Much Ado About Not Much Work: Jim Lahey’s No-Work Bread

29 Sep

I’m very pleased to welcome my guest writer, Dan, to EatingPlaces. Dan is a friend, former AmeriCorps colleague, and all-around inspiring person. If you’re interested in being a guest writer, contact me at EatingPlaces@gmail.com.

Hi, my name is Dan. I live in Houston, Texas and I love to cook – I enjoy learning new skills and experimenting with different flavors and ingredients. More than cooking being a pastime for me, I delight in preparing delicious meals for family, friends, and, really, anyone who’d like a good meal. So, if you ever find yourself in Houston, I’d love to cook for you!

Follow me on Twitter @danielthelouis or find me on Facebook!

Jim Lahey’s No-Work or No-Knead bread is an experiment in cooking patience, one that new age-y types would love to get their meditative hands on. At nearly 24 hours of setting to rise, you have to swallow your ego–a couple of other meals in between—and let the scant, ½ teaspoon of instant yeast do the work that average recipes speed up. However, you will be astounded at the complex flavors and textures that are produced by what amounts to a simple, though precise, recipe. You will find not only delicious food, but a perspective on cooking and baking that may just shift your perspective on life.

I found the recipe in my most treasured cookbook: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, an encyclopedic compendium to all things cooking and baking. I recommend reading Bittman’s own reflections on this recipe, which you can find here. He provides a nuanced account of the baking process, providing a lot of great background information and detail on what is going on.

The recipe has six ingredients and four steps: a very apropos recipe for someone with Bittman’s epithet, “The Minimalist”. Most bread recipes will have you stuff the dough full of yeast so the rising time speeds up. Yet yeast leads a mindful lifestyle: highly aware of its surroundings, it makes sure to get to each little section of the dough and ferment it just right.

But you must also be mindful, and allow the yeast to work at its own pace. By using a smaller amount of yeast over a longer period of time, the yeast, by itself, does all of the work that you would normally be spending kneading and working.

In the first step, mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl—the one I use holds at least a gallon of liquid, make sure you take seriously the words “shaggy and sticky”. The dough should look gnarly, a sort of surrealist bent on a ball or sphere. Over the next 18 hours, the dough will even out as it fills the bowl.

The dough has finished rising when the surface is dotted with bubbles: like beer or Kombucha, nearing carbonation, the result of a true fermentation process. As you transfer the dough to a floured working space, you can smell the sour of fermentation. While shaping, not kneading, the dough here, I agree with Bittman and Lahey to use some cornmeal or wheat bran for dusting, adding a rustic, artisan look.

The baking process is unique. Instead of putting the dough in the oven all at once, you first put an empty baking dish in the preheated oven. By preheating the baking dish, you create an oven within the oven, which will produce a perfectly crisp crust that, Bittman will tell you, is usually reserved for steam-injected ovens that cost thousands of dollars.

Leave the dish covered for a short amount of time, uncovered for the rest. After letting the bread cool, you will find a contrast between perfectly crunchy exterior, and soft interior with rich flavor and texture: the play of opposites that exists in nature.

No-Work bread. True enlightenment.

Here is the recipe, as published in the New York Times, on November 8, 2006:

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

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ 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) 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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2 Responses to “Much Ado About Not Much Work: Jim Lahey’s No-Work Bread”

  1. Jill October 7, 2011 at 9:08 am #

    Dan-Thanks for the recipe, I am excited to try this!

  2. Erica @ In and Around Town September 29, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    This bread is the best! I have the cook book at home and there are loads of great breads in there to try.

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