Baking bread is one of the few food preparations that I have long felt is best left up to the experts. That belief hasn’t changed; the best baguettes will still come from the wonderful yeasts and flours, the perfectly fashioned ovens and the master bakers of France. And there’s no way I could make a bagel in my home kitchen that rivals those of Brooklyn. But sometimes good bread just isn’t that readily available. I was surprised to find that was true when I moved to Chicago. In Portland, there are artisan bread makers in most neighborhoods, including Grand Central Bakery, Ken’s Artisan Bakery and Pearl Bakery, among others. Most supermarkets also sell wonderful loaves from these and other local bakeries. I was surprised when I moved to Chicago to find that things were not the same here. There are a couple of good local bakeries like Red Hen Bread and the one inside the gourmet market, Fox and Obel, but both are over-priced and far from my house. Supermarkets near me usually have meager selections, especially when it comes to firm, crusty breads to accompany salads or hearty stews. I have gotten by over the past few years by buying a decent sour batard at Trader Joe’s and occasionally visiting the other establishments. Still, the lack of good bread has been one of my favorite ongoing culinary bones to pick with Chicago.
It may seem strange, then, that I didn’t jump at the chance to make my own bread when Mark Bittman published his now well-known article on “No-Knead Bread” in the Nov. 8, 2006 issue of The New York Times. Bittman adapted the recipe from Jim Lahey of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery. The secret to this appropriately “minimalist” recipeâ€” which really doesn’t require one iota of kneadingâ€” is that a tiny bit of yeast is allowed to ferment in wet dough for a long time, almost a full 24 hours. The recipe made a huge splash among foodies and bloggers when it first came out, starting a wave of home bakers. I guess I never tried it because I wasn’t convinced it could really be that good. Too many bad memories of bread-machine loaves flooded my mind every time I thought about it. The recipe also calls for a cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic Dutch oven, none of which I own. (There is a nice big enamel Le Crueset on my wedding registry list. Hint, hint…)
After a conversation last week with a friend who has been doing a lot of bread-baking experimentation, I decided to try it. After consulting some blogs, I used my stainless steel Dutch oven, which I knew had no melt-able parts. As it turned out, the recipe was incredibly simple, and the final product was phenomenal. The bread had great flavor, a delicious, light and chewy interior and a solid crust. I was rushing out of the house, but if I’d had more time, I would have browned the crust for another five minutes or so. Otherwise, the results were stellar. The best part is that all I needed was all-purpose flour, a tiny bit of yeast, salt and water. Empanada Boy and I had buffalo meat sliders on slices of the bread for lunch on Saturday and then brought the loaf to make caprese sandwiches at an outdoor concert that night. We ate the last of it today for lunch. While it might not bode well for our waistlines, I am now hooked on bread. I can’t wait to make my next loaf. Here’s the recipe, so you can make your own.
As printed in The New York Times on Nov. 8, 2006
Adapted by Mark Bittman from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1Â½ hours plus 14 to 20 hoursâ€™ rising
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
Â¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1Â¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.
1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups 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 [or stainless steel!]) 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 1Â½-pound loaf.