Bittman – Lahey No Knead Bread

by A.J. Coltrane

Boy, talk about being late to the party! To quote Jim Lahey’s website:

In November of 2006, Lahey’s no-knead method drew the attention of “The Minimalist” columnist Mark Bittman. His articles about it in the New York Times sparked a worldwide home baking revolution.

Or, as Mark Bittman said:

I set up a time to visit Mr. Lahey, and we baked together, and the only bad news is that you cannot put your 4-year-old to work producing bread for you. The method is complicated enough that you would need a very ambitious 8-year-old. But the results are indeed fantastic.

Mr. Lahey’s method is striking on several levels. It requires no kneading. (Repeat: none.) It uses no special ingredients, equipment or techniques. It takes very little effort.

Bittman also says:

The loaf is incredible, a fine-bakery quality, European-style boule that is produced more easily than by any other technique I’ve used, and will blow your mind.

I finally figured I’d give it a try, starting it on Thursday for a Friday dinner. In my opinion, the superlatives that people use about this bread are all true. I was actually kind of shocked at how good it was! It was far and away the best bread I’ve ever made, and that’s damning it with faint praise.

Out of the oven. I think I may have used more flour than necessary.

The recipe is here. The Minimalist column is here. I would highly recommend reading the Minimalist column in addition to the recipe. It has some good insights on bread baking in general.

A few notes:

1.  It’s an 18 hour initial rise, then the dough is folded and allowed to rest for 15 minutes, followed by a 2 hour final rise. Allowing time for cooling, the process needs to be started about 21 hours before the bread is ready for serving. So, if dinner will be at 6pm tomorrow night then the dough needs to started at 9pm the night before. In the future I’m just going to use the “Eastern Time Zone” automatic translation that goes on in my head for sports start times.

The crumb.

(The crumb wasn’t really quite *that* white. The color in the last photo is closer to the truth.)

2.  The recipe doesn’t say at what temperature the bread is done, simply “until loaf is beautifully browned”. In my opinion, the “right answer” is to insert an instant read thermometer into the “center of the center of the loaf” (to quote Peter Reinhart). The bread is cooked at 205 degrees. (Or maybe 200 degrees, though I’m currently thinking 205 is “correct”.)

Note that the recipe calls for 30 minutes covered, plus 15-30 minutes uncovered. I found the loaf to be cooked after 15 minutes uncovered, on the very short end of the recommended time.

The aftermath.

3.  The NY Times recipe calls for 1-5/8c flour. I need to do some further looking around, but it sounds like 1-1/2c or 1-1/3c is actually correct. In (the newer edition of) How To Cook Everything, Bittman uses a 1:2 water to flour ratio (by volume), which would be 1-1/2c water for the 3c flour in this recipe. For my first loaf I used the more conservative 1-1/3 cups of water, a ratio of 4:9.  (For reference, the pizza dough recipe that I use has a 1:3 ratio of water to flour, and the Ming Tsai hot water dough uses 1:2. I shot for the middle.)

The reality of all of that is, of course, that I should be using weights rather than measures. That’s not happening until I can find the kitchen scale, which is still in a box someplace waiting to be unpacked after the last move.

4.  The bread crackles as it cools, which is pretty neat.

5.  It makes the house smell amazing.

The recipe:

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.

19 comments to Bittman – Lahey No Knead Bread

  • […] recipe and “first attempt” post is here. November 12th, 2011 | Category: Food, […]

  • SeattleAuthor

    Trying this tonite, in prep for grilled butterflied leg of lamb tomorrow.

  • A.J. Coltrane

    Check out the “Third Time’s A Charm” post linked above. It includes some stuff that worked for me and other assorted thoughts.

  • SeattleAuthor

    I wanted to start with the “base” recipe, before I went on to your acquired knowledge. I admit there is a disconnect between “turn dough into pot” and actually getting the amorphous dough into a 450° cast iron pot. My brain kicked in and the dough dropped, losing an inch or so of lift. But, the crumb and the texture were first rate. This one is a winner. Now, to read onward and work on my crust.

  • Iron Chef Leftovers

    Glad the bread turned out well for you SeattleAuthor. We were talking about it at dinner tonight and were wondering how your bread results were.

