Knead-less Bread-Baking

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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.

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Knead-less Olive-Rosemary Bread

We’ve adapted this no-knead homemade bread recipe from San Francisco-based cookbook author and cooking teacher Penni Wisner’s foolproof formula. A long fermentation and baking the bread in a preheated Dutch oven yields artisanal results at home. You can play with different mix-ins–sub golden raisins and walnuts for the olives and rosemary, for instance, or stir in chunks of bittersweet chocolate for a variation of pain au chocolat. For the best results, Wisner recommends using a kitchen scale to weigh the flour, salt and water. It’s an essential for great at-home bread-baking.

Knead-less Olive-Rosemary Bread

Yield: 1 (2-1/2 pound) loaf

Knead-less Olive-Rosemary Bread


  1. 13 ounces unbleached, organic bread flour, plus extra for shaping
  2. 7 ounces white whole wheat flour
  3. 3/8 ounce sea salt
  4. 1 cup coarsely chopped Kalamata olives
  5. 3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
  6. 16 ounces (by weight) water
  7. 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast OR 1 ounce sourdough starter*


Put a 3-quart bowl on a kitchen scale. Weigh out the flours and salt. Add the olives and rosemary. Stir with a wooden spoon; make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Add the water and yeast or sourdough starter. Stir with a wooden spoon until it gets too heavy, and then switch to a rounded bowl scraper. Dribble in more water, if needed, to make a sticky, ragged mass. Cover with plastic wrap (Wisner likes to use a travel shower cap, which works like a charm), and let stand at room temperature for 18-24 hours.

If you have time, during the first 2 hours or so, use the dough scraper to fold the dough over on itself about every half-hour: scrape around the edge of the bowl, pulling the dough into the center. After a couple of repeats, the mass will come together into a smooth, wet dough. The folding also helps distribute the yeast more quickly. If you’re going out, do at least one turn 15 minutes after the initial mixing and, if you can squeeze it in, another 15 minutes after the first.

When the dough is very bubbly and at about the top of the bowl (18-24 hours), scrape it down with the dough scraper. Dust a counter fairly heavily with bread flour (more heavily if the dough seems scarily wet). Dust the top with more flour (observing same principle as before). Fold the dough over onto itself—pick up one side and fold it to the middle, then the opposite side, then the top, and then the bottom. Press down lightly, adding more flour as needed, and repeat the folding one more time. Flip the dough over and shape it very gently, cupping it between your palms and rotating it, into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap (or the shower cap, or upend the bowl over the dough) and let it rest 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, get out a medium-sized cutting board or the bottom of a cookie sheet and lay a clean tea towel on it. Dust the towel lightly with flour and then generously with polenta. (This prevents the dough from sticking to the towel during its final rise/proofing.)

Gently reshape the rested dough into a ball and place it, seam-side-down, on the tea towel. Dust it lightly with bread flour and then with polenta. Cover with another tea towel and place the board and dough in a large plastic bag (a kitchen garbage bag works well) to proof. Let stand 1 hour.

While the dough proofs, place a 5-quart cast-iron Dutch oven and lid in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.

Remove the dough from the plastic bag; set it somewhere where it will be easy to transfer the dough into the preheated Dutch oven. Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and remove the lid. Remove the top tea towel and flip the dough into the pot. The dough will now be seam-side up. (This is important—the loaf will open along the seam as it rises. If the dough drops seam-side-down into the pot, just use a sharp knife to cut a slit in the top of the dough so it can rise properly.) Grasp the pot with your hot pads and give it a good shake to make sure the bread rolls easily in the pot and is not sticking. Recover the pot and return it to the oven.

Immediately lower the heat to 425 degrees F. Bake 30 minutes. Remove lid from Dutch oven and bake an additional 30 minutes or until the bread is dark gold on top. Immediately turn the loaf out onto a rack to cool.

*If your yeast is fresh, there’s no need to bloom it in warm water. But if, like me, you keep it in a jar in the fridge or it has been sitting in the pantry for a long time, go ahead and bloom it in warm 100-110F water for 5 minutes. I usually warm up a portion of the water used for the recipe and bloom the yeast in that.

  • Penni Wisner

    Hi Alison, wow, your bread looks so beautiful! And thanks, too, for including me in spreading the word on no-knead bread. Hope you’ve gotten a great response.

  • Jon Wilson

    Shouldn’t the recipe call for “1/4 oz” of dry yeast rather than 1/4 teaspoon?
    The 1/4 oz is the small pouch of yeast.

  • Alison Ashton

    Nope, it’s just 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast (a whole pouch would be too much). I know that sounds like a crazy small amount, but it really works, given the long rising time. If your yeast is on the old side or you keep it in the fridge (like I do), you can bloom it in warm, 100 F-110 F water. I make a loaf or two of this bread each week, and it really works!

    Alternatively, you can use 1 oz. of sourdough starter.