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How the No-Knead Bread Recipe Changed Baking

New York Times - Mon May 3 21:14

No-knead bread was “the recipe that democratized bread-baking,” said the cookbook author Peter Reinhart.
Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

In 2006, it changed the face of baking. Now, J. Kenji López-Alt takes a fresh look at Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman’s revolutionary recipe.

No-knead bread was “the recipe that democratized bread-baking,” said the cookbook author Peter Reinhart. Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

I remember where I was when the baking revolution began. Do you?

It was November 2006, and I was a test cook at Cook’s Illustrated magazine in Brookline, Mass., when I walked over to see what my colleagues were gawking at. It was a loaf of bread that my fellow test cook David Pazmiño had just transferred to a cooling rack. I remember the loud snaps and pops coming from the bread as it cooled, the glossy crust crackling. He cut off a slice, revealing an open, airy hole structure with a moist, custard crumb. It was extraordinary.

It was Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread, then recently published in The New York Times.

“This was the recipe that democratized bread-baking,” says Peter Reinhart, a chef-instructor at Johnson & Wales University and the author of “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” (Ten Speed Press, 2001).

As a recipe writer, I consider it a win if I can improve an existing technique, either by making it more simple and foolproof, or by tweaking it to produce markedly superior results. The no-knead bread recipe accomplished both of those goals simultaneously. The process is simple: Mix flour, water, salt and yeast in a bowl just until they all come together. Cover the bowl and let it sit on your counter overnight. The next day, shape it into a loose loaf, let it proof, then bake it inside a preheated Dutch oven with the lid on. That’s it.

Francisco Migoya, an author of the five-volume “Modernist Bread” (The Cooking Lab, 2017), called it “the gateway bread.”

“It’s the recipe that gets home bakers hooked on baking, leading them to sourdoughs and natural fermentation and more complicated techniques,” he said.

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Jim Lahey in 2019. Mr. Lahey first saw the no-knead technique in use in the early 1990s.
Credit...Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Nycwff

Mr. Lahey remembers watching as bakers — first food bloggers and amateurs, then newspapers and magazines, and finally professionals with bakeries and book deals — started employing the method, sending him photographs of their work and visiting his Sullivan Street Bakery just to take pictures with him, or to thank him for the recipe.

I myself tested no-knead bread recipes for two months in 2007 as I researched and wrote a piece for Cook’s Illustrated that unapologetically rode on his recipe’s success. (Mr. Lahey recalled, “There was this Cook’s Illustrated article that annoyed me a little when it was published.” I sheepishly told him that I wrote it.)

The technique is by no means a modern one. Mr. Lahey first saw it in use in 1991, while working on a farm in Tuscany, when he was 23. A friend baked him a pizza made from a dough he had formed without kneading the night before, then gently balled up before stretching and baking the next day. Mr. Lahey explored the technique further the next year in Miami, where he had been hired by the restaurateur Joe Allen to open a bakery. There, he noted that the dough lost cohesion as he kneaded and proofed it.

An analysis of Miami water indicated high levels of magnesium sulfate, an inorganic salt found in most tap water and used commercially as a fermentation aid. It speeds up the action of amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starches into simple sugars.

“The bread was overproofing, and the solution was to just knead it less,” he said. “Eventually, I started doing it without kneading it at all, just a few folds here and there to give it some structure.”

Mr. Reinhart, along with other bakers, like Ken Forkish of Ken’s Artisan Bakery and Ken’s Artisan Pizza in Portland, Ore., noted that no- or low-knead techniques were known to many professionals at the time. But, until Mr. Lahey and Mr. Bittman’s article, they had had difficulty explaining its potential to home bakers. “When I saw that article come out, I laughed, because I wish it had been me,” Mr. Reinhart said.

He said he learned the technique from Philippe Gosselin, who was known for his baguettes. At the time, Mr. Reinhart added, Parisian bakers like Mr. Gosselin, whose father was also a baker, were just starting to rediscover ancient techniques that had largely been displaced by modern commercial yeast and mixers.

“I remember Gosselin telling me, ‘When I showed my father, he threw me out of the kitchen. It was too out of the box,’” Mr. Reinhart said, adding that he met extreme resistance to the idea when he brought it with him to the United States and introduced similar concepts in “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.”

