too many words by laura lemay

new york times no-knead bread: is actually terrific

A few weeks ago the Mark Bittman published an article in the New York Times extolling the virtues of what he called no-knead bread. He got the technique from baker Jim Lahey, and described the bread as completely revolutionary — the sort of bread that was so easy and so good that it would enable a four-year old to make bread better than the vast majority of artisanal bakeries in the country. The article itself{.broken_link} (with accompanying video) is now behind the NYT select pay wall but here you can find the actual recipe here.

The Internet went completely bonkers over this recipe. On the Well, the ancient BBS where I often hang out, practically everyone in foodie conferences tried it and with reasonably good results.

I was hugely skeptical and was all set to rant about the recipe without even having the benefit of trying it. My long no-knead bread story follows.

There are three concepts behind the supposed radical wonderfulness of the no-knead bread: a long slow rise with very little yeast, which produces a great taste in the dough; a very wet dough, which can’t be kneaded but produces a artisanal-like crumb with lots of big holes in it, and baking the dough in a heavy preheated pot, which gives you a really great crust.

None of these concepts is new in breadbaking. Anyone who has worked with sourdough knows the value of the long slow rise in producing great taste. Wet doughs such as those in ciabatta will produce a great rustic holey bread without any kneading (you often can’t knead them, they’re too wet). And since we home bakers do not have the benefit of steam-injected ovens there have always been all kinds of tricks for producing crusty breads — with clay baking cloches one of the more expensive techniques and pans of hot water in the oven one of the easier.

That said I figured before I wrote my rant I should actually try the recipe. I cheerfully admit I was trying it to disprove it. I wanted it to turn out bad so I could make lots of sarcastic comments and pish-toshedness.

Except then the bread wasn’t bad. It turned out great. Darn it.

I did have a few problems with the recipe — the measurements and temperatures in the recipe were different from those in the video, which was kind of confusing. When I mixed up my dough it was really dry so I added more water than was called for, and then the resulting bread was kind of wet and sticky. Good, but could be better. When friends had tried it some people had ended up with results that were too wet, or too dry, or too gummy, or just hard to work with. Results seemed to be just all over the map. I think a lot of the problem was with the imprecision in the recipe, and it seemed to me as if this bread was very particular in terms of measurements and how long it was cooked. Hardly the sort of thing that was supposed to be so easy a four year old could make. I wanted to try the recipe again and this time to get all geeky and obsessive on it to see if it could be made more consistent and thus improved. I got my chance yesterday on Thanksgiving.

First step was to standardize the ingredients. American recipes use volume for dry measurements (eg, two cups of flour), which is just plain dumb. I played around in the flour for a bit last week and discovered that you can get from 140 to 160 grams of flour in a cup depending on how much you fluff it up or pack it down. That’s a big difference. For this recipe I split the difference and went with 150g per cup which is 450g total. I use bread flour but the recipe says all-purpose will work fine or you can experiment with rye or whole wheat.

The recipe calls for 1 5/8s cup water, 1 1/2 cup in the video. That was roughly 400g of water but I erred on the light side and went with 380g.

Yeast and salt stayed the same — 1/4 teaspoon yeast, 1 1/4 teaspoons salt. (it could have used a little more salt).

All the ingredients are mixed just enough to come together. There’s no kneading (hence the name). You cover the bowl and let it rise 12-18 hours in a warm spot.

Then it’ll be wet and sticky and difficult to work with.

Fold it over a few times (I use a floured bench scraper) and let it rise some more. Then heat up the oven with a big heavy pot inside it for half an hour, drop the dough into the pot, cover it, and bake.

The first time I made this bread it was kind of wet inside which I attributed to either the dough being too wet or the temperature being too high. But I wanted to rule out just not baking it long enough. So I stuck an instant thermometer into the bread and baked it until 210 degrees F — a good fifteen minutes longer than I had cooked it the first time — and the bread came out significantly darker than before but MUCH better inside, with big holes and a good texture. The crust was INSANELY good, thick and crusty, and shattered to bits when I bit into it.

In short: 450g flour, 380g water and baked to 210 F internal temperature works for me as modifications to the original recipe. There’s little I’d improve from here (perhaps a little more salt). I so didn’t want to be but I’m really, really impressed with this recipe. Its super-easy and really great once you get it right. Two thumbs up.

Update: This post has turned out to be by far the most popular on my site, and has brought in a variety of folks who are not my normal readers. Welcome, new readers! I apologize for not replying to comments individually until now. I’ll try to keep up better in the future.