Published April 03. 2014 8:00PM Updated April 03. 2014 9:01PM
Google "Jim Lahey's no-knead bread" and you'll be inundated with results. The original version, the sped-up version, the sandwich bread, the pizza dough.
If you really want to study the phenomenon, you'll have to start with New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, the man responsible for the no-knead bread craze that began in 2006 when he wrote about the Sullivan Street Bakery owner's approach to making delicious crusty bread in your home oven, without the tiresome kneading, using just four ingredients and one key tool: an enameled cast-iron pot. (Oh, and lots of patience.)
I was not until recently a proud owner of a Le Creuset pot and therefore did not have the essential tool that would help me perfectly steam the dough in a well-sealed environment, which is what makes this bread so chewy and moist. I tried baking the dough in the ceramic insert of a Crock-Pot with a double lining of aluminum foil masquerading as the lid; the bread was good, but not great.
After trying that a couple of times, I decided the bread was not what I had hoped for and gave up.
Then I received a 3½ quart Le Creuset pot as a gift. I got to work.
What a difference the Le Creuset makes. I've only made the bread a couple of times so far, and even though I've managed to mess up the recipe somehow each time, the result has been exceptional both times. I long for this kind of bread when it's not around — a chewy bread with the telltale holes that let me know the dough has been given time to rise slowly, unbothered. The crust shatters when you bite into it.
This recipe is extremely forgiving. I've trialed and errored so you don't have to.
A few things to note before I explain how I messed up each time and still ended up with a beautiful loaf.
Note 1: I live in a torturously cold 58-degree home in the winter because oil heat is so expensive. Bread dough won't rise in the tundra. Thankfully, my stove is gas heat and has a pilot light that keeps the oven an ideal temperature for bread rising. So I let my dough rise in the oven, door closed.
Note 2: My 3½ quart pot is the perfect size for this bread. You can go larger, but I wouldn't go smaller.
Note 3: Le Creuset pots come with black knob handles that are only oven-safe to 375 degrees. You could buy an expensive stainless steel knob that can withstand higher temperatures, but I simply unscrew the black knob and plug the hole with some aluminum foil to seal the lid during baking.
Note 4: This recipe is easy, but it does require some planning ahead to make sure you'll be home to handle the second rise and baking time. I typically let mine rise overnight and bake the next day, but my schedule lets me bake at lunchtime. Yours may not, so adjust accordingly.
My first attempt: I forgot to cover the bowl with plastic wrap, which means the dough formed a skin, which I'm pretty sure means the dough didn't rise properly. But when I folded the dough onto itself and let it rise a second time, that seemed to help smooth over much of this often-fatal mistake. I also let the dough rise for about 24 hours total, which is about 4 hours longer than the maximum time recommended.
The result: The bread was nice and crusty, but it did not rise to a nice dome in the oven. I ended up with more of a disc-shaped bread than a rounded bread. Still, the bread was mighty tasty, and the crust shattered to my satisfaction.
My second attempt: The first and second rises were by the book — the dough doubled in size, and I kept the total rising time to about 14 hours. My mistakes this time were forgetting to preheat the pot and forgetting to plug the hole on the lid with foil. I plugged the hole about 10 minutes into the baking, but not preheating the pot meant the dough stuck to the pot and the finished loaf would not release without massive tears.
The result: I ended up with a beautiful loaf of bread with no bottom crust, as I had to forcibly remove the bread from the pot. I almost cried. But when I photographed my supposed failure, I ended up with a really nice picture of steam rising from the bottom of my just-baked loaf. Also, the bread was super tasty, better than the first attempt. It had large holes and a beautiful, rounded crust.
(I then made a third attempt: I baked the bread at 500 degrees this time instead of at 450 degrees and loved the darker caramel crust I got. I did have some trouble getting the dough off the towel, which hadn't happened before. I attribute this to the fact that I used one towel instead of two, which meant the towel got damper than it had when I used one towel folded in half to set the dough on and a second towel to cover the dough with. I'll definitely use two towels next time.)
This bread keeps surprisingly well overnight in a zip-top plastic bag, though the crust does lose its shatter. Just warm it up in a toaster oven to recrisp.
Jim Lahey's no knead bread
3 cups flour (I use bread flour)
1½ cups water (cold is fine)
¼ teaspoon instant yeast (I use active dry yeast)
1¼ teaspoon salt
Olive oil, for coating (I skip this)
Flour, wheat bran or cornmeal, for dusting
In a large bowl, mix the flour, yeast and salt. Add water and stir by hand until incorporated.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rest at room temperature (about 65-72 degrees) for 12-18 hours.
Remove the dough from the bowl. The surface should be dotted with bubbles. The dough will be extremely sticky and stretchy and difficult to shape. Fold dough once or twice onto itself, but don't worry if it's messy. Let the dough rest in the bowl for 15 minutes.
Generously flour a cotton towel and lay on a flat surface. Using both hands, shape the dough into a ball by tucking the dough underneath itself with your fingers and forming a rounded top. Place the dough on the towel, seam side down, and dust the top with flour. Cover with a second towel and let rise for another 1-2 hours at room temperature, until dough has more than doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 450-500 degrees. Place a cast iron or ceramic pot with a lid (you'll need one that can withstand high heat) in the oven for at least 30 minutes before baking.
Remove the pot from the oven and place the dough in the pot seam side up. Cover with the lid and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 15-30 minutes uncovered, until the bread is evenly browned.