By the early 2000s, Mr. Lahey started using what would become his no-knead recipe at a James Beard House dinner themed on an ancient Roman cookbook. Upon reflection and research, Mr. Lahey realized the technique was probably how they made bread in ancient Rome.

Mr. Lahey started using the technique later, at Sullivan Street Bakery, and soon realized that it might be an interesting solution for home bakers, who, he observed, were “placing too much emphasis on kneading and making dough.”

He said he pitched it to Gourmet magazine, then Food & Wine. Finally, he took it to Mr. Bittman. Mr. Reinhart said Mr. Lahey’s genius was in incorporating and modernizing a few different old techniques known to bakers, but that “the real breakthrough was when Bittman called it ‘no-knead.’”

“The marketing made such a huge difference.”

Mr. Lahey agreed. “Mark gave it the no-knead name,” he said. “I thought it was a mistake — it’s just ancient bread made before fears and electricity — but he’s the writer so we went with it.”

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Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

The recipe proved not only popular, but hugely influential. Soon, home bakers and professionals began iterating on the process. Many were introduced to the concept of no-knead breads via a modified technique in Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François’s “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007). Chad Robertson’s “Tartine Bread” (Chronicle Books, 2010) took the concept, and moved it into the more-advanced world of sourdoughs.

“The biggest change no-knead bread made is that home bakers now had a good idea of what they were doing and a familiarity with the basics of artisan bread baking,” Mr. Forkish said.

This allowed Mr. Forkish to introduce more complicated techniques in his “Flour Water Salt Yeast” (Ten Speed Press, 2012), confident that home bakers would have the skills to follow along.

But how exactly does no-knead bread work?

To understand, we need to look at the structure of a good dough and the role that kneading plays in it.

Flour is made up largely of starch molecules, along with protein (typically around 11 percent to 13 percent by weight). Two of these classes of proteins, glutenins and gliadins, can cross-link in the presence of water, forming molecular bonds and creating gluten, the stretchy, sticky network that traps air bubbles produced by yeast and coagulates as it heats to give a finished loaf its structure and chew.

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Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

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Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

Kneading encourages proteins to rub against one another and entangle. But there are other ways to achieve similar or better results. In 1974, Raymond Calvel, a professor at L’École Nationale Supérieure de Meunerie et des Industries Céréalières in Paris, developed a technique known as autolyse, in which flour and water are mixed together and allowed to rest for a minimum of 20 minutes before salt and yeast are incorporated. He found that this short rest, during which enzymes in the flour would start weakening protein bonds, greatly reduced the amount of kneading required, while creating a gluten network that was easier to stretch and shape.

I like to think of dough as haphazardly stuck-together Legos that we are trying to form into an organized city. Before we can start building, we must first break down those shapes into individual bricks. Autolyse is like leaving a dog or a toddler alone with the Legos: They do the work of breaking them down for you.

With no-knead bread, this same concept is extended from 20 minutes to 8 to 12 hours.

As the wet dough rests overnight at room temperature, the enzymes weaken protein bonds so greatly that the simple action of carbon dioxide bubbles moving and stretching through the dough is enough to form a rough gluten network. Then, all it takes is a few well-placed folds to create a ball of dough that is ready to bake into an airy, open loaf.

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Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

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Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

“As a baker, it’s not labor or ingredients, but time that is the most valuable ingredient,” Mr. Migoya said. Learning how time can do the work for you turned me from someone who baked perhaps one or two loaves a year into someone who throws together dough on a whim before bedtime several times a month.

That said, I’ve always wanted to take a more organized look at the bread I was baking and to solve some of the issues that I — and other home bakers — have had in the past. Chief among these are the dough’s slackness and its propensity to spread into a pancake-like loaf, baking up flat and dense, if even lightly mishandled.

This all has to do with elasticity and extensibility. Elasticity is a dough’s ability to spring back when you stretch it, like a rubber band. Extensibility is the flip side of this: the ability for a dough to stretch without snapping back or tearing. Finding the right balance between these two is the trick.

With pizza dough, for instance, extensibility must be high to stretch a ball of dough into a thin, crisp crust that retains enough structure to stand up to wet, heavy toppings. This same extensibility in a rustic boule or bâtard can result in dough that lacks the structure to retain its shape. Too much elasticity, on the other hand, and you wind up with a dense crumb structure.

