No-knead bread meets a need

CorrespondentJanuary 28, 2007 


My husband enjoys making bread, an impulse I have encouraged by buying him any equipment he might need, from a stone for the oven to a peel for removing the loaves to lint-free linen towels.

However, his favorite recipe is so time consuming and messy (sorry, but it's true) that preparing the bread has been reserved for special occasions.

He uses a recipe from "Bread Alone" by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik (Morrow, 1993). The process requires fermenting a poolish, a type of starter, overnight and 15 to 17 minutes of vigorous hand kneading. Then comes more hours of fermenting, during which my husband takes the dough's temperature with an instant-read thermometer. When baking, he opens the oven door a couple of times to spray the oven walls with water (the steam helps form the crust). By the time the loaves are ready, flour is on virtually every horizontal kitchen surface.

It is wonderful bread, with a slight sourdough flavor and firm, even texture. We savor it like rare wine. Then, it's gone, leaving only its lingering aroma.

Fresh homemade bread is such a soul-satisfying delight, but has seemed out of regular reach. Yes, bread machines work, but I don't want to surrender counter space to a large, single-function appliance.

Then, I heard about the famous no-knead bread recipe.

This thing has circled the Internet faster than African get-rich spam since it appeared in The New York Times last November. My brother-in-law mentioned it to me last month, but didn't come through with the recipe, so I went looking for it. Didn't take long to find it. According to a follow-up in the Times, the recipe has been translated into German and prepared in Togo.

The original recipe came from Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan, and it lets time do the work instead of your forearms. You simply stir together flour, yeast, salt and water, and let the mixture sit for 18 hours -- just walk away and go about your business. After brief handling, the dough sits for two or three hours more.

The bread is baked in a covered cast-iron pot in a 450-degree oven.

The result is a round, rustic loaf with a chewy crust and an interior with irregularly shaped holes. This is not a fine-textured bread, like my husband's, but is similar in appearance to an Italian ciabatta. It's not full of flavor nuance, but it's good and makes great crostini.

It has also done something that few baking recipes have accomplished: fire the creativity of people from casual cooks to kitchen pros, filling their homes with the aroma of fresh bread. And that can't be bad.

All that this recipe required of me was time, time simply to let the mixture sit in a bowl in my oven's warming drawer. No instant-read thermometers. No need to "praise the dough," as one New Age-y cookbook I have advises.

For my first attempt, I timed the process so that the bread would still be warm for dinner. It went perfectly, and my kitchen wasn't covered in flour and dough wads. I loved the aroma.

Next, I tried adding a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary and a couple of cloves of chopped garlic when I mixed the dough (but you can do it anytime). Perfect again, with a subtle flavor of the herb and garlic.

Virtually everything about this technique is flexible. Add seeds or flavorings. Use whole-wheat flour.

The recipe isn't a new technique -- there's at least one cookbook of no-knead bread recipes out there. But the recipe brings bread down to Earth. Everyone that I've mentioned it to has gotten off-the-charts excited -- almost.

For a cast-iron pot, I went to my neighborhood hardware store. This place isn't a "home improvement center," but a real hardware store, with guys who ask if you need help before the door closes behind you. I found a four-quart pot with a lid, and told the guys I was going to bake bread in it. Blank stares.

Glad I didn't mention a poolish.

The Famous No-Knead Bread

bread

This recipe is a combination of the one from The New York Times, with information from a follow-up article and my own experience preparing the bread.

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for dusting (See Notes)

1/4 teaspoon yeast

2 teaspoons salt

In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups warm tap water and stir until blended. The dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface or silicone mat and place dough on it. Sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a lint-free linen towel (not terry cloth) with flour. Put the dough seam side down on the towel and dust with more flour. Cover with another lint-free linen towel and let rise for 2 to 3 hours. Dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

At least a half-hour before baking, place a 3- to 4-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in the oven and preheat to 450 degrees. When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over into the pot, seam side up. It may look like a mess, but that's OK. Shake the pan once or twice if the dough is unevenly distributed, but it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake 15 to 30 minutes more, until loaf is beautifully browned. Remove the loaf from the pot and cool on a rack.

Makes 1 1/2-pound loaf

Notes: Substitute up to 50 percent whole wheat flour, if desired. At 100 percent whole wheat, the texture may suffer but you can try it.

Add herbs or other flavorings when initially mixing the dough. They can be added after the 18-hour rise, if necessary.

Use wheat bran or cornmeal to coat the towels instead of flour, if desired.

If the pot has handles, be sure they're heat resistant or remove them.

Before removing the heated pot from the oven place 2 or 3 cooling racks on the counter as a landing zone. Do not place the superheated pot straight on the counter. Use sturdy oven mitts.

(Freelance writer and cookbook author Debbie Moose is a former food editor for The News & Observer. Reach her at debbie@debbiemoose.com.)

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