Fast, cheap, easy…pick two…

OK, sure.  I’ve been accused of being all three at once. But only occasionally. I don’t make it a habit or anything.

But, with most things in life, you really only get two of these at the same time.

And this sentiment rings almost heart-breakingly true when it comes to the universal vehicle, the basis for almost all my go-to foods, the thing that brings joy when well done, and bitter disappointment when poorly executed. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m about to put words in front of your face about bread.

Bread is by far my favorite thing to eat. I love it toasted, with butter and/or jam, crusty or dense (or both!), homemade or store bought, with eggs or cheese and a little fruit, in summer, in winter (but mostly in autumn), with tea or with coffee, as a second starch sitting next to a pile of potatoes as if to say “pppft” to dietary rules, or as the basis for the world’s most perfect sandwich (the BLT&A, natch). I especially love it sour, with a thickish exoskeleton and lashings of soft ricotta, olive oil, and sea salt. Most of all, I adore it cubed and grilled under a roast chicken, soaking up all the pan juices and garnished with (almost) an afterthought of bitter greens and lemon juice.

Best of all, bread is cheap. And easy.

But the one thing it most assuredly is not, is fast.

Now, plenty of things have been written by others, most of whom are smarter than I am on this subject, so I’ll refrain from blundering through “a brief history of” or “an explanation of the science behind”. But I will say this: there is absolutely no reason you should not be making your own.

I have many bread recipes that I enjoy making, from boules of sourdough to gorgeous pain de epis to a fantastic bourbon banana chocolate chip that gets even better with a little age on it. I have a particular love of the oatmeal sandwich bread in Good to the Grain, but it has been blogged about masterfully already here. So, while we talk later about quickbreads vs. standard loaves, starters, primary fermentation, shaping, and obsticles (artichoke hearts! dried fruit! olives!), today I give you a new classic that made the rounds a couple of years ago, and a lot of folks picked up on, but maybe you haven’t.

Mark Bittman published the recipe for his now (sorta) famous No Knead Bread in November of 2006, in partnership with Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC. And it is genius. Not only does the straight recipe provide you with a dense, delicious, and well-structured bread, it is infinitely variable. Want to use beer instead of water? Go ahead. Want to add herbs or cheese or fruit or nuts or grains? By all means, do. The only thing this recipe asks for, nay demands, is time. And it requires a LOT of it. But that’s OK, because for the most part (as with almost all breads) your main job is to forget about it for awhile and let it do its thing already. Everyone needs a little alone time, especially lumps of flour and water that are trying desperately to make long, supple gluten strands that don’t spring back to make your bread tough and unpleasant.

I was once told that being an airline pilot is long stretches of boredom, punctuated by sheer terror. And this method is a lot like that, minus the terror. But it’s totally worth it. By letting the dough sit for 18 hours (that’s right, 18 hours), you allow the yeast and flour and liquid to do their jobs at their own pace (I add more than the original formula calls for because the wetter your dough – see the picture above – the better your bread will turn out). No reason to poke at it, knead it, roll it around, fuss with it, or get all het up over it. Later, we’ll talk about kneading styles (you are pretty much allowed to freestyle it when kneading, btw), gluten, window pane tests, and the like. For now, just relax and enjoy the ride. Trust me. I’m not a doctor, but I once drove by a Holiday Inn Express on a windy Thursday.

No Knead Bread

Adapted from Mark Bittman in The New York Times, November 8, 2006 which was also adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery

Equipment:

  • 1 medium sized bowl
  • Wooden spoon
  • Liquid measuring cup
  • Dry measuring cup
  • Measuring spoons
  • A lidded pot (a dutch oven is best, but Pyrex or others work just fine) that you can put in the oven (no plasticky bits or anything)
  • 2 cotton dish towels
  • Tongs, or other grabby device

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups all purpose flour (feel free to sub out for bread flour or whole wheat flour), plus some for the work surface
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. active instant yeast
  • 2 cups warm water (feel free to sub out for room temperature beer)

In the bowl, mix your flour, yeast, and salt. Add the 2 cups of water and use the wooden spoon to mix. The dough will be a bit shaggy and a lot sticky and perhaps a bit wetter than you think it should be. That’s just fine. There should not be, however, any dry lumps of flour. If there are, mix a little longer, and if that doesn’t work, add a bit more liquid a couple of tablespoons at a time.

Cover the bowl with a towel or plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm (70 degrees) spot for 12-18 hours. Seriously. Forget about it. Forget that you are even making bread. It doesn’t want to talk to you until tomorrow anyway.

When the surface of your dough has little bubbles all over, you are ready to take it to the next level.

Lightly flour a work surface and tip your dough out onto it. Fold it over a couple of times, and then cover it with a dishtowel and let it rest for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, lay the other towel out flat and generously coat it with flour by sprinkling a handful or so over it.

Working quickly, and with just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to your hands, form the dough into a ball. Place it seam-side down on the floured towel and sprinkle a bit more flour on top. Cover with the second towel and let rise (or “proof”) in a warmish spot for 2 hours. The dough will be about double in size.

After an hour and a half, put your lidded pot into the oven, and pre-heat the oven and the pot to 450 degrees. Once the pan and oven are hot, take the pot out and put it on the stove top and remove the lid. Working quickly, take the top towel off the dough, and gently slide your hand under the bottom towel. Flip the dough into the hot pan. It might be a bit messy, but that’s OK, it will even out to a degree as it bakes, and make any decorative slices you like – I slice a square on top of each loaf to accommodate what’s called “oven spring”.

Put the lid back on, and put the pot back in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until the bread is the color you desire (I went to a French pastry school, so am apt to bake things a little darker/longer than most others so go ahead and remove it when YOU are happy with the way it looks). Bread is done when you hear a hollow sound when you tap the bottom of the loaf.

Remove the bread from the pot with tongs (or your fireproof hands, whichever). Cool on a rack for at least an hour before slicing. Mine never makes it that long, so just consider that to be more of a guideline than anything else.

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