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No-Knead Bread, Revisited

Readers of the New York Times may have noticed that the well-known “No-Knead” bread method is back in the news.

In a May 3 article, the Times food writer, J. Kenji López-Alt, took a look back at the breadmaking method that revolutionized home baking in the early 2000s. It’s a startlingly easy way of making bread that produces excellent results.

The irony, López-Alt writes, is that there is nothing at all revolutionary about the no-knead method. It’s probably been used for thousands of years.

It’s just that in the recent past, commercial yeast and heavily kneaded dough overshadowed the more straightforward methods of the distant past.

In my grandmother’s day …

I remember watching my grandmother and aunt punch and wrestle with an enormous mass of dough on their floured kitchen counters. That, along with prolonged resting periods, produced pillowy white loaves rising in bread pans.

They went into the oven and came out with crispy golden crusts and filling the kitchen with heavenly aromas.

But all that work put breadmaking beyond my capability and interest. It looked like way too much effort and expertise to make this mouth-watering bread.

I first heard of “No-Knead” in the mid-2000s, when books appeared promising “artisan” loaves with almost no work. In 2009, I bought My Bread by the New York baker, Jim Lahey. 

“The revolutionary no-work, no-knead method”

It promised a lot! “The revolutionary no-work, no-knead method,” it was subtitled. But surprisingly, the hype delivered. Within hours, my first attempt produced a loaf I could barely imagine coming out of my oven.

I called the method “fail-safe.”

“How could this be easier?” I said to friends. “There is no longer any excuse for buying bread at the grocery store that is packaged in plastic bags.”

I think my zeal put some people off. I do tend to go overboard when something grabs my attention the way this did. (“You absolutely have to read this book!” … “You haven’t heard this Bob Dylan song? What have you been doing with your life!”)

The No-Knead Method

Here’s the method:

  • Stir together flour, salt and yeast in a bowl.
  • Add water and mix together with a wooden spoon or your hand. Thirty seconds. 
  • Cover the bowl and let it rest at room temperature for 12 to 18 hours.
  • Turn the risen dough onto a floured work surface. Nudge and tuck the edges around the dough to make a loose ball.
  • Cover with a floured tea towel and let rise for another two hours.
  • Place a covered dutch oven into your home oven and preheat to 475ºF.
  • Remove the hot dutch oven and (carefully) invert the dough into it. Cover and bake for 30 minutes.
  • Remove the dutch oven lid and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Done.

It takes a little over 18 hours to make, but only 11 minutes of actual work.

So easy! Now, really? Why would you not do this? (Sorry, there I go again!)

“This was the recipe that democratized bread-baking,” said Peter Reinhart, the author of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.

Another author called it “the gateway bread,” an allusion to the expression, “gateway drug.” It was certainly that for me. It was the point of no return.

The gateway bread

Before long, I was baking no-knead loaves a couple of times a week. And I’d be sure to have a warm loaf on the table for dinner parties.

After working through the recipes on My Bread, I moved on to sourdough recipes I found on the Internet. I bought Tartine by Chad Robertson and Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish. I was a goner!

The New York Times had a part in My Bread’s success. Mark Bittman, author of the “The Minimalist” column, first wrote about Lahey’s recipe/method in the early 2000s. Bittman, it is said, coined the term “no-knead.”

Deconstructing No-Knead

But now, after surviving lock-downs and the sourdough craze, The Times has revisited the No-Knead method. The May 3 article deconstructs the basic recipe and introduces a few new refinements.

López-Alt recommends adding a little vinegar or lemon juice to increase dough strength. A few stretches and folds of the dough in the first long proofing also builds strength so that the loaf doesn’t flatten into a pancake when it goes into the oven.

An overlooked part of the method is the use of the covered dutch oven. As the loaf bakes, it releases steam from the dough, which is trapped inside the vessel. The steam moistens the dough surface, allowing it to rise quickly, the process called oven spring.

Steam also gelatinizes the crust, bringing sugars to the surface. When the lid is removed for the last part of baking, the crust caramelizes into golds, golds and chestnut brown and develops a shiny cast.

Nothing new under the sun!

But inverting the dough into a searing hot dutch oven is dangerous. I have scars on my hands and wrists from burns from doing this.

López-Alt recommends a few workarounds. But his one innovation is baking the bread on a sheet pan with a metal bowl inverted over the top. This is a more effortless dough transfer.

The bowl traps the steam and can even be removed partway through the bake. For extra moisture, the inside of the metal bowl can be rinsed with water then replaced until the bowl is removed altogether.

It’s worth reading the Times article for López-Alt’s historical perspective on the No-Knead method. It’s also worthwhile following his close-up look at the methods. He even offers a recipe for a sandwich bread version of the no-knead loaf.

But for all the minor refinements offered, the method popularized by Jim Lahey is still as beautiful in its simplicity as it was 20 years ago.

“Even in ancient Egypt, they had lidded vessels to bake bread,” Lahey says. “Nothing is new here.”


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1 thought on “No-Knead Bread, Revisited

  1. A steel bowl over a sheet pan, replacing a Dutch oven … why didn’t I think of that?

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