The past couple of decades have seen a number of "solutions" to making homemade bread easier and faster. I admit that I've been a fan of none of them. The most abhorrent, to me, is the bread machine. I'm glad if it's brought homemade bread to houses that had none, but in my mind, the joy of bread is in the making, not just the eating, and giving that task over to a machine misses the point. Also, machine bread doesn't have great taste or texture, and the oddly squared, hole-in-the-end loaves didn't do it for me aesthetically.
Until I read Jim Lahey's My Bread (W.W. Norton and Company, $30), I felt similarly dubious about the no-knead bread craze. Maybe growing up watching my grandma knead on her floured board just felt too sacred a memory to jettison in favor of "easy" bread. The whole idea seemed, once again, to take away the satisfaction of breadmaking in service of a faster end product.
My feelings started to change when I read Lahey's introduction to My Bread . Lahey, the owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, reasoned that "if bread had been baked far and wide throughout history, from India to Scotland, it couldn't have been the daunting task it later became. It must have been easy." Reading the writings of the Roman cookbook writer Apicius led Lahey to conclude that ancient Roman bakers probably didn't do any kneading at all, but relied on a long rising time to develop gluten and then just shaped the bread and baked it. In other words, no-knead bread might be the polar opposite of trendy. I was ready to try it.
Lahey's basic recipe is simple: mix flour, salt, yeast, and water, and leave it alone for 12-18 hours. Then take out the dough, fold it into a ball, and let it sit for another hour or two. You then bake it in a Dutch oven for an hour or less. That's it -- bread. Gloriously rustic, crusty, tender bread. I've been utterly won over, as has everyone who has tasted the loaves I've made using Lahey's method.
The rest of the recipes in the book are all variations on that basic recipe. There's wheat bread, rye, olive, stecca (Italian-style baguettes studded with olives, cherry tomatoes, or whole garlic cloves), coconut-chocolate, fennel-raisin, pizza dough, focaccia, ciabatta… the list goes on. Lahey also includes some pizza and sandwich recipes.
For most of the bread recipes you need a Dutch oven and its cover -- I use a 7.25-quart Le Creuset, which is a good size for the basic recipe. Other shapes of bread, like ciabatta and stirato, require clay or other kinds of bakers that I don't have. Until I get them, I'm thinking about improvising with some foil and a piece of unglazed quarry tile, available for just a few bucks at home-and-garden or flooring stores.
Despite the ease and simplicity of his recipe, Lahey doesn't throw technique out the window -- far from it. In fact, in teaching the basic recipe, he emphasizes the visual and tactile qualities of the dough (and includes photos of each step of the process). When the rising dough is full of bubbles and has darkened slightly, it's ready to be shaped into a ball. When the ball has risen and you poke it with a finger, it's ready when it holds the indentation instead of springing back. Lahey cites these two tests as the yardsticks you should be using.
That's the involvement I love so much about making bread, the silent communication between ingredients, and between bread and baker. Lahey has, happily, left that intimate and alchemical aspect of breadmaking intact.