flour, then cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-sized) piece with a serrated knife. Hold the mass of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it won’t stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom on four “sides,” rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go, until the bottom is a collection of four bunched ends. Most of the dusting flour will fall off; it doesn’t need to be incorporated. The bottom of the loaf will flatten out during resting and baking.

Place the shaped ball on the prepared pizza peel, and allow it to rest for about 40 minutes.

Preheat a baking stone near the middle of the oven to 450 degrees F. Place an empty metal broiler tray for holding water on any shelf that won’t interfere with rising bread.

Dust the top of the loaf liberally with flour, which will prevent the knife from sticking. Slash a 1/2-inch-deep cross, scallop, or tic-tac-toe pattern into the top, using a serrated knife held perpendicular to the bread.

Using the peel, slide the loaf onto the preheated stone. Quickly but carefully pour about 1 cup of hot water from the tap onto the broiler tray and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the crust is richly browned and firm to the touch.

Allow to cool completely (up to 2 hours), preferably on a wire cooling rack.

Store the remaining dough in the refrigerator in your lidded or loosely plastic-wrapped container and use it over the next 14 days.

Next: The Bake-Off, and a Bonus

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