Saturday, February 19, 2011

I stand corrected - Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread

I admit I’ve always been a little sceptical about no-knead bread. I figured there had to be a reason why bakers continue to put elbow grease into the process. And I’ve always rather liked the experience of kneading: it’s an effective way to work out stress and frustration.

But when I read this article praising the virtues of no-knead bread, and saw that it was written by a fellow sceptic, I decided I needed to try it for myself. After all, it really did look ridiculously easy, judging from Jim Lahey's included recipe: just mix the ingredients, let rise overnight, shape, and bake.

It was my first time using my Dutch oven for baking, and it only makes me love my big cast iron monster even more. So many delicious things come out of that thing: stews, braises, and now this incredible bread.

There, I’ve said it: this bread is incredible. It is by far the best bread I’ve ever baked. The crust is unbelievably crisp, thanks to the baking process: sealing the bread inside the Dutch oven produces enough steam to obtain a beautiful, blistery crust that crinkles as it cools down. As for the crumb, it’s airy and cool, just the way I like it. The bread also packed a lot of flavour, thanks to the slow fermentation process.

I’ve tried making this with half whole wheat flour, and the results were still good, although the crumb was inevitably heavier. I’ll need to experiment some more to find a balance. But overall, this recipe is as close to foolproof as I’ve ever come across.

I cannot, however, say the same for Chad Robertson’s country bread. I purchased his book Tartine Bread a while ago, and have been trying to work with it. I’d never created a starter before, and spent a couple of weeks feeding and nurturing my new yeast colony, fascinated by the idea that I was raising organisms in a jar (Laurent, as a biochemist, is more used to the situation). The starter seemed to be doing well: it was bubbly, it rose and fell in a pattern, and it smelled nice.

But when I finally tried to make the bread, which, like the no-knead bread, relies very much on slow fermentation (although some light kneading is required), I was very disappointed: my loaf was way too heavy, its crumb dense and flavourless. There were a few large holes here and there, but nothing remotely approaching the gorgeous, light crumb that was featured in the book (which, incidentally, is beautifully made and full of step-by-step pictures). And the crust was just dull.

I’m thinking my starter wasn’t mature enough. But I know I’m not the only one to have had initial trouble making this bread (I’ve actually seen a picture of a failed loaf just like the one I ended up with), so I’m going to keep trying. In the meantime, there’s still fabulous no-knead bread!


  1. O and now I was hoping you would have the recipe for the no knead bread right here as I am dying to make a good bread as we speak... but ofcourse I will need to wait a couple of hours (say a day) I did find the recipe on your link.. :) I've been wanting to try baking a bread in my Dutch oven too and can't wait until it's ready. Your bread looks soooo good!!

  2. I can feel the excitement over the successful baking out of your new oven. Congratulations and wish to see more out of it :-)

    Meanwhile, this bread is really fantastic. I just love the texture and crust, I must try it!

  3. I recently did a lot of no knead bread baking is awesome. Glad you liked your experience. Yeah starters are iffy.

  4. I know I commented on this yet my comment is not here. Odd. I was just reading it over again and saw my comment missing. I sent this to my daughter as she has just started breadmaking and I know this works very well!
    She has a new oven, too!

  5. I have been meaning to try the no-knead bread for ages, and I think your post and photos have finally convinced me. I bought a big, black cast iron Dutch oven at an antique shop, but haven't got around to cleaning it up and seasoning it yet. It's a monster.
    Have you read Jeffrey Steingarten's essay on making bread with a starter? Hilarious!