Bread for beginners
No knead to sweat it: No-Work Bread requires few ingredients and even less skill
Do you love the idea of baking homemade bread, but lack the actual – what’s the word I’m looking for? Talent? Baking skills? Competence?
Yeah, me, too. Which is why No-Work Bread (aka No-Knead Bread) has been such a godsend.
All you do is mix four ingredients in a bowl, wait a day, plop the dough into a Dutch oven or any covered pot, and out comes a gorgeous golden loaf of rustic artisan-style bread.
You never knead it, you barely even shape it, and you never have to fuss over whether the dough will rise or not. It always rises. Since I discovered this recipe three years ago, I have made a loaf, on average, once a week, and not a single one has failed. It’s foolproof.
And the bread is excellent: Crusty on the outside, airy on the inside and loaded with yeasty flavor. It’s not quite to the level of an artisanal bakery, but much closer than you would think.
This baking revolution – that’s not too strong a word – was perfected around 2006 by a New York City baker named Jim Lahey and was popularized shortly afterward by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. Lahey had discovered that if he fermented a very wet dough overnight and then dumped it into a hot, covered Dutch oven, he was actually creating a steamy oven-within-an-oven, simulating the steam ovens used by professionals to create a crackling crust.
The dough was far wetter and stickier than a standard dough. “You couldn’t knead this dough if you wanted to,” Bittman pointed out in the 10th anniversary edition of his classic cookbook, “How to Cook Everything.”
That extra moisture not only created steam, but it gave the yeast extra oomph.
“The moisture in the dough – combined with the long fermentation time – gives the protein in the flour, called gluten, an environment that lets it move around and develop a distinctive, elastic, web-like structure, which is necessary to trap the carbon dioxide generated by the yeast as it feeds,” Bittman wrote.
The result is a beautifully risen loaf with plenty of interior hollows and cavities.
The term “No-Work” is not just hype, unless you consider about 30 seconds of stirring to be work. It’s approximately as difficult as whipping up some pancake batter – from a mix. The only trade-off is this: You can’t whip up a loaf on the spur of the moment. You won’t be eating bread until about 24 hours later.
The original Jim Lahey recipe is included below. Beginners should use that recipe as written a time or two, just to gain some confidence. Then you can start to experiment. Over the years, legions of No-Work Bread fans have come up with all kinds of variations. One embellished recipe is also included below, along with two lists of suggested tweaks and substitutions.
Meanwhile, here are a few observations on the original recipe’s components and techniques:
The flour: All-purpose white flour works perfectly well, but bread flour (a bit higher in protein) makes a slightly airier loaf.
For whole-wheat bread, simply substitute one or two cups of whole wheat flour for the same amount of white flour. Don’t exceed a 50 percent whole wheat-to-white ratio, or your loaf will turn out heavy and dense.
If you want to make 100 percent whole-wheat bread, you should use a recipe specifically designed for that; in other words, something other than No-Work Bread.
The yeast: Either instant or rapid-rise yeast works well. The Saf-Instant brand of instant yeast, sold in one-pound bricks at area supermarkets, is excellent and will last, refrigerated, for dozens and dozens of loaves.
The recipe calls for a surprisingly small amount of yeast, a scant half-teaspoon. Don’t worry, this yeast will ferment and multiply like crazy over nearly a whole day. The first time you peek into a bowl that has been fermenting for 18 hours, you’ll think you’ve spawned The Blob That Ate Spokane.
The liquid: Water works just fine. However, I have discovered that substituting up to one cup of beer adds some welcome flavor to the bread. It doesn’t matter whether the beer is fresh or flat, or light or dark. Just don’t go with ultra-hoppy IPA, or you might detect some bitterness in the bread. (And besides, you should be drinking IPA, not cooking with it.)
A tablespoon of vinegar also adds some tart flavor.
Dumping the dough: The first time you make No-Work Bread, you’ll be perplexed by how to dump this massive blob of risen dough into its hot pot. Don’t fret, just plop it in, being careful not to burn yourself. Yes, it will look like the dough is smashed and ruined. But you’ll be surprised at the way the dough miraculously recovers in the oven.
The Cook’s Illustrated recipe, below, has an elaborate solution to the dough-plopping problem – although I remain unconvinced it’s an actual problem
The container: A covered Dutch oven is the perfect environment – but so is just about any metal, ceramic or stoneware pot, as long as it has a tight-fitting lid.
Try an oblong roasting pan if you want more uniform slices. An aluminum fish-poacher, which I found at a garage sale, simulates a baguette shape.
By the way, the heaviness of the pan makes surprisingly little difference. A thin, cheap roasting pan makes bread just as beautifully as heavy cast-iron.
Once I tried an experiment: I shaped the dough into a rough loaf shape, put it directly on a hot pizza stone, then I inverted an appropriate-sized pan over the dough, like a lid. Even that worked. The key is keeping the steam in during that first half-hour of baking.
The baking: The first 30 minutes, with the lid on, is not negotiable. But the second part of the baking, lid off, can vary from 20 to 30 minutes depending on how dark and crusty you want your bread to be.
By the way, the finished bread will not stick to the pot, any pot. It will slip right out.
