No-Knead Bread: An Exercise in Patience

I discovered magic last weekend. Okay, maybe not “magic” so much as the otherworldly combination of flour, water, yeast, and salt that is Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread. And maybe “discovered” isn’t quite right either. I’ve made this recipe before—I think it was in 2016. I vaguely remember liking it. It stuck around as a half-remembered Sunday cooking project, filed away in the maybe-I’ll-try-it-again-sometime drawer.

See, I didn’t know what I had happened upon that first time. This recipe requires a little, well, discipline. It took me a long time to come back to because it takes about 12 to 18 hours just for its first rise.

What person is on that kind of schedule?! 8 (or even 10) hours? Sure! I’ll make it in the morning and bake it in time for dinner. But 12 to 18 hours? I’ve done that math, and unless you’re an insomniac, that kind of resting period means you’ve gotta plan for this bread the day ahead. I don’t know about you, but on the weekends, I’m not trying to have that kind responsibility.

Or at least, that’s how I’ve always felt. When I made this bread the first time, I definitely did not give it its alone time. I figured, 6 hours is enough, right? I was younger then—impatient. But after seeing a miracle happen in my cast iron last weekend, I did a little research. Here’s why it’s important to let your bread dough have a good, long think:

  • Structure. With the long resting period, the formation of gas from the yeast and the movement of the resulting bubbles around the wet dough is what is essentially doing the “kneading” that you were being spared from. Score!
  • Flavor. You know why sourdough is so delicious? All those yeasty, malty, and yeah, sour flavors that develop from yeast that’s been doing it’s own thing (for a long while). When yeast is allowed to ferment at a slow rate for a long time. The easiest way to accomplish this is at cool temps. Which leads me to…

What changes I made to the recipe. I combined the 3 cups flour, 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast, and about 1 1/2 cups water (plus a tablespoon or two more when it looked a bit dry), just until a dough formed. I covered the bowl with a towel and gave it 10-ish hours at room temp. I made the dough around 8 a.m. though, and there was no way I was going to meet the deadline. I stuck that situation in the fridge overnight, and it worked out perfectly. Plus, I had fresh baked bread in the morning, so I basically killed it on all fronts.

After it’s cold-stint, I gently formed the dough into a ball and layed it, seam-side down, on a piece of plastic wrap sprinkled generously with cornmeal (I should’ve used the clean towel the recipe suggested). It took about 2 hours or so for the dough to come back up to room temperature and rise to the stage where it wasn’t readily springing back when (gently) poked.

At that point, I stuck the cast iron in the oven and preheated to 450°. The cast iron got 25 minutes to fully preheat, at which point I pulled it, added a drizzle of veg oil, and tried to gracefully flip the dough onto the skillet. The dough hit the skillet in a lopsided lump, but that didn’t stop either of us. After baking covered for 30 minutes and uncovered for 20 more minutes, it was a beautifully golden brown, only slightly lopsided, boule.

Fluffy slices of bread sitting on a wooden cutting board.

It was still slightly warm in the middle when I couldn’t wait any longer. I sliced into it to find a shatteringly crisp crust, a light and airy middle, and perfect crumb. It was delicious on its own, but spread with a thick smather of butter and strawberry jam—it was absolute heaven.

So… I’m not going to be postponing another year before I make this again. I can barely hold off a week. I can’t wait to try again, and take some of Kenji Lopez-Alt’s advice about an even longer bulk proof and better salting. Next time, I’ll add more water to start instead of struggling to incorporate more into a dry dough, use a clean tea towel (as recommended), and I’m definitely going to make a double/triple batch. I need this bread at the ready for me to bring to every dinner party, to give as gifts to everyone I know, and for every breakfast toast and mid-afternoon snack. It’s more responsibility than a single-day Sunday project, but I think I’m ready for the commitment.

9/27/19 UPDATE:

I have indeed made no-knead bread many, many times since writing this a few months ago. I’ve added different seeds and herbs, messed with the method, and even tried a gluten-free version (admittedly, not great). I made the Serious Eats version, but didn’t prefer it over the classic NYT/Mark Bittman recipe.

It’s become a nearly-every weekend project for eating at home and giving as casual gifts. While I do still chill it for a night or day in the fridge if something comes up, I usually just make the dough around 2pm, shape it the next morning, and bake it when it looks sufficiently puffed.

My biggest tip: after the dough’s first bulk rise, I’ve found that the easiest, best thing to do is to shape the boule, put it on some floured parchment paper, and set it back in the wiped-out proofing bowl. This helps the dough to get a higher vertical rise, since it’s not spreading on the counter horizontally as well. Then, just use the parchment sling to transfer the dough and set it directly into the hot Dutch oven, put the lid on, and bake. You’re welcome.


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