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.
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.
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