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.
Note that you need to mix the dough the day before you bake it; it requires 14-24 hours total rise time. Don't be intimidated by the length of the recipe; it's not that many steps, but I wanted to make it unscrewupable.
3 cups+ (430 grams+) bread flour
1 5/8 cup (345 grams) water, minus 1 tablespoon
1 Tbs white vinegar
1/4 tsp yeast
1 Tbs salt
In a large bowl, combine flour, yeast, and salt. Put water and vinegar in microwave and heat to luke-warm temperature. Add liquid to flour mixture, and stir with spatula until blended. The dough should be "almost too wet to handle", and you may need to add some additional flour depending on the humidity. Although the recipe is unlike normal bread-baking in that it is very forgiving, I've had the best results when it is slightly-too-wet-to-handle rather than soupy.
Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow dough to rest 12-18 hours at room temperature. Dough is ready when the surface starts to get bubbly.
Lightly flour work surface (don't be shy!) and peel dough out from the bowl and put it on the surface. Sprinkle a bit of flour on top and fold it over on itself a couple of times (oh noes! this is almost but not quite "kneading"). Cover loosely with plastic wrap (I hope you didn't throw that wrap out!) and let rest about 15 minutes.
The next step involves letting the dough to rest for a couple of hours. Your best bet is to take a wide skillet and put a big piece of parchment paper on it. The parchment paper is a key addition that will facilitate dough transfer and prevent sticking. Lightly flour your fingers and gently and quickly form the dough into a ball. Place dough seem-side down on the parchment paper, dust with a bit of flour, and cover with a cotton towel.
After 2 hours, put the covered dutch oven in the oven, turn it to 450 degrees, and set a timer for 30 minutes. Put the oven rack as high as you can and still fit the dutch oven in; I've found that otherwise the bread gets too much bottom heat and can overbrown on the bottom.
After a total of 2 1/2 hours of rise time, remove the dutch oven and take off the cover. Use the parchment paper to transfer the dough ball to the dutch oven, and try to be careful and not burn your fingers. The parchment paper will also keep the dough from sticking to the dutch oven. Cover and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove lid, and cut a vent in the top of the loaf. Continue to bake uncovered for another 10-15 minutes until loaf is nicely brown. Remove and cool on a rack.