No-Knead Bread? No Way!

In May 2007, I was in Amsterdam for business, and one night when I had no plans and was on my own for the evening, I picked up the current issue of American Vogue on my way to dinner and read “Easy Riser”, an article by Jeffrey Steingarten, a leading food writer in the US.  The article talked about a method for baking bread that required no kneading.  (What?!) Furthermore, the article indicated that the process involved about 15 minutes of actual work, spread out over a 20 hour or so period.  (Huh?!  That’s not how you bake bread!)

Incredulous, I couldn’t wait to return stateside – by way of Athens 😀 – and try it out.  How was it possible that a bread made this way could be good?  How would it taste?  When we knead bread, do we not do so in order to develop the gluten, the protein in flour that will allow the bread to rise without collapsing?  OK then, without kneading, would the loaf now be so heavy that it could cause potential injury if dropped?

According to the article, there are three techniques used in this recipe that make it work:

  1. The physical effect of kneading can be accomplished by the water in this recipe.
  2. Baking the loaf/loaves in a tightly covered pot or casserole simulates the steamy environment of a bread oven, allowing the bread to expand in the oven before the crust begins forming.
  3. The loaves are formed very gently so that the dough doesn’t deflate.

Guess what?  It worked!  I baked a perfect crusty-on-the-outside and soft-on-the-inside loaf of fresh bread — and its aroma permeated throughout my apartment.  If I had known that baking bread was this easy, I would have done it more often in the past.

The author of the article experimented with different types of flour, which results in different outcomes.  I had used only King Arthur Wheat Flour.

So here is the recipe, taken from that very article four years ago.  Unfortunately, I lost the issue of Vogue when I moved, but if you can find the original article online, it’s worth a read.

  • 3 cups bread flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp instant yeast (DP note: or, 1 1/4 tsp active dry yeast)
  • 1 1/2 cups water, at room temperature
  • Coarse wheat bran (DP note: or cornmeal)

You’ll also need a heavy casserole dish (cast iron is preferred, but I believe glass will be ok) — at a very minimum 3 qts. and no larger than about 9 qts.  And finally, a coarse dishtowel or another piece of canvas-type cloth. 

Using your fingers or a sturdy wooden spoon, thoroughly combine the first three ingredients in a 2-quart bowl.  Pour in the water. Again, with fingers or spoon, work the dry ingredients and water together for about 30 seconds until a rough wet dough has formed and all the flour has been absorbed.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at warm room temperature for about 18 hours.  Then, heavily flour your work surface. With a plastic dough scraper or your hands, invert the bowl over the floured surface as you pull out the dough, which will spread into an amoebiform blob. Dust it with flour and stretch it into a rough square, about 10 inches per side. Fold the square in thirds.  It will now be a puffy strip about 4 inches wide and 10 inches long. Cover lightly and let rest for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, spread the dish towel on a flat surface. Rub a generous amount of flour into one half of the towel, and sprinkle several tablespoons of bran over the flour. This is to prevent the dough from sticking to the towel, an occurrence that can ruin your life.

Fold the dough in thirds again, beginning at one of the short ends of the strip. The resulting package of dough should be nearly the shape of a cube.

Delicately brush off excess flour from the dough, and with your palms, very gently stretch the top layer part way down over the seams visible on two sides of the dough. With both hands, gently lift the dough onto the middle of the half dish towel you’ve just prepared. Sprinkle the top of the dough, now really a loaf, with a little flour and bran. Cover with the other half of the towel or with plastic wrap. Let rise for 2 hours.

Halfway through, put the casserole and its cover in the oven and turn the temperature to its highest setting, probably 500 F or 550 F.

When another hour has passed, open the oven and remove the casserole cover. Slide your hand under the towel where the loaf is resting, lift up towel and loaf, bring them over to the casserole, and, steadying the loaf with your other hand, invert it into the casserole. Pull off the towel. Shake the casserole sideways if the loaf needs to be neatened. Cover the casserole, close the oven, and bake for 30 minutes.

Uncover the casserole and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, until the loaf is a dark brown. Remove the loaf and let it cool on a rack until it is barely warm to the touch.

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