The Loaf Awakens
A No-Knead Bake-Off
A New Way to Bread
Of the many tens of thousands of words that food journalist Mark Bittman has written, perhaps none have had greater impact on how America cooks than an unassuming little installment of his New York Times column, The Minimalist, published on Nov. 8, 2006. Its headline read: “The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work.”
The column detailed an unusual bread-making technique developed by Jim Lahey at his Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan. Lahey’s method produces the kind of European-style rustic boules, with a bubbly interior and crackling crust, that are a staple product of artisan bakeries but rare from home kitchens.
The recipe quickly became known generically as “no-knead bread,” although the absence of kneading is really the consequence, not the goal, of the defining characteristics of Lahey’s technique:
- A very wet dough — so wet that can be difficult or impossible to shape by hand.
- A tiny amount of yeast, as little as one-eighth of a teaspoon, and no starter.
- A long, room-temperature rise, at least overnight and preferably 18 hours.
- A Dutch oven in which the dough is baked, with the steam from the wet dough creating the rustic crust.
As Benjamin Phelan noted in Slate, the technique ought to be called “slow bread”:
The most important part of the bread-making process is neither kneading nor not-kneading, nor measuring with scientific accuracy, nor any technique per se. The most important thing is to leave the dough alone for long periods of time, over and over again, which is easy to do.
Lahey’s technique was the kind of simple, breaking-all-the-rules idea that foodies adore. And they did.
Bittman’s column immediately went viral. Food writers and bloggers tripped over themselves to herald Lahey’s virtually foolproof technique and the remarkable results. The no-knead recipe went on to become one of the most popular Bittman ever published — top-rated by users of his 2010 How to Cook Everything iPad app and the first of “Mark Bittman’s Best Recipes from The Times” (published when he left the newspaper in 2016 to help launch Purple Carrot, a vegan meal-kit delivery startup).
And it didn’t stop there. Other chefs, smitten by the frenzy, developed their own versions of the loaf, and a mini-industry of no-knead bread cookbooks was born. Lahey himself turned out a couple of books on the subject. Just about every PBS and Food Network chef seems to have his or her own take on the technique, and a few years ago Bittman himself published a variation that offered a shorter rise (more about all of this later).
No food fad lasts forever, but this one seems destined to stick around for a while. Baking bread the Lahey way is just so danged easy; fortunately for me, the technique is simple enough even for a dorkwad, and the results tend to blow the minds of dinner guests who haven’t tried the technique themselves.
My wife and I spent the better part of several years trying out several of the most popular versions of no-knead bread, starting with Lahey’s himself. But first, it helps to understand exactly why the Lahey technique, which seems so simple on its face, was so revolutionary in practice.
Some Kneadless Exposition
As far as I’ve been able to determine, Jim Lahey was the first to put together the four essential elements of what has come to be known as no-knead bread — wet dough, little yeast, long rise, and Dutch oven — or at least the first to tell the world about them. But each of those elements existed previously and separately as part of various bread-making techniques, both ancient and modern, from around the world.
(Disclaimer: Most of the information in this section comes from my reading a lot of cookbooks and internet articles, and most certainly NOT through years of baking or anything that resembles actual expertise. As we say at our food blog, Cuisine Stupide, “it only looks like we know what we’re doing.”)
A long rise, for example, is key to almost every recipe that calls for a pre-ferment — also known as a starter. In Italian bread-making, it’s called a biga; in France, a pâte fermentée or poolish; in American kitchens, it’s often referred to a mother or a sponge. The number of variations on the pre-ferment technique is truly mind-boggling, but the basic idea is that a small amount of dough is created and allowed to ferment, usually overnight or longer, and then is combined with the main ingredients. The method tends to give the finished bread a richer flavor and better texture than found in a short-rising loaf.
In addition to the long rising period, some pre-ferment methods foreshadow other elements of Lahey’s technique. For example, a poolish often consists of a very wet dough and utilizes only a small amount of yeast.
