In November of 2006, Mark Bittman introduced the world to Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread. This recipe totally rocked my world, and demoted the bread machine to a sad, unused corner of the kitchen. And it wasn't just me...everybody I knew who baked was talking about it. Four years later, it came up at lunch, which inspired this post.
And what is this Wondrous Bread Without Kneading of which I speak? A homemade bakery-style boule, with a wonderful crust, open crumb, and the feel of a real loaf of bread. There's no complicated technique, no sophisticated equipment. Though you do need a 6-8 quart covered dutch oven (cast iron, glass, etc.) that can withstand a 450 degree oven, and time to mix the dough a day in advance.
The secret behind the no-knead method is water. To get a good bakery crust, you need a steam-injection oven, which most people don't have in their home. Jim Lahey realized that if you have a relatively wet loaf of bread in a covered pot...you get the steam for free! His next insight was that when you mix up the wet dough you don't need to physically knead it. Over a long stretch of time (12-24 hours) the rising dough will naturally stretch out the gluten, and when the dough is wet the gluten molecules are free to assemble themselves into alignment and create the network necessary for a great loaf of bread.
In December, 2006 Mark Bittman posted a follow-up article with some tweaks to the recipe, and later Cook's Illustrated picked up the baton for their "Almost No-Knead Bread" (subscription required) in the January 2008 issue. Both of these contained key insights to improving the technique, and I've added a few tweaks of my own. One suggestion from Cook's Illustrated that I tried once and didn't find very useful was to replace 6 Tbs water with mild-flavored American lager. Unfortunately, as mild-flavored American lager is like making love in a canoe, I didn't find this to be very useful.