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Bread Challenge, Week 14: The NY Times’ No-Knead Bread

May 13, 2012

My friend Dick has, since I announced my Bread Challenge back in January, been pestering me to try the NY Times’ famous recipe for No-Knead Bread. Well, maybe not *pestering*. He did gently remind me once or twice.

This recipe was originally published in the NY Times in 2006, and caused quite a stir. NY Times columnist Mark Bittman (“The Minimalist”) did a feature story about baker Jim Lahey, who owns the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan and developed a minimalist recipe for bread that he thought “even a 4-year old could master”. The recipe, which requires a 12-to-18 hour fermentation and zero kneading, became an instant hit among novice and seasoned bakers alike, and is probably one of the most-read recipes the Times has ever published.

Let me first start by saying: I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Sure, you get to whip together a quick dough, and you get to just let it sit for 18 hours without kneading it, essentially letting the yeast (and time) do all the heavy lifting. The chemistry and biochemistry involved is rather intriguing. But, the final result in my opinion was less than spectacular. It was good, but it didn’t knock my socks off.

I feel badly for saying so, but I don’t think this is a recipe I’d try again. Especially now that I am extremely familiar with breadmaking, and I know that kneading is really not all that difficult, especially if you own a stand mixer. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if this recipe sounds good to you, then by all means give it a whirl. It’s simple, and the bread is good.

The recipe and photos are after the jump; as usual, my adjustments and comments are in blue.

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No-Knead Bread

From the New York Times, adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery

Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
  • ¼ teaspoon instant yeast (at first I thought this was a mistake; it’s not. The long fermentation allows for a smaller amount of yeast)
  • 1¼ teaspoons salt
  • Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed

In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water (how in holy hell do you measure 5/8 cup water? I mean, I figured it out, but no measuring cup I’ve ever seen has a 1/8 increment on it), and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky (that’s an understatement).

Stickiest dough I’ve ever worked with.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles.

Bubblin’

Lightly flour a work surface 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 (this is impossible; no amount of flour seemed to mitigate the stickiness), gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger. (I don’t think this actually doubled in size. It really didn’t seem to do much of anything but blob there).

Before proceeding – let me just reiterate: this dough was extremely sticky, and was damn near impossible to work with. It stuck like crazy to my cutting board, and no amount of flour could tame it. I was pretty annoyed through the whole process. 

At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes.  This part was ridiculous. The dough seemed to melt into the towel, and about a third of it never made it into the pan. Here, take a look (and no comments about my pajama clown pants or my mismatched potholders):

Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

A little flat in the middle.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

Results:

  • I have to be honest; I wasn’t 100% sure what kind of bread to expect here. I had plenty of time to think about things while waiting for the dough to ferment, and I guess I surmised that it would be a simple loaf, based on the ingredient list. Yup. It turned out to be very similar (in texture and in taste) to the French Country Bread I made a few weeks back.
  • But seriously; 24 hours and all I get is one stinking half-flat loaf?
  • I don’t understand the hoopla. It made a decent loaf of bread. Decent. Nothing earth shattering. I heard an interview with Mark Bittman recently, and the interviewer fell over herself telling Bittman how the recipe “changed her life”. Really. Changed your LIFE? You may have some thinking to do.
  • This seems like the kind of bread that would be fantastic with some tapenade, or some soft cheese. Hmmm…I have some goat cheese with fig preserves in the fridge….

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2012 11:17 am

    Bummer that it didn’t work out for you. It was the first bread I ever made (I’ve since made countless with the whole bakery thing) and I love it.
    The long fermentation makes for (IMO) a very tasty loaf. I notice the bread tastes better, maybe more complex, than a loaf I make in one day.
    Also, the crackly, shattering crust is a beautiful thing.

    The first time I made it, I had some of your issues. The towel thing is ridiculous and I lost half of my dough to it. Now I use parchment. I let the towel stage happen on parchment and I use the parchment to sling the bread into the pot. Once the bread is baked, I simply peel off the parchment.

    • May 14, 2012 11:39 am

      It *did* work out, but I didn’t feel like I was suitably impressed with the result. Perhaps I was a victim of the hype and expected far too much. The bread does taste very good.

      I might try it again, and use parchment. That’s a fantastic idea.

  2. May 14, 2012 11:26 am

    I enjoy this no-knead bread: http://www.carnivoreandvegetarian.com/2010/09/crispy-no-knead-bread.html because I can let it sit in the fridge for up to a week and don’t feel like I’m constantly waiting over a day or night to get it done. Also, I shape it into three smallish loaves and put two in the freezer. It thaws quickly and a toasted or warmed slice drizzled with olive oil is heaven after work.

    • May 14, 2012 11:43 am

      I will definitely try that – thanks!

      I like that it makes more than one loaf. That was my main disappointment with the NYTimes recipe – only one loaf. It’s nice to have bread in the freezer for an emergency. And by emergency, I mean goat cheese with fig preserves.

  3. Cindy permalink
    July 17, 2012 2:08 pm

    You may like the Cook’s Illustrated adaptation of this recipe – the dough is less wet, and they use a parchment paper sling to get the dough into the pot to avoid accidently deflating the dough during the transfer. http://whatsonmyplate.net/2010/03/29/almost-no-knead-bread-the-cooks-illustrated-method/

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