In the years leading up to Mark Bittman’s big reveal, other bakers and chefs were developing the precursors to Lahey’s technique. No history of no-knead bread would be complete without acknowledging Suzanne Dunaway and her 1999 James Beard Award-nominated book No Need To Knead: Handmade Italian Bread in 90 Minutes. Dunaway, too, used a wet dough but only standard amounts of yeast and normal rise times. The catch? Her recipes work best in producing a low-loft bread like focaccia. Many of her other breads require a sponge and an overnight fermentation.
But the earliest of the no-knead precursors, at least in print, may have come from none other than celebrity chef Jacques Pépin, who devoted several pages of his 1995 book Jacques Pépin’s Table: The Complete Today’s Gourmet to the subject of “long-proofed breads,” including one he dubbed Farmer Bread:
When creating the recipes for this book, I found I liked the results I got when I used a minimum of packaged yeast and let the dough proof a long time. The resulting loaves have a thick, crusty exterior and will stay fresh — at least the larger loaves — for up to a week if stored in plastic bags. (Page 475.)
Later (that is, post-Bittman), Pépin would add another Lahey-esque element to his recipe: the Dutch oven. Pépin’s particular innovation, published in 2008 in More Fast Food My Way, was to use the pot as a mixing bowl, a further simplification of the process that would produce one of the more popular competitors to Lahey’s seminal technique: Pépin’s One Pot Bread.
Copycats and Contrarians
The outpouring of attention that the food world gave no-knead bread in the wake of the 2006 Mark Bittman column inspired many other chefs to work up their own versions of Jim Lahey’s technique. Not surprisingly, the hubbub also inspired a small backlash against the idea of making bread in such an unconventional manner.
Cooking shows and celebrity chefs were fairly shameless in presenting their own variations on no-knead bread, sometimes with no acknowledgement of Lahey’s original technique.
Jacques Pépin, on his 2008 KQED series More Fast Food My Way and the cookbook that accompanied it, demonstrated a one-pot method that used the Dutch oven for mixing and proofing the dough as well as baking it. As noted previously, however, Pépin’s 1995 long-proofing “Farmer Bread” predated the Lahey technique by a decade.
Alton Brown’s 2008 recipe for “Knead Not Sourdough” is identical to Lahey’s in most respects, calling for more flour, slightly less water, kosher salt, and, most humorously, a 19-hour proof instead of Lahey’s preferred 18 hours (the culinary equivalent, perhaps, of Nigel Tufnel’s “goes to 11” amplifier). Brown, too, was making wet-dough breads pre-Lahey, including his “Everyday Bread” from the cookbook I’m Just Here for More Food (2004).
Cook’s Illustrated unveiled a significant variation, titled “Almost No Knead Bread,” in 2008, adding beer, vinegar, and a few seconds of kneading with the goal of creating a less rustic, more sandwich-ready loaf. The public television show America’s Test Kitchen demonstrated the recipe in 2009.
Peter Reinhart, widely considered one of the best bakers in America, developed his own version of no-knead bread, documented in the 2009 cookbook Artisan Breads Every Day, that relies on a simple “stretch and fold” technique that functions like kneading to create a better texture.
Mark Bittman, who had first unleashed Lahey’s recipe upon the world, published his own variation in 2010, using whole grain flour, a bread pan, and more yeast to reduce the proofing time to less than five hours — changes of which, even Bittman acknowledged, “Lahey wouldn’t approve.” In 2016, marking the 10th anniversary of his Lahey column, Bittman reunited with his muse and demonstrated a further refined recipe with a mere two-hour rise.
L.V. Anderson, writing for Slate’s “You’re Doing It Wrong” series, argued against the no-knead technique entirely, calling it a “supposed innovation (that) destroyed half the pleasure of making bread in the first place.”
Of all the offspring of Lahey’s mother recipe, the one developed by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë Francois seems to have won the most converts. In the 2007 cookbook Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (and an updated edition in 2013, plus a whole series of related baking books), the authors introduce a significant innovation: making dough in bulk and storing it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, using portions as desired during that time for fresh bread (the “five minutes” being the time it takes to tear off a chunk of dough, shape it, and place it in a preheated oven).
Unlike Lahey, Hertzberg/Francois use the conventional baking-stone-and-water-pan method to develop a crispy crust; they offer only a one-sentence acknowledgement of the Dutch oven method in the book’s second edition, although they do offer a more complete overview of that method on their website.