Don’t try slicing it right away, because it’ll still be too moist. You’ll just smoosh it.
No-Work Bread has no preservatives, and little or no oil, so it’s not a long keeper. It will taste great the day you make it and pretty good the day after, too. Then, you can put it in a plastic bag for a few days. The wonderful crackly crust will soften and the crumb will dry out, but it will still make excellent toast.
Jim Lahey’s No-Work Bread
From “How to Cook Everything,” by Mark Bittman. This is the original, foolproof recipe. Use it as the basis for a multitude of additions and variations.
4 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus flour for dusting
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups water at about 70 degrees
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (optional)
Cornmeal, semolina or wheat bran, as needed
Combine the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Add the water and stir until blended; you’ll have a shaggy, sticky dough. (Add a little more water if it seems dry.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or put the olive oil in a second large bowl, transfer the dough to that, turn to coat with oil and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest for about 18 hours at about 70 degrees. The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Rising time will be shorter at warmer temperatures, a bit longer if your kitchen is 60-65 degrees.
Lightly flour a work surface, remove the dough and fold once or twice; it will be soft, but once sprinkled with flour, not terribly sticky. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for about 15 minutes.
Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton (not terry cloth) towel with cornmeal, semolina or wheat bran (or use a silicone baking mat); put the dough seam-side down on the towel and dust with more flour or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel (or plastic wrap) and let rise for about two hours.
When it’s ready, the dough will be more than doubled in size and won’t spring back readily when poked with your finger.
At least a half-hour before the dough is ready, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Put a 3- to 4-quart covered pot (with the cover) – it may be cast-iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic – in the oven as it heats. When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven and turn the dough over into the pot, seam-side up. (Slide your hand under the towel and just turn the dough over into the pot; it’s messy, and it probably won’t fall in artfully, but it will straighten out as it bakes.) Cover the lid and bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until the loaf is beautifully browned. (If at any point the dough starts to smell scorched, lower the heat a bit.) Remove the bread with a spatula or tongs and cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing.
Optional “Sped Up” variation: Reduce the initial rise to eight hours and skip the 15-minute resting period. (It won’t be quite as light and flavorful as the regular method.)
• Substitute 1 or 2 cups (maximum) of whole-wheat flour for the same amount of white flour.
• Substitute 1 cup of rye flour for the same amount of wheat flour.
• Substitute 1/4 cup of cornmeal, preferably fine ground, for the same amount of white flour.
Substitute up to 1 cup of beer of any kind – flat is OK, too – for the same amount of water.
Substitute 1 tablespoon of vinegar for the same amount of water.
Here are just a few of the items you can toss in to the dough of your No-Work Bread:
• Golden flax seeds
• Sunflower seeds
• Sesame seeds, either sprinkled atop the loaf or incorporated in the dough
• Whole-wheat berries – soaked and softened beforehand. (The soft white wheat kernels will soften up faster than the hard red kernels.)
• Cracked wheat – no need to soak
• Parmesan cheese (add just before the second rising)
• Chopped, pitted olives
• Dried cranberries
• Toasted pecans (pairs well with the dried cranberries)
• Chopped walnuts
• Minced fresh rosemary, sage, or oregano
• Minced fresh chives, parsley or dill
• Roasted garlic, mashed or chopped
Yield: 1 large loaf
Almost No-Knead Bread
From “The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook,” America’s Test Kitchen
This is a tweaked version of the original recipe, with embellishments that the authors say add flavor and keep the dough from deflating when dropped into the pot. It also has a lower ratio of liquid to flour, which is why they add a brief one-minute knead. Note that it also makes a smaller loaf than the original recipe – 3 cups of flour versus 4 cups.
3 cups (15 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water, room temperature
6 tablespoons mild-flavored lager beer, room temperature
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Whisk flour, salt and yeast together in a large bowl. Add water, beer and vinegar. Using rubber spatula, fold mixture, scraping up dry flour from bottom of bowl, until shaggy ball forms. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 8 to 18 hours.
Lay 18-by-12-inch sheet of parchment paper inside 10-inch skillet and spray with vegetable oil spray. Transfer dough to lightly floured counter and knead by hand 10 to 15 times. Shape dough into ball by pulling edges into the middle. Transfer loaf, seam-side down, to prepared skillet and spray surface of dough with oil spray. Cover loosely with plastic and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about two hours. (Dough should barely spring back when poked with a knuckle.)
Thirty minutes before baking, adjust oven rack to lowest position. Place Dutch oven (with lid), on rack and heat oven to 500 degrees. Lightly flour top of dough and, using sharp serrated knife or single-edged razor blade, make one six-inch long, 1/2 inch deep slash along top of dough.
Carefully remove pot from oven and remove lid. Pick up loaf by lifting parchment overhang and lower into pot (let any excess parchment hang over pot edge.) Cover pot and place in oven. Reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees and bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake until crust is deep golden brown and loaf registers 210 degrees, 20 to 30 minutes longer.
Carefully remove loaf from pot; transfer to wire rack, discard parchment and let cool to room temperature, about two hours, before slicing and serving.
Yield: 1 medium loaf