Monday February 18th 2008, 4:36 pm


No-knead bread

When I first started to learn about yeast cookery it was drummed into me that baking bread was a very tricky skill to crack. Yeasted dough had to be treated with great respect, kept out of draughts, not be subjected to shocks (slamming oven doors etc) kept at just the right temperature and be given sugar to feed it.
Last year I came across a recipe for no-knead bread which seemed to defy all the rules, turns bread making technique completely on its head and still manages to produce a fantastic looking loaf.
The technique, devised by Jim Lahey at the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York was picked up by The New York Times and subsequently created a buzz that quickly swept across America. As far as I am aware, it didn’t reach these shores, or perhaps I just turned my back for five minutes and missed it.
A couple of days ago I came across the recipe again and baked the no-knead loaf for the first time and was just amazed with the result. The ‘no-knead’ part of the title didn’t attract me to the recipe at all, I think most bread bakers like the kneading bit, but this recipe calls for virtually no attention and a considerable amount of time. You mix the dough in 3 minutes flat, then leave it untouched, at room temperature, for 12 – 18 – 24 hours, as long as you like, shape (the very wet) dough into a ball, leave to rise again for 2-3 hours, then, and this seems to be the magic bit, bake the loaf in a lidded cast iron pot, removing the lid for the last 20-30 minutes of cooking time. I’ve got a really great cast iron casserole I bought at Ikea and that worked wonderfully well. Apparently any lidded dish should suffice; pyrex, a terracotta bread crock etc, just make sure that it is totally oven proof.
The texture of the bread is remarkable, the crust is crunchy and crisp and my loaf looked like something I would have paid dearly for if I had bought it at a smart bakery. This morning it made lovely toast. Now I am going to experiment with other flour combinations and flavourings, I’m used to eating sourdough bread with all the rich flavours that offers so just a bit more oomph would make this loaf just about perfect.
Here is the recipe. It is really worth trying it out.
The only part that could be daunting is handling very wet dough. My advice is that after the long rise, scrape the dough out of the bowl with an oiled spatula, onto an oiled surface and use oiled hands to manipulate the dough, though it doesn’t call for much, if any, handling. You can then fold the dough a few times if you like and flour it only when shaping into a ball. Apparently well floured baking parchment is another alternative way to stop it sticking all over the place and driving you to distraction. Don’t be tempted to simply add more flour to make it manageable, it’s the water content that makes it so light and open and I’ve read reports of great results achieved without touching the dough at all.