A few things helped me achieve this balance.

Mr. Migoya suggested that a small amount of acid could improve the formation of gluten bonds; in side-by-side tests, a drop or two of vinegar or lemon juice made an appreciable difference in dough strength.

Virtually every baker I talked to proposed adding folding and stretching steps, and, in my own testing, I found that Mr. Migoya’s recommendation of giving the dough a few tugs and folds every half-hour or so during the initial two to three hours of its long resting period worked best. The more tugs and folds you do, the more structure the dough will have, resulting in higher elasticity and a denser, more compact crumb. (On a tip from Mr. Reinhart, I dip my hands in water before handling the dough, a far more effective means of keeping your hands clean than flouring.) After that, the dough can rest on the counter until ready to shape and proof — at least a few hours, but up to overnight is fine. Or, even easier, settle it in the refrigerator overnight or for up to three nights before proofing. (An extended rest in the fridge will result in better flavor than a short room-temperature rest.)

A final shaping stretch before proofing and baking is enough to give the dough the structure I like. The goal is to create a membrane that smoothly wraps around the dough, similar to how fresh mozzarella or burrata has a taut skin stretched around a softer, less-structured interior. Some bakers use a plastic or metal scraper to tuck the dough into its final shape. Mr. Migoya recommends a flexible metal putty knife, the kind you’d use to spackle a wall. I find it easiest to work manually: I hold my fingers together and use the edges of my palms to tuck the skin underneath the ball, effectively smoothing out the top. As with all steps here, the less you handle the dough, the better; fifteen to 30 seconds of shaping is a reasonable goal.

It’s important to note that there’s no “correct” crumb structure, despite what strangers on social media will have you believe. The current pandemic-inspired craze, for high-hydration sourdough loaves with a large, open hole structure, is perfect for catching pockets of jam or soft butter. But try making a grilled cheese sandwich on bread that’s too holey, and watch as the cheese oozes out. Then, you’ll find the value in loaves with a tighter crumb structure. Knowing that adding extra stretches and folds will produce a tighter crumb will allow you to modify your technique to suit your own tastes.

The original recipe has you proof the final loaf on a floured cloth set on a flat cutting board, but a wicker or rattan basket (called a banneton) will better contain the dough as it proofs, producing a taller, shapelier loaf.

Don’t own a banneton and don’t want to buy one? No problem: You can proof your dough in a tall-sided mixing bowl lined with a clean cotton dish towel dusted with flour or rice flour. (Rice flour prevents sticking a bit better than wheat flour.) An hour or so at room temperature as the dough roughly doubles in volume, and it’s ready to drop into your preheated Dutch oven.

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Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

There are a huge range of ways to make excellent dough, whether you knead it by hand, in a stand mixer or food processor, or not at all. But even the best dough baked in a standard home oven will never achieve its full potential. The promise of “no knead” may have propelled the recipe to superstardom, but baking the bread in a lidded Dutch oven preheated inside a regular oven was, in many ways, the more revolutionary of the concepts introduced.

How a Dutch oven leads to superior crust and crumb all has to do with steam.

When I think of steam, the first images that come to mind are the white vapors that come off a pot of boiling water, or the jet that bursts out of a geyser or the pressure-release valve of a pressure cooker. None of these are quite accurate. Actual steam is a colorless, invisible gas that is indistinguishable to the eye from regular air. That white vapor is formed as invisible steam comes into contact with cooler air and rapidly condenses, creating tiny droplets of water.

If you’ve ever noticed that a muggy 85-degree day feels more stifling than an arid 100-degree day, you know that humid air is far more efficient at transferring heat than dry air. This efficient heat transfer is what gives a shaped ball of dough a rapid period of expansion, as gas bubbles trapped inside expand during the first moments of baking, while the dough is still at its loosest, an effect bakers refer to as “oven spring.” A moist environment also prevents the crust from drying out and hardening, keeping dough flexible and extensible for longer, and allowing the gas bubbles to expand further before setting for a more even open-crumb structure.

In fact, the outer crust on a loaf of bread in a steam oven will actually absorb moisture as it bakes. This creates a layer of well-hydrated, gelatinized starches that give the finished loaf a shiny appearance and a crust that is crackly and crisp as opposed to crunchy and dry.

So how do you replicate this steamy baking environment at home? In the past, I’ve tried the various hacks — spritzing the base of the oven with water before adding the dough, heating a pan of water, or dropping a few ice cubes into a hot skillet on the bottom rack — all with the assumption that, as long as there was visible “steam,” I was creating an effective steam oven. But I wasn’t.

The problem is fundamental to home ovens, and especially gas ovens. With gas ovens, there is no meaningful division between where the gas combusts and where your food goes — air and all the byproducts of combustion can pass freely between them. Because of this, the baking chamber in a gas oven by design must vent in order to remove the byproducts of gas combustion, which include water vapor. Trying to capture steam in a gas oven is like trying to catch water in a net; any amount of steam produced by a pan of water or melting ice cubes is rapidly shunted out and replaced by the relatively dry air of your kitchen. Home electric ovens will work a little better, but not by much.

A true steam oven, on the other hand, is specially equipped to produce far larger volumes of steam than a pan of water. Top-of-the-line bakery ovens have pressurized boilers that inject steam similarly to how an espresso machine works. More basic models will have independently heated boilers with a very large surface area that produce voluminous quantities of steam. With carefully designed vent systems, this expansion can force air out of the oven and replace it completely with steam.

Over the years, bakers have used various techniques to bake bread without a steam oven. My friend Anne Moser, head baker and co-proprietor at Backhaus in San Mateo, Calif., where I am a silent partner, used the lidded clay baker she was familiar with from her native Germany. (Römertopf is the most familiar brand.) Mr. Reinhart was baking bread under a ceramic dome called a cloche when “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” won a James Beard award. Both of these techniques operate under the same principle: By baking your bread inside a small, sealed enclosure, the steam released by the wet dough is trapped inside, pushing out the air, and creating an environment very similar to an actual steam oven.

Mr. Lahey learned to use a Dutch oven from the chef Peter Berley, a cookbook author, now at North Fork Kitchen and Garden, and realized it would allow home cooks to achieve similar results using a tool they probably already had.

But, in my time developing a no-knead technique for Cook’s Illustrated, the hundreds of home cooks we sent sample recipes to had difficulty transferring the slack dough to a Dutch oven. Overhandling proofed dough can de-gas it, leading to those flat loaves. More than once, I’ve accidentally caught the dough on the lip of the hot pan or burned the back of my hands on the screaming-hot edges. To solve this issue, I recommended proofing the dough on parchment sling that you then use to lower the bread into the Dutch oven. (The parchment burns as it bakes but easily releases from the bread afterward.)

There are also a number of specialized tools that have come to market to help with the dough transfer issue. The Fourneau bread oven or the Challenger bread pan are two examples. Both work very well, but have high price tags that match their performance. Many home bakers use the Lodge Combo Cooker, a combination cast-iron skillet and saucepan, the saucepan acting like a lid. A clay Römertopf-style baker worked especially well when I soaked the lid in water before preheating. The soaked clay releases steam continuously during the bake.

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Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

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Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

But, in my testing, I happened upon an even more convenient method: letting the ball of dough proof in a towel-lined mixing bowl, then, after proofing, I would place an inverted aluminum sheet tray directly over the smaller bowl, and flip the tray and bowl together before carefully removing the cloth. You wind up with a tall, shapely ball of dough that’s ready to bake.

To that end, I was baking the dough covered by an inverted preheated Dutch oven based on advice from Ms. Moser, but, on a whim, I wondered if I could instead cover it with a large inverted metal bowl to trap steam. It worked incredibly well, especially when I briefly rinsed the bowl to produce extra steam during baking. This has become my go-to method, and I have not had any problems with degassed bread or burned hands since. Using those bowls to mix the initial dough also streamlined the process, cutting down on the total equipment used.

No-knead “was a happy story,” Mr. Bittman said. “It got people baking.” He’s working on a new book about whole-grain baking that is fundamentally built upon the no-knead technique.

On the phone, a characteristically modest Mr. Lahey told me: “Even in ancient Egypt, they had lidded vessels to bake bread. Nothing is new here.”

Recipes: Updated No-Knead Bread | Low-Knead Bread | Low-Knead Sandwich Bread