Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Yes. You Can. No, Really. You can make this bread. Quit arguing and just go to the kitchen, okay?

If any of you has the slightest foodie inclination, you probably already know about the no-knead bread sensation that swept the internet a few years ago. It began when Mark Bittman, the New York Times' "Minimalist", finagled the recipe out of Jim Lahey, a NYC baker. It's never really gone away; variations pop up periodically as people experiment and rediscover the thrill of triumphing over the daunting task of bread-baking. Alton Brown has a version. Cook's Illustrated did one. Jaques Pepin made a take on it on his "Fast Food My Way" show. There was an NPR special on it. Whole books have been published on the subject. Some skeptics remain -- no-knead bread must be about culinary laziness; it requires expensive equipment; it takes too long; it's fussy.

Au contraire, my friends; the no-knead technique is a most forgiving and obliging one, one that results in an end product greater than the sum of its parts and much greater than the amount of required labor would suggest.

In other words, it's dead simple, and it makes great bread. So, without further ado, here's what you need to do RIGHT NOW. I mean it.

Take four cups of flour, and mix them with one teaspoon of sugar, two teaspoons of salt, a half teaspoon of instant yeast, and two cups of ice water. Keeping in mind variations in humidity and flour measurement, adjust the amount of liquid and flour so you have a sticky, shaggy mass of dough. It should be too soft to "stand up" but not soft enough to pour. Stir that vigorously for about ten seconds, cover and forget about it for about 18 hours.

Then give the mix a quick stir, cover it again and let it sit for about two hours, more or less. About a half-hour before you want to bake the bread, turn your oven to 450.

Put a baking vessel of some kind in the oven as it preheats. You can use a cast-iron skillet, a dutch oven, a fancy Le Creuset, a terra cotta planter, anything, as long as it's safe to heat it to 450 degrees when it's empty. If it's got a lid that's oven safe, great; preheat that too. If not, fill another oven-safe vessel with water and put it on the bottom rack while the oven preheats.*

When the dough is ready, have a spatula at the ready, pull out the baking vessel from the oven, scrape the dough into it, cover it if you've got a lid, and put it back into the oven. Let it bake for 55 minutes. If you're using a lidded vessel, take the lid off at this point and let bake for another 15-20 minutes. If you're not using a lidded vessel, cover the top of the loaf with foil to prevent over-browning and let bake for another 15-20 minutes.

Remove the loaf and let cool completely before slicing.

* Notes:

1. I use a 10-inch cast iron skillet, and fill my great big roaster pan with water. The key to this bread's crust and texture is steam. One of the reasons artisanal bakeries can make such great bread is that they often have multi-thousand-dollar steam ovens that create the necessary environment for the crackling crust they charge a premium for.
2. For the love of little green apples, don't underbake this bread! An 70-80 minutes is a LONG time compared with most home-baked bread, but it's completely necessary. The water content of the dough is extremely high, and if you don't bake it long enough, you'll wind up with a weird, gummy interior.
3. Once you've baked the original version, you'll find this bread to be infinitely adaptable. You can use a light-flavored lager in place of the cold water. You can use half rye flour and stir caraway seeds in. You can use honey in place of the sugar and half whole-wheat flour. You can add rolled oats or wheat germ. You can stir in sunflower seeds, millet, and pumpkin seeds just before the second rise. Or walnuts and dried cranberries. Or fresh rosemary and roasted garlic. Or... you get the idea.
4. The rise times aren't hard science. If you can't do 18 hours but you can do 14 or 16 or 20, great. If it's going to be more than a day until you can get to it again, it can sit in the fridge for up to 24 hours at any point in the process -- just think of it as the "pause" button.
5. If this isn't the best bread you've ever made at home, I will... be extremely surprised. It's so good, it's kind of magical. Do yourself a favor; get it started tonight.


ckjolly said...

whatever, laura. there's no way that i'd go through all that. 5 Minute Artisan Bread is the way to go.

Radagast said...

Off-topic, but here's one for the more economical: can you eat that moldy food?

DrHarry said...

My Dad made no knead bread for years and years. It´s good, but personally I don´t think it´s as good as the kneaded stuff. My solution? I´m going to buy a machine to knead the bread for me :)

Also, his recipe only sat for a couple of hours, not 18 and he cooked it in a regular bread tin. But it definitely works.

Laura said...

'stine, I KNEW you'd make some smart-aleck remark about ABin5. Have you seen their website? It's amazing. And the second edition is coming out in a couple of months.

Radagast, EW. Except cheese. I am an unabashed mold-cutter-offer when it comes to cheese.

See, Dr. Harry, the long, long rise is what takes the place of kneading because the gluten develops just as much as if you'd kneaded it, but without the work. Christine mentioned Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes A Day, which is the same principle except you keep the dough in the fridge. This method makes a bread that is FAR superior to any other bread I've ever made, kneaded stuff included.

Bobble said...

OK, I did it right away but it took more than 10 seconds to get it combined — more like 40-60 seconds. And it's pretty stiff. Is it really 4 cups flour to 2 cups water?

Laura said...

Yup, but depending how you measure your flour... You can add a bit more liquid if you need it, so it's a little more stirrable. I'll change the instructions to reflect that.

Thanks for the feedback! :)

Radagast said...

Sorry for being "ew." The USDA document encourages cutting mold off hard cheese and firm vegetables, and dumping everything else.

Laura said...

Haha... that was a facetious "ew," R. I forgot that I do cut mold off of some fresh veggies, but not furry mold, just those little black spots, you know? I cut some off a tomato tonight because there were just a few little bad spots and a whole 2-pound tomato that I was NOT going to waste.


Radagast said...

Getting back to the recipe, my first reaction was that I have nothing safe to heat to 450 degrees.

My second reaction was that 451 would be a more memorable temperature.

My third reaction was that you meant 230 degrees, of course.

Laura said...

My first reaction to your first reaction: oh, that's too bad.

Second: LOL.

Third: also LOL, also, smug metric system users. Harrumph.

Radagast said...

We're not smug! :)

But if you don't translate for your Aussie readers, some of us may produce bread that looks more like charcoal than anything else. :)

Bobble said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bobble said...

This is a picture of my bread. (I really did make it right away, it just took a few days before I uploaded my pictures from my camera.) Unfortunately, I was not impressed. I'm sure I followed your instructions exactly, so I don't know why it didn't turn out well. The crust was so hard I couldn't eat it. I think I'll stick with my favourite, Breadmaker Oatmeal Brown Bread.