Bread Gone to Pot

If New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman ran his “Minimalist” piece “The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work” in November 2006, then this has been my go-to method week-in week-out for 6 1/2 years.

The crumb texture of my pumpernickel no-knead loaf.
The crumb texture of my pumpernickel no-knead loaf. I use the term to indicate a dark rye.

I began baking bread in about 1989 so I’ve tried lots of recipes. Bittman “discovered” Jim Lahey of NYC’s Sullivan Street Bakery, ended up writing three or four columns about his process and shot a couple of videos with him demonstrating it.

What do I like about Lahey’s? It’s easy, and the bread rivals any bakery’s, with no unusual equipment. It has two secrets: The flavor comes from using a minimal amount of yeast and letting it grow naturally, a full day. The appearance comes from using a big pot, preheated, to hold the steam that occurs initially. A four-quart Dutch oven is fine. It needs a heavy lid and no plastic parts because it goes into a very hot oven.

Bittman’s columns went viral; the Internet has spawned fan pages and variations. The following base and variations work for me. The pizza crust is incredible, and the rye and pumpernickel are earthy.

Volume or weight? Two years ago I found a cheap digital kitchen scale, $10, just replaced the battery. If you’re willing to go up to $20, they’re easy to locate. Baking requires some accuracy, and an electronic scale the size of a salad plate is the most brainless way. Its uses are endless; I weigh out canned pet food while half-asleep. The scale’s magic comes from working its tare or zero button.

Lahey wrote his own cookbook, crediting Bittman. It is a beautiful volume. Here are the original recipes: Lahey’s from the Times and Bittman’s from his website.

Ben’s No-Knead Bread

  • 3 cups (430 g) flour, all-purpose or bread, up to 1 cup can be whole wheat [see Notes]
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) rapid-rise or instant yeast (not “pizza yeast”)
  • 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 teaspoons (8 g) salt
  • 1 1/2 cups (350 g) water (beer can make up part of the liquid), cool to tepid temperature
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup sunflower seeds, rough-chopped nuts or dried fruit — optional
  • Extra flour for dusting
  1. In a large bowl, thoroughly mix flours, yeast, salt and optional nuts/fruit, about 1 minute. Stir in liquid, 2-3 minutes. Dough will be loose and sticky. Let rise 12-18 hours (24 hours is OK), covered with a lid or plastic wrap, room temperature. Dough will double in volume.
  2. With soft spatula or bowl scraper, turn the dough onto a square of parchment paper well-dusted with flour. Shape into ball. Center loaf, seam side down, on paper. This should take only seconds. No kneading, no punch-down, no full deflation of the dough.
  3. Place parchment paper and dough back in the rising bowl — don’t worry about cleaning it — using the paper like a sling. Cover loosely. Let rise 2-3 hours.
  4. Place a Dutch oven (don’t grease) and its lid in oven, heat to 475 degrees 20-30 minutes. Remove pot and lid from oven. Acting quickly to avoid losing much heat, use parchment paper as a sling to lift and place paper and dough both into the pot.
  5. Don’t worry if the dough is not perfectly round. No need to score top of loaf. Top with lid and return to oven. Bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake 15-20 more minutes, until loaf is well-browned. Using 1-2 spatulas, place bread on a rack. Discard paper. Cool at least 1 hour. Full cooling creates a consistent crumb for an easy-to-slice loaf. Reheat for the illusion of just-baked bread, if you must.


My pumpernickel no-knead loaf
My pumpernickel no-knead loaf, backed by azaleas in the yard. Pumpernickel is — no foolin’ — German for “the devil’s fart.”

Rye bread — Of the 3 cups (430 g) flours, make 3/4 cup (100 g) rye flour. Add 1-2 Tablespoons caraway seed. Using more rye flour than this yields a much denser loaf.

Pumpernickel — Start with rye adaptation above. To a quart measuring cup, add 2 Tablespoons unsweetened baking cocoa powder and 1 Tablespoon molasses then water to equal the 1 1/2 cups (350 g). Stir in to flour mix as in Step 1.

Pizza — (Optional: for pizzeria-like browning, add to quart measuring cup 1 Tablespoon sugar and 1 Tablespoon olive oil then water to equal the 3 1/2 cups.) Divide the loaf after the long first rise into balls — two roughly 12-inch or four roughly 8-inch crusts. Rest each ball 5 minutes on parchment paper squares or in small, greased bowls; no second rise needed. (The remaining ball or balls can be frozen for later use.) Roll or stretch a ball flat — either on parchment paper, greased pizza pan or well-floured peel. If dough ball resists, rest another five minutes. Add toppings and bake about 10 minutes in preheated 475-degree oven. A maximum of 1/2 cup sauce, 1 cup total of toppings and 1/2 cup cheese (or vegan cheese) per pie will keep crust fairly crispy. A bread stone is recommended. I now use 1/2 to 1 cup raw, coarsely chopped walnuts instead of the cheese — it’s different, vegan and real tasty. Another variation: instead of sauce, use 2-3 thinly sliced Roma tomatoes gently mixed with 2 teaspoons of dried Italian herb blend.

In general, whole grains can be a greater proportion than one-third, but the bread will not rise as much. (Personally, I weigh the flours but use volume measures for all other ingredients.)

Others’ no-knead methods have second rise on a well-floured woven — not terry — dish towel, cover with flaps of towel. The dough is dropped off the towel, upside down, into preheated, ungreased Dutch oven. It works, but there’s excessive flour on the finished loaf, and it’s messy. 2) Dusting the dough ball alternatives: wheat germ, bran or cornmeal. For the home kitchen, cornmeal, oft recommended, is too messy.

This makes a 24- to 30-ounce loaf. The weight difference is due to the dough pulling moisture from the air while rising; the dry ingredients remain the same amounts — it’s