Shortly after I moved to San Antonio, I gave up hope that I’d ever be able to find a loaf of bread with a truly dense crust. After all, the bread of this city is anything but hard. It’s the tortilla, and the best tortillas, handmade and oh-so-pliable, can’t be beat.
Still, I longed for a crust that was so thick I had to bite it with my side teeth, bread as rustic as I remember at my grandmother’s house in Germany. She didn’t make it herself. It came from a neighborhood bakery that produced the most beautiful rounds of rye I’ve ever seen or tasted.
Until a few years ago, I never really gave much thought to the idea of baking my own bread. I rarely eat it at home, so most of an entire loaf would likely go to waste. Yet several years ago, my friend, the late Mary Singleton, taught me the basics. She showed me how to knead the dough (and not overknead it) and to practice enough patience to let it rise several times before putting into the oven.
She also taught me how to add whole wheat to the mix, which would bolster the fiber count. I’m diabetic, so my daily bread, with all those carbohydrates, could literally be a killer. Added fiber is said to help cut down the effect of the carbs.
My only problem with her recipe was the crust was soft. I know plenty of people who remove the crusts from even Wonder Bread. I’m sort of the opposite. You can give me the crusts and keep the center.
Fast forward to early this year. Fellow food writer Ron Bechtol had a party in which he served up a loaf of just-made bread. It had the best crust imaginable, hard and chewy, plus a soft center without being spongy. It was no-knead bread, he said.
I had heard talk of this recipe ever since it ran in the New York Times a few years ago. But I had never tried it. So, when I saw Jim Lahey’s book, “My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method” (W.W. Norton & Company, $29.95), I decided to give it a shot.
(For those of you who have tried the version that ran in the Times, take note: Lahey, who opened the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City, has revised his method somewhat. So, you may want to compare the two. The book version, for example, calls for a higher oven temperature.)
The dough needs to sit for about 20 hours total, plus an hour or so for baking, then the bread needs time to rest before cutting into it, so think about starting a day in advance.
The dough goes together in a matter of seconds, as the recipe says. All I have to do is let it rise, or ferment, as Lahey calls it. There really is no kneading. If you want to use a wooden spoon instead of your hands, you can do that, though I prefer the tactile pleasure of getting my hands in the dough. (I also enjoy the kneading, which is therapeutic, but that creates a different bread.)
Then you wait. You wait 18 hours. Just when you’ve almost forgotten the dough, you have to remove it from its bowl, shape it and let it rest again for two more hours. (The recipe says you could do the first step after 12 hours and the second after one hour, but then Lahey says it’s better to wait a full 18 hours and then two hours more. Why argue with someone who knows what he’s doing?)
Toward the end of the second rise, you need to heat your oven to 475 degrees with a Dutch oven in it. (If you are using Le Creuset, which I don’t have, read Lahey’s instructions first so you don’t ruin the handle.) When the dough is ready, carefully remove the Dutch oven. I say carefully because the handle on mine was so hot that it burned through the silicone mitt I was using.
Then you place your dough in the scorching hot Dutch oven, cover it and bake for 30 minutes. After that, remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is done, about 15-30 more minutes.
That’s it. The hardest part of baking this bread was handling the Dutch oven.
- The best was having bread so good I could eat half a loaf in one sitting — not something I should do on my diet, I know. Thankfully, friends have gladly welcomed halves of loaves, each time I’ve tried the recipe.
Now the fun begins. Add to the recipe. Add rye flour (with a touch extra yeast). Or chocolate. Or olives. Or apricots and almonds. Lahey offers ideas to get you started. He also offers some pizza recipes that demand your attention. But that’s another story …