There’s nothing quite like the smell of homemade bread baking in the oven. Perhaps the only thing better is the taste of that first warm slice. But tell us that we can have both of these pleasures with a total of about 10 minutes of physical prep time and we’d tell you that you’re dreaming.
But then along came Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, and a nice little write-up in the November 2006 issue of the New York Times, and, well, dreams do in fact come true.
With literally about 10 minutes of your labor you can have beautiful, flavorful, artisan crusty bread cooling on the counter in your own kitchen. But you also must have patience – although you only do about 10 minutes of work, the yeast has to work for about 24 hours. But that’s the secret of no-knead bread.
There are two basic ways to work yeast through a dough and create those intricate webs of gluten and pockets of carbon dioxide that give bread structure, spring, airiness, and texture: 1) kneading and 2) long “rises.” In addition to the lack of physical exertion, the latter method has the added benefit of deepening the complexity of the flavor of your bread as well.
So, if you can plan a day ahead, here’s what you do:
In a large mixing bowl, mix well the following ingredients, starting with the water then adding gradually the dry ingredients via a sifter:
- 3 cups bread flour
- 2 tsp salt
- 3/8 tsp fast acting yeast (we use “Rapid Rise”)
- 1.5 cups + 1 tsp of lukewarm water (save that last teaspoon for the very end)
We say save that last teaspoon of water because typically we’ve found that that is about how much additional liquid you need to incorporate the last bit of flour into the ball of dough. Total time for this effort: about 5 minutes.
Now, cover that bowl with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place (80ish degrees – we put it in our utility closet where the water heater lives).
After about 12 hours that ball of dough turns into a bubbly soup. Stir the soup down back into a dough blob (it will be wetter now), and then cover the bowl and put it back in the closet. Total effort for this step: about 30 seconds.
After roughly 8 more hours the bowl will be filled with a ripe soup again, this time with larger bubbles. The picture above actually shows a rise that we let go a little past the ripe stage – you can see where the soup has “fallen.”
Stir the soup down into a dough blob, then dump the blob onto a liberally-floured piece of parchment paper. Do a “diaper fold” on the dough blob by folding the bottom half over the center, then the top half, then the right side, then the left side. Then flip the entire blob over so that the seam side is against the paper. Sprinkle more flour on the top surface of the dough and cover with plastic wrap. Put back in the closet and let it rise for two more hours. Total effort for this step: about 1 minute and 30 seconds.
In the meantime, choose your baking vessel. The traditional Lahey recipe calls for a dutch oven, like the one on the left, but we’ve also used two ceramic loaf pans, like the one on the right, using one to hold the dough and the second as the “lid,” because the first stage of baking requires that you have a lid on your cooking vessel.
Place your dutch oven and lid on a rack in the lower third of your oven, and set your oven temperature to 475 degrees. Yes, that’s hot.
Allow your oven and the dutch oven + lid to preheat at this temperature for at least an hour (we usually turn the oven on 1 hour into the final dough rise).
Now, here’s the tricky part. The dough is going to be really soft and squirmy, plus it just rose for 2 hours; so – despite how liberal you were with the flour – inevitably it is going to want to stick to the parchment paper to some extent. Also, you have to do this next part quickly and you’re handling a dutch oven that is 475 degrees. So, grab some heat-resistant oven mitts (the leather ones work best), and grab another person, if you can.
With oven mitts on, quickly remove the dutch oven from your oven and close the oven door. Remove the lid from the dutch oven and then (this is where it helps to have a second person that isn’t wearing oven mitts) scoop up the dough blob as best you can (using two hands helps), and toss it into the dutch oven. Replace the lid on the dutch oven and put it back into your oven. Take off the oven mitts, set the oven timer for 35 minutes, and go drink a glass of wine. Total effort for these steps, including pouring a glass of wine: about 2 minutes.
When the timer goes off, open the oven door and quickly remove the lid from your dutch oven (use your mitts!!) and close the oven door. Set your timer for 15 minutes.
When the timer goes off, put on your oven mitts and remove the dutch oven and immediately dump the loaf onto a cooling rack – it should come out very easily. Total time for this step: about 1 minute.
Allow the loaf to cool for about an hour. About 5 minutes into the cooling process you’ll start hearing the wonderful crackling sound that is indicative of a perfect crusty bread – it’s like music to your ears after all this waiting.
This loaf makes a hearty, almost sourdough-flavored bread that is just the ideal accompaniment to a creamy soup or chowder. The crust will be crackly-crisp and the inside will be chewy and springy. Here’s one that we did in the ceramic loaf pans:
Putting something this beautiful out on your counter just makes you feel, well, accomplished. And when you taste it you will begin to realize that good artisan bread may not be completely out of your reach. It just takes patience.
And in the end (if we did our math correctly – were you adding??) you’ve only spent about 10 minutes of actual labor in the kitchen. You just can’t beat that.