Every once in a while recipe comes along and becomes an immediate game changer. Jim Lahey’s no knead bread recipe is one such recipe. Since reading about it I’ve barely made a loaf by another method. The results are just SO good and it simply couldn’t be easier. Even if
you make a few errors at first you still get a good loaf for your efforts. I’ve even run out of time to do the last few stages on occasion and just stuck it in the fridge until later – even up to two days later – and the bread still put its shop bought counterpart into the shade. If you’ve got a bowl, an oven and a baking sheet you can make this bread, although results are undeniably better if you have a heavy oven-proof pot of some kind. Most descriptions of how to make this bread insist you need a Le Creuset or cast iron pot but that’s not strictly true, so don’t be put off if you don’t have either. The first few times I made it I used an old heavy based frying pan whose handle had fell off and a metal mixing bowl to cover and then it dawned on me I could use the bowl of my slow cooker with a heavy roasting pan on top. Look around the kitchen, you’re bound to have something you can use.
You can’t improve on perfection and I’m not trying to here; Jim Lahey is a master baker and I’m not about to go messing with his recipe BUT I have tested it to destruction so I have learnt a few pointers on interpreting it along the way. My top tip gleaned from baking many, many loaves this way is do not skimp on the flour. Buy branded, not supermarket own brand, bread flour which is labeled ‘very strong’. The loaf above was made with Allinson Very Strong White Bread Flour. The difference in results is worth the extra pennies. Also, Jim’s original recipe says to put your baking pot in to heat up ‘for at least half an hour’ but longer is better. The hotter that pot is when your dough hits it the better the crust. I put mine in for a good hour. And while we’re on the subject of the crust, it’s easy to see from so many versions around the web that people take it out of the oven to soon. Leave it in and let it get really deep brown. That’s where all the flavour is.
3 cups/1lb of bread flour
1 5/8 cups (3/4 pint) water
1/4 tsp fast action yeast
1 and 1/4 tsps sea salt
Jim Lahey’s recipe says one and five eighths of a cup of water (equivalent to three quarters of a pint), which works with very strong bread flour, lesser quality bread flours take less water. Try one and one third of a cup (1/2 pint plus 6 to 8 tablespoons) first if you are using supermarket own brand bread flour (you will still get good bread with supermarket own brand bread flour, don’t get me wrong, but you will get excellent bread with good quality bread flour). Flours are all different, so go by the dough rather than exact measurements; aim for a slightly sticky consistency but not so wet it sticks to your fingers when you first mix it up. Stir everything well, adjust if necessary by adding more flour or more water and you should have something that looks like this:-
Next, cover the bowl with cling film and do nothing. That’s right, do nothing for at least 12 hours but preferably 18, just leave the dough to slowly ferment. This slow rise is what gives you that fabulous texture and the big, open crumb. I have found you can speed the process up by adding 1/2 tsp of fast action yeast and the bread is just fine but if you’re after that chewy, almost sourdough like bread, then wait the full time. When the yeast has done its work it will be quite voluminous, almost liquid-like and the surface will be covered with bubbles.
Next, flour your work surface well and scrape the dough onto it. It will look like there’s no way this oozing wet mass will make bread but it’s not like other bread doughs, so keep the faith. Flour your hands and fold the dough over on itself four times, bringing left and right sides together then top and bottom sides together in turn; flour your hands more if you need to as you go along but don’t use any more than is necessary to stop it sticking to you. Now, place the dough with the folded sides underneath and cover with a piece of cling-film for 15 minutes. Notice the big bubbles just below the surface here? A sign of the lovely texture to come!
After 15 minutes, gently shape the dough into a round by turning & tucking under a few times. Remember those bubbles – we want to keep those, so easy does it. Put a non-terry cloth tea towel (the dough would stick to a terry cloth one) on a baking tray with half the towel on the tray and half the towel off the tray and flour the half that’s on it generously. Next lift the dough onto the floured half, sprinkle extra flour on top and cover it with the other half (you can use a pillow case if you only have terry cloth tea towels).Leave it to rise for two hours at room temperature. It’s all about the slow rise. It will spread out but don’t worry, that’s normal.
Now for the last stage. At least half an hour, but preferably a whole hour before your bread is due to go into the oven, place your pot or cooking vessel in the oven at 450 Fahrenheit/230 Celsius/gas mark 8 to get seriously hot. When it’s time for the bread to go in, take the pot or pan or whatever you’re using out carefully – have your risen dough close to hand – and slide your hand under the dough keeping the tea towel between your hand and the dough itself and gently drop it bottom side up into the pot. You can give it a small shake to even it out a bit if you want then whack the lid on and get it in the oven asap. (A good tip is to use the thin circular bottom piece of a spring-form cake tin to slide under the dough if you have one, it’s got a wider and more even surface area than your hand . It will look like an unholy mess at this stage but don’t worry, it will come out looking like you paid top dollar for it at an artisan bakery.
Cook at 30 minutes with the lid on, and a further 15-30 mins with the lid off. Check after 15 and see how it’s doing. You’re looking for that deep, golden brown colour. Allow it to completely cool on a rack before attempting to slice it or all your patience will have been for nothing as it collapses under its own internal steam.
Congratulations! You just made an artisan loaf of bread.