bread without a mixet

No-Knead Bread, with serrated knife, banneton, salted butter

I recently posted on twitter that I don’t believe in no-knead bread, the phenomenon started by Jim Lahey—chef of the excellent pizza restaurant Co., and owner of Sullivan St. Bakery in Manhattan, and author of My Bread—when Mark Bittman wrote about Lahey’s no-knead technique in The New York Times. (Here’s Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe.)

After tweeting, I almost immediately received an email from Nick Fox, a New York Times Dining editor, perplexed. The next day Bittman DM’d me on Twitter asking why? Jeff Hertzberg, an author of the popular Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, RT’d my comment, adding “Say it ain’t so!” Not long after that the eminent author and Vogue columnist, Jeffrey Steingarten, in an unrelated email, asked me what I had against no-knead bread.

Time to address the issue.

The fact is I had only made no-knead bread once, from the Bittman column.  It was not notably attractive (my sourdough boule is as attractive as it gets in my kitchen). Nor was the flavor particularly noteworthy. What was spectacular, however, was the flavor and texture of the crust. Lahey had come up with the idea of baking bread in a cast iron enamel Dutch oven. Enclosing the wet dough in such a confined space mimicked the effects of a steam injection oven by trapping the moisture released by the dough. I don’t know the physical reason this results in amazing crust but it does.

This is the revolutionary discovery that should forever elevate the quantity of homemade bread.

My one and only loaf was insipid, but my beef with the technique was ideological. What was so great about not kneading bread?  I like to knead bread.  Ten minutes spent kneading, either by hand or warming my hands on my dutiful Kitchen Aid mixer while it worked away, allowed time for unhurried reflection.

Moreover though, wasn’t this whole no-knead business a tacit suggestion that we’d all be making bread on a regular basis if it weren’t so difficult?  Now, the no-knead advocates were in effect telling us, we’ve figured out a trick to make it easy for you, you helpless wannabe. Real bread is too hard, too complex, too difficult to make at home. Here’s a way around those mountains, once insurmountable by you little helpless home cooks.

Nonsense. Bread at home is easy and if you want to make it, mix five parts flour with three parts water by weight, add a couple big pinches of yeast and salt, mix till elastic, let rise, knead, shape, rise, bake.

I told Nick Fox this and he mainly agreed, disarming me completely by saying the no-knead bread wasn’t necessarily easier; it involved more steps and certainly took more time, but that it did result in an especially tasty loaf of bread.

I’d had a similar back-and-forth with Hertzberg.  He directed me to the recipe on their site, artisanbreadinfive, telling me to ignore the aside about fresh yeast and use dry yeast. What I love about his technique is that you mix up a batch of dough then keep it refrigerated, even for a week or two, cutting off a piece when ever you want bread.  You can have bread on the table two hours after wanting it. My first effort was disappointing, flat, shapeless, unlovely, but the crumb was not bad. A couple days later, having not touched the remaining dough, I did it again, and the results were excellent.

When Steingarten wrote to me that he makes his version of Lahey’s bread a couple times a week, I asked for his recipe, which he dutifully sent along. I’ve revised it a little and put the flour into weights rather than volume. Steingarten uses spelt flour on the cutting board in the proofing basket, which I recommend for flavor and appearance; Lahey uses bran and no proofing basket. This is up to you. I recommend proofing it in a banneton if you have one or a bowl lined with a cloth napkin heavily dusted with flour or bran.

The following bread is indeed very flavorful, requires very little effort and 24 hours from mixing to baking. (If using grams, stick with grams; if using ounces, use ounces don’t use the ounces of water and grams of flour as they’re slightly different.)

I’m officially now a fan of no-knead breads, but not because they’re any easier than kneaded breads. I’m a fan because they’re satisfying to make and to eat.

Michael Ruhlman’s Version of Jeffrey Steingarten’s Version of Jim Lahey’s (According to Steingarten) “Miracle Bread”

  • 500 grams or 15 ounces bread flour (3 cups)
  • 10 grams or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3 to 4 grams or 1/2 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast
  • 430 grams or 13 ounces water (1-1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons)
  • plenty of extra spelt flour or extra bread flour for coating work surface and during proofing
  1. Combine all the ingredients except the extra flour or bran for dusting in a large bowl.  Mix it with a wooden spoon still all ingredients are thoroughly combined
  2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at warm room temperature for about 14 to 20 hours.
  3. Heavily flour your work surface with spelt flour or bread flour.  Pour and pull out the dough, which will spread into a blob onto your work surface.  Let it rest there for ten to twenty minutes.
  4. From here on [these final steps are verbatim from Steingarten’s recipe] handle the dough very gently so that the structure of internal bubbles is left undisturbed and the dough is not compressed.  Now, slide your fingers, palms up, under the blob and stretch it into a rough square about 12 inches on a side.  Dust it with a little spelt flour.  Let the dough rest, loosely covered with the same piece of plastic wrap, for a half-hour.  Even longer is better.
  5. Rub the inside of the rising basket with ample quantities of spelt flour [Note from MR: you can use a banneton or a bowl lined with a heavily floured cloth napkin].  Now form the loaf:  Bring one corner of the square of dough about 2/3 of the way to the opposite corner, gently pressing it down.  Repeat with the next corner, clockwise; continue with the other two corners.  Now, you’ll have a puffy square, looking perhaps like a Danish pastry.  If a flap of dough sticks out in any direction, fold it halfway over the loaf.  Amply dust the loaf with spelt flour.
  6. Now, with both hands, gently lift this puffy package of dough, invert it, and lower into the center of the rising basket.  Sprinkle the top of the dough, now really a round loaf, with a little spelt flour.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap, tucking it in here and there.  Let it rise for 2 ½ hours.
  7. Halfway through the rise, put the casserole into the oven, on the highest shelf that will accommodate it; lean the casserole cover against it; and turn the temperature to its highest setting, probably 500-550 degrees F/260-288 degrees C.   In my oven, to avoid excessive direct heat from burning the bottom of the loaf, I first put a baking stone on the oven shelf and three layers of silicone insulators.
  8. When another ninety-minutes have passed (for a total of 2 ½ hours’ rise), open the oven and pull out the oven shelf.  Remove the plastic wrap from the rising basket and loosen the loaf all around from the basket.  Bring it over to the casserole, and steadying the loaf with your other hand, invert the loaf into the center of the casserole.  This may take some practice.  Shake the casserole sideways if the loaf needs to be neatened.  Cover the casserole, close the oven, and bake for 30 minutes.
  9. Uncover the casserole and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes until the loaf is a handsome, very dark brown.  The loaf will be loose in the casserole and easy to remove, most easily by inverting it.  Let the loaf cool, bottom down, on the rack for two hours, when it will be barely warm to the touch.

This makes one delicious loaf of no-knead bread.

If you liked this post on no-knead bread recipes, check out these other posts:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.