Like Reinhart, Dunaway, and even Lahey himself, Hertzberg and Francois use the basic recipe as the departure point for a whole range of bread styles.
In our quest to find the best no-knead bread recipe, my wife and I concentrated our testing on three techniques:
- Jim Lahey’s original “No-Knead Bread.”
- Jacques Pépin’s “One Pot Bread.”
- Jeff Hertzberg’s and Zoë Francois’s “Master Recipe: Boule.”
We’d love to say that this “testing” involved something like the rigorous experimentation of America’s Test Kitchen or the mad-scientist machinations of Good Eats. Truth is, we tried out these recipes when we felt like it over the course of a couple of years, inflicted the results on our family and friends, and failed to take detailed notes. All told, we probably baked fewer than two dozen loaves to reach our conclusions.
So take the following advice with a few grains of (preferably kosher) salt. Try the recipes, and others, for yourself. And let us know what you discover.
Jim Lahey’s “No-Knead Bread”
The first time I tried making Lahey’s concoction, I thought it was a disaster. The wet dough was a big damn mess — a bubbly puddle that resisted any attempts at shaping. I didn’t so much place it in the Dutch oven as pour it in.
And the result … was marvelous. A light, chewy interior surrounded by a crisp but not tough crust. It needed more salt (something that other food bloggers discovered, too), and subsequent tries showed us that a little oil and a lot of flour made shaping the dough much easier. We like plastic wrap better than kitchen towels for the final rise. And we purchased a metal handle for our Dutch oven, since the plastic one isn’t designed for 400-degree-plus baking.
Sometimes the dough comes out drier and firmer. Sometimes it rises more or less. We’ve used both instant and bread-machine yeast. And the bread always turns out at least good and usually great. The great innovation of Lahey’s method isn’t that kneading isn’t necessary; it’s that the recipe is so forgiving in terms of vagaries of quantity, time, and technique. In baking, that’s a rare thing and one that’s invaluable to a home cook.
Jacques Pépin’s “One Pot Bread”
Pépin’s variation is simple: Use the Dutch oven as the mixing bowl, so that the dough never touches your hands. It’s definitely easier than Lahey’s technique, but the results were disappointing: a shorter loaf that had a nice crust but less loft and a more rubbery consistency.
The difference, I think, is that the minimal amount of handling that Lahey demands is enough to give the dough more texture. You might achieve the same effect in Pépin’s pot by using your flour-coated hands to turn the dough a couple of times before baking — but that sort of defeats the purpose.
The other difference, of course, is that Pépin calls for the rise to happen in the fridge rather than room temperature. At the very least, let the Dutch oven sit on the counter for an hour or more before putting it in the oven so the yeast has time to wake up.
Jeff Hertzberg’s and Zoë Francois’s “Master Recipe: Boule”
This is the recipe I wanted to like. Hertzberg and Francois possess an infectious enthusiasm for their technique, and the idea of having freshly baked rustic bread a couple of times a week, with minimal effort, is incredibly appealing.
Unfortunately, our results were wildly inconsistent. One batch of dough gave us one of the more beautiful loaves we’ve ever produced, but subsequent loaves from the same batch didn’t yield anything similar. Storing dough for four loaves of bread requires significant refrigerator space, and we discovered that leaving the container lid ajar sometimes produced an unappealing dried crust on top of the dough. Once we even ended up with what looked like spots of gray-green mold. In any case, baking the loaf on a stone slab while using a water-filled broiler pan for steam was a step backward, both in terms of effort and results, compared to the superior Dutch oven method.
In other words, the forgiving qualities that made Lahey’s system so attractive are absent in the Hertzberg/Francois method, replaced by a whole lot of complexities and variables. I’ve no doubt that, for a lot of people, that’s all worth it. But for many others it won’t be.
And the winner is …
For us, simplicity of process and consistency of results triumph. We’ll be baking this bread for a long time.
Until we find something better, anyway.
A version of this story first appeared on Cuisine Stupide, a food blog subtitled: “It Only Looks Like We Know What We’re Doing.”