Ironically, I may have started with an EasyBake Oven as a child, but baking remained nowhere near the top of my kitchen activity list growing up, especially once I had exhausted my prepubescent brain of any new light bulb cookery concoctions. So, to tell the truth, I thought a post about baking bread would be a rather unlikely candidate for inclusion at dailyhunger.com.
You see, I detest measuring…Detest might be a strong word, but I’d much rather rely on what my palate is telling me while I’m cooking, than what any specific recipe may call for quantity- and ingredient-wise. But, you can’t do that when you’re baking; baking is more precise, it relies on chemistry and ratios. It requires patience. You can’t really taste and readjust the seasoning of a cake or cookies halfway through the process, or just “add more flour” if the batter doesn’t look right. It hasn’t been cooked yet…So, you’re committed, all-in, from the moment the pan leaves your hands, completely uncooked, to well after you plunge it into the warm confines of your oven. Uncertainty abounds.
Sure, you can turn on the light and peek a bit, but that’s of little comfort when, 30-40 minutes later, all of your patience, hard work and measuring has turned into little hockey pucks or the dreaded sadness pile of a cake that failed to rise. Let’s just say I haven’t had much luck in life when it comes to baking in a big boy oven, bread or otherwise…That is, until I recently discovered the work of Jim Lahey at Sullivan Street Bakery here in NYC.
In his first book, My Bread, published in 2009, he details a “revolutionary no-work, no-knead method” for baking bread at home that rivals the loaves produced by true artisans. Loaves you’ll love…Loaves so ridiculously simple and satisfying to make you’ll wonder how you ever got by without daily, fresh bread on your kitchen counter before. And, once you know the basic recipe, countless variations are possible with just a bit of creativity and a few more ingredients: Cherry-pecan? Sure. Chocolate-coconut? You bet. Cinnamon-raisin? Without a doubt. And, it’s not just sweet variations that are possible. On my list of ideas for soon-to-be-baked savory loaves include garlic confit and herb, caramelized shallot and gorgonzola and even a whole-wheat rosemary-ramp loaf, while ramps are still in season this spring.
What makes Lahey’s bread really shine is how, with just four ingredients (bread flour, water, salt and yeast), minimal kitchen equipment (a digital scale/measuring cups, a mixing bowl, a wooden spoon, and a heavy cast iron Dutch oven) and, literally, five minutes of active preparation time, or less (with no kneading), you can prepare a loaf that will yield all the qualities of great artisanal bread: A crisp, chestnut-colored crust that gives way to a deliciously chewy crumb, or interior, and tastes surprisingly developed due to the exceptionally long fermentation period of the dough (12-18 hours of unattended rise). Don’t believe me? All of these photos are from the first loaf of bread I baked with Lahey’s method...I've since baked over a dozen more, all with equal, if not greater, success.
A quick note on the cast iron Dutch oven, if you don’t already own one: Sure, you can invest a small fortune on a Le Creuset enameled beauty ($200+), but I highly recommend and use the camping staple/hardware store/big-box retailer Lodge brand variety for a mere $30, or less. If you must splurge, you can even get a pretty enameled version of the same for around $50. But, for that same price on Amazon, you can get both the Dutch oven and Lahey’s book delivered to you door with free shipping, just saying…(look for the “Frequently Bought Together” hyperlink on the book product page if you’re interested in acquiring both).
And, although I provide cup/tsp. measurements below, do us both a favor and stop measuring things by volume, especially when you’re baking! Remember, I’m the one who hates to measure and if I’m going to spend time doing it, I make sure it’s accurate. It’s far too easy for “one cup” of flour to become much more than a cup based on how you scoop it out. If you weigh your ingredients, however, that can never be a problem…What? Don’t have a digital scale? Those are dirt-cheap nowadays, too. Pick up an Eat Smart Precision Pro scale for $25 on Amazon.
But, enough with the formalities, let’s bake some bread! I promise you’ll not only succeed handily, but you, too, will be amazed at the quality of loaf produced from your home oven, with next to no work involved.
JIM LAHEY’S BASIC, NO WORK/NO KNEAD BREAD (taken from My Bread)
INGREDIENTS – Yield One 10-inch round loaf; 1 1/4 pounds
400 g (3 c) bread flour
8 g (1 1/4 tsp.) table salt
1 g (1/4 tsp.) active dry yeast
300 g (1 1/3 c) cool water (55-65 degrees F)
Cornmeal or additional flour for dusting
- In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the bread flour, salt and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix only until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Make sure it’s really sticky to the touch; if it’s not, add another tablespoon or two of water. Cover the bowl with a tea towel or plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature (about 72 degrees F), out of direct sunlight, until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough has more than doubled in size. This will take at least 12 hours and, preferably, up to 18 hours for proper fermentation and flavor.
- Once the first fermentation is complete, generously dust your work surface with bread flour. Using a bowl scraper or rubber spatula, scrape the dough onto the work surface in one piece. The dough will be quite loose and sticky – do not add more flour. Use lightly floured hands to lift and fold the edges of the dough into the center. Tuck the corners of the dough under to make a round ball.
- Place a cotton or linen tea towel on your work surface and generously dust it with cornmeal or bread flour. Gently lift and place the dough ball onto the towel, seam side down. If the dough is still tacky, dust the top lightly with cornmeal or bread flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover and place in a warm, draft free spot to rise again for another 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready once it has almost doubled in size again. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression and not immediately spring back. If it doesn’t, let it rise for another 15-20 minutes.
- Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat your oven to 475 degrees F, with the rack in the lower third position, and place a covered 4 1/2 – 5 1/2-quart heavy pot in the center of the rack.
- Remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the towel and lightly dust the dough with cornmeal or flour again. Lift up the dough either on the towel or in your hand and quickly, but gently, invert it into the pot seam side up. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes at 475 degrees F.
- Remove the lid after 30 minutes and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color, but not burnt, about 10-20 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or potholders to carefully lift the finished loaf out of the pot and let it cool thoroughly on a rack (at least an hour) before slicing or tearing into the bread (your patience will be rewarded).
Images: Copyright © 2010, Jeff Feighner. All Rights Reserved.