Breathless Over Bread

Rarely do food columnists get excited over a bread recipe, which makes it especially amusing that we find Mark Bittman positively hyperventilating over a new home baking technique in a front page article in this week’s New York Times food section. He writes:

INNOVATIONS in bread baking are rare. In fact, the 6,000-year-old process hasn’t changed much since Pasteur made the commercial production of standardized yeast possible in 1859. The introduction of the gas stove, the electric mixer and the food processor made the process easier, faster and more reliable. I’m not counting sliced bread as a positive step, but Jim Lahey’s method may be the greatest thing since.

Whew! That’s one heck of an endorsement. What’s got him so excited? A no-knead bread recipe developed by Jim Lahey of the New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery which, according to Bittman, produces bakery quality bread results with next-to-no effort. Well heck, I’ll bite. And in fact I did. There’s a lump of dough fermenting in a bowl on my kitchen table as we speak. It’ll be ready to bake off in a few hours, after which I’ll give you a complete report.

Honestly, it’s not so much the no-knead technique that interests me (there are quite a few of those around), it’s Lahey’s idea of baking this bread inside a preheated pot for the first 30 minutes to crisp the crust. I’ve never heard of anything like that before, but I’m keen to try it. In the event you can’t access the article (there may be a fee, I can’t remember), I’ll go against principle and re-publishing it here, only this time with proper weight measurements (food journalists, sheesh!). If you’re as curious as I am, test it out!

No-Knead Bread

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups (16 ounces) all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
1 5/8 cups (13 ounces) lukewarm water
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add water and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. 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.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, 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.

4. 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. 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.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

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