  • SeattleAuthor

    The linked-to recipe says 1 5/8 c water, but the NYT article mentions a 42% mix. I’m thinking that the recipe meant 1 3/8 c water. I’m trying it again, with a shy 1.5 c water. Already, it feels better. I think I’ll like 1 3/8 c even more.

  • A.J. Coltrane

    The 1-5/8 cups water in the NYTimes article is definitely high. Here’s what I wrote in the orignal post (Point #3.)

    “3. The NY Times recipe calls for 1-5/8c flour. I need to do some further looking around, but it sounds like 1-1/2c or 1-1/3c is actually correct. In (the newer edition of) How To Cook Everything, Bittman uses a 1:2 water to flour ratio (by volume), which would be 1-1/2c water for the 3c flour in this recipe. For my first loaf I used the more conservative 1-1/3 cups of water, a ratio of 4:9.”

    By weight it should be 75% hydration. (400g flour, 300g water, 8g salt, 1/4 tsp instant yeast)

    300 grams of water = 1.27 cups (300/237). 1-1/4 or 1-1/3 (which is what I used) is closest.

  • A.J. Coltrane

    As far as the “42% water”.

    That makes the hydration (42/58 = 72.4%).

    Scaled to 400g flour, that would be 1.22 cups of water.

    Why he chose to say “1-5/8 cups water” I have no idea.

  • SeattleAuthor

    I think if you guys worked on it a bit, you could make it a bit more arcane. I mean, I’m almost following you, there.

    Keeping to the more prosaic measurements…
    The 3c : 1 5/8c mix got a geat pugliese style bread, with nice, big artisinal style holes.
    The 3c : 1 1/2c mix had a much more even bubble pattern, and held a bit more loft.

    Before moving to your 3c : 1 1/3c mix, I’m scaling mine up, so the loaf fits the large pot I’m using…might help the height a bit. I should get to your mix by the end of the weekend.

  • A.J. Coltrane

    I agree on the “arcane” thing, and it’s worse because it’s all trying to compare fractions.

    That’s why whenever I look at a bread/dough recipe anymore I start by converting it to weights (if it’s not wieghts already) and then to baker’s percentage. That way I’m comparing absolute ratios, and I know that “xx% water = a bread that should behave about like this”.

    Really, I think that when someone writes a recipe that involves flour and *doesn’t* use weights, it’s just lazy and sloppy.

  • SeattleAuthor

    Baking = cooking + math

    To quote Jayne Cobb: Where does that get fun?
    I guess it’s in the eating, afterward.

    And I went back to the original 13oz water to 3c (1 lb, 2 oz) flour. It came out much better than my first attempt. Taller, more gluten-y, more rustic. But I shaved time off the rise, since it seemed to peak at about 14 hours, and after 30 minutes covered, it was done (so I gave it another 5 min to crisp up.

    The thing I like about this recipe is that you can get various types of bread out of the same ingredients, just by slight modifications to water content, rise time, and cooking time.

  • A.J. Coltrane

    I think that’s part of the reason why I like baking bread — you can add two tablespoons of water and get a very different result.

    That, and I happen to *like* math, so that suits me too.

    It’s very mad scientist.

  • SeattleAuthor

    I’ve settled on 320g water to 500g flour as a base. Tip it up a tablespoon or so, and you have a much more artisanal loaf, while tip it down to get a really fine-textured loaf. For me, 320:500 has the best mix of texture, lift, and moisture. I’m also cooking mine for 35 minutes covered, and 10 minutes uncovered. Brushing with olive oil for the last 10 minutes adds extra crunch. But overall, this is a great “master” recipe from which many variations can be made.

  • I tried this again last night, replacing all the water with beer. I didn’t go crazy, and only used a good Canadian pilsner, but it really added a depth of character to the flavor. Next attempt I’ll use something more adventurous–a nice brown ale or a good IPA perhaps. –k

  • Annie S.

    I would be interested to try the bread with a good IPA, see how that changes the flavor.

  • SeattleAuthor

    Okay, I gave it a try.

    Short version: there is a limit.


  • Iron Chef Leftovers

    I think the IPA thing would work if you used a beer where the IBUs were somewhere in the 40 range – an English style IPA. I am not surprised that a NW hop bomb didn’t work out so well.

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