When it comes to baking bread, I have the leaden touch. My sandwich loaves are brickish; my flatbreads are, well, flat; and I have failed to create anything but toxic sludge when I’ve attempted a sourdough culture. While I sometimes speculate that yeast conspires against me, the truth is I haven’t dedicated myself to the craft with much conviction. In my adult life, I’ve always lived near artisan bakeries that offer decent-to-superlative loaves, and I’ve opted for those instead of making my own. Still, my bread klutziness nags at my culinary pride, so when Nancy Baggett’s book full of bread recipes, Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads, came out recently, I decided to take the book up on the claims of its subtitle. I would bake seven loaves in as many days, and see whether her proudly simple method could make me, at last, a decent baker.
Baggett’s introduction assures me that with minimal labor and machinery, I, too, can have a loaf to be proud of. Her book emerges on the heels of a wave of no-knead (or barely kneaded) bread enthusiasm that swelled up two and a half years ago, when Mark Bittman of the New York Times introduced New York baker Jim Lahey’s method of bread baking: Instead of pushing a sizable dose of yeast in a few hours, a smaller measure of yeast is given a long time (on the order of 24 hours) to act on a rather humid dough, resulting in a lovely loaf without the time-consuming and laborious step of kneading. The Web and print response to Lahey’s method was enthusiastic, and other food writers chimed in—from the OCD-types at Cook’s Illustrated, who tweaked the formula slightly, to Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François, who, in their book, claim you can make Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, to Baggett, of course, who applies the method to a huge gamut of breads.
With four basic ingredients (flour, water, salt, and yeast), making bread might seem incredibly straightforward, but like almost any food that involves fermentation, mastering it takes both patience and practice. (For this reason, there has been a professional class of baker since at least Egyptian times.) Home bakers are always looking out for tricks to improve their output. The easiest bread shortcut is covered in the Old Testament, of course: The Jews, leaving Egypt in a hurry, baked their bread before it could rise, and came up with matzo. Since the industrial revolution, all sorts of bread assists have come into play for home bakers: Tin pans eliminated the need for skilled shaping of loaves; nonyeast leaveners like baking powder and soda gave loft to biscuits and soda breads; in the mid-20th century, stand mixers took the muscle ache out of kneading; and by the end of the century, there were bread machines that could mix, proof, and bake a loaf while you slept. If the result wasn’t entirely compelling in quality, at least it was warm and fragrant.
But a critical aspect of the no-knead method’s popularity is that it doesn’t force you to abdicate credit to a machine. Its steps are long, but lazy. Five minutes here and there over the course of a day or so, and—this is critical for people who work outside their homes—there are even several moments when you can use the refrigerator to delay the rising process further to fit your schedule. Here’s the basic idea: In the modern past, bread recipes had you develop gluten—the springy but strong network of proteins that capture the carbon-dioxide bubbles the yeast creates in the dough—by manhandling the dough by hand or mixer. If you didn’t knead efficiently or long enough, you’d end up with tough, unpleasant bread. But if you slow the rising time down—in fact, an older approach to baking—the agitation caused by the bubbling yeast itself can bring together the gluten matrix. It’s what Baggett calls “micro-kneading.” Baggett adds another tweak to Lahey’s standard no-knead MO: The dough is first mixed using ice water and chilled for several hours before rising. This step stuns the yeast into submission and lets enzymes get to work converting the flour’s starch into sugars, which makes for a browned crust and a better-tasting loaf.
I blame my previous bread botches on hubris and my crowlike attraction to the complicated: The very first loaf I tried to make when I was 12 or so was an ‘80s-rococco spinach-tomato marbled affair from Parisian master baker Gaston Lenotre. It was a total flop. So at the start of my weeklong bake-off, I keep my ambition in check and make the plain, white “pot boule.” After stirring together a mixture of flour, salt, instant yeast, and ice water, I cooled the dough in the fridge for several hours. Before bed, I set it out to rise for 18-odd hours, and the next day it was merrily pocked with bubbles—a good sign. I deflated the dough and folded it a bit with a greasy spatula and then let it rise once more in a warmer spot. And finally, I dumped it into a pre-heated cast iron pot and set it in the oven to bake (another technique popularized by Lahey and Bittman—the enclosed vessel helps to develop a nice crust by simulating the steamy ovens found in commercial bakeries). With a caramel-colored crust and a nice holey texture, the resulting loaf was pleasant, miles ahead of my standard. I wouldn’t mistake it for a pro’s, though—it wasn’t quite craggy enough inside or out. Still the house smelled marvelously like toast, and I hadn’t labored much at all. I looked forward to the next loaf.
I ramped up the complexity throughout the week—on Tuesday, I ventured on to a partially whole-wheat sandwich loaf, which I baked in a too-small loaf pan, giving each slice the long-eared profile of a cocker spaniel. Wednesday’s four-grain honey loaf was even tastier, though with a denser texture, thanks to the oats and brown rice inside it. Both definitely bested the whole-grain sandwich loaves I normally keep on hand for lunches around the house.
On Thursday I baked off a pot-baked rye loaf, which I was sure would be a hit, since the moist interior of the no-knead breads remind me of the German style black rye breads I loved as a kid. But, in fact, despite a dash of pickle juice to mimic the tang of a sourdough culture, the rye fell flat. I noticed a similar flavor flatness with a mixed whole-wheat/white loaf densely populated with flax, pumpkin, and sesame seeds. The closer the loaves seemed to the kind I’d buy at a good bakery, the more I noticed their shortcomings, so I was skeptical when I then worked on some traditional-style breads: fougasse (the ladder-shaped Provençal olive bread) and ciabatta, the air-pocketed flat Italian loaf. But they were really good. Thanks to Baggett’s instructions to place a pan of steam-producing ice water at the bottom of the oven, both came out with appealing crusts and righteous chewiness (the fougasse more than the ciabatta, which called for less flour, and less fermentation time). I wouldn’t say my ciabatta had the loopy, airy irregular bubbles that I’d look for in a bakery-bought loaf, but it was good.
In fact, I liked it well enough to try again for my weekly Sandwich Sunday—a no-utensil entertaining tradition I’m trying to cultivate, for which I normally pick up bread at my favorite bakery. But I had already started to tinker with Baggett’s recipe—cutting back on the amount of yeast to see whether I could push the bubbling a bit more. I’d also started to wonder how to make my oven even steamier. The ciabatta was acceptable for that night’s sandwiches of tuna confit and roasted red peppers, but it was not as pleasantly pliant as my first batch.
And this is the problem with the no-knead way. It is good—very good and very encouraging. So encouraging, in fact, that I start to think of myself as a better baker than I am. Do I like Baggett’s chill-it-and-forget-it approach? You bet. But if I continue down this path, there’s no way I’ll leave it at that. The no-knead method is like an entry-level drug, and if I keep it up, I’ll move on to the harder stuff—forever seeking more complex flavor and textural highs. Pretty soon, I won’t leave town without finding a sitter for my sourdough, and I’ll start building brick ovens in the backyard. And, no doubt, then I’ll start screwing up again.