When it comes to making bread dough, “kneading is an optional and flexible step,” says Harold McGee in his new book Keys to Good Cooking (Penguin Press). If you don’t want to hassle with kneading bread dough, you can let time do the work. The concept of no-knead bread has been around awhile–most recently popularized by Mark Bittman when he wrote about baker Jim Lahey’s technique several years ago in The New York Times. I gave it a try at the time, but my dog Rascal (Nourish Network’s official mascot) ate the dough while it was proofing on the counter and I never got around to trying it again.
That is, until about a month ago, when a friend posted a Facebook link to a no-knead bread recipe by San Francisco-based cookbook author and cooking teacher Penni Wisner. Her recipe was a streamlined version of Lahey’s method and inspired me to give it another go. All went well–the ingredients came together just as she promised, Rascal left the dough alone, and resulting loaf was delicious with a lovely, chewy crust and tender crumb. Even better, letting time instead of elbow grease do the work yields a better-tasting loaf. “It has that long development, which gives it time to really increase in flavor,” says Wisner.
Wisner, who’s passionate about sharing this bread with everyone, agreed to let us share her recipe with the Nourish Network community. She also has a few tips:
Pick the right flour(s). Yes, you can make bread with all-purpose flour, but you’ll get better results if you use bread flour (available at most supermarkets). “I do think it makes a difference,” says Wisner. Bread flour has a higher protein content than all-purpose, so it forms more gluten to give your bread structure.
Wisner also adds a little whole wheat flour. “When you add it whole wheat flour to the mix, your dough acts totally differently,” she says. “It absorbs more water. Also, the dough is more active and ferments faster.” More water in the dough means the bread will have a more tender, loose grain. We both favor mild-flavored white whole wheat flour, but regular whole wheat flour works just as well. (You could use all whole wheat flour, but you’ll end up with a pretty tough-textured loaf.)
Measure carefully. Take a tip from the pros, and use a kitchen scale to weigh out your flour. This ensures consistent results–and it’s easier than aerating the flour, then spooning it into a dry measuring cup and leveling it with a knife.
Mimic a bakery oven. Professional bakers use high-heat ovens with steam to give bread a delightfully chewy crust. You can imitate that by cranking your oven up to 500 degrees F and preheating a Dutch oven. You’ll add the dough to the hot Dutch oven and cover it for the first 30 minutes of baking–this creates the steamy environment. No-knead dough also tends to be loose, and baking it in a Dutch oven yields a loaf with a pretty boule-like shape. “If you do nothing else but change your baking environment and use a Dutch oven, you’ll get better bread,” Wisner promises.
Practice. Wisner’s recipe is good from the first loaf, and it gets even better the more you make it. You’ll get familiar with the climate of your kitchen (if it’s warm, you dough will proof faster and be wetter) and the quirks of your oven, just two factors that can influence dough.
You’ll also become more confident handling the dough. “It’s a soft dough, so it’s not necessarily what you’re accustomed to,” says Wisner. “I think dough responds to confidence. It sticks to you less, when you movements are more confident.” Like many avid bakers, Wisner believes every dough has its own personality. I certainly do, and can’t resist visiting it while it ferments to check on its progress.
I’ve found the biggest challenge is allowing the baked bread to cool enough to slice it. That, and keeping it away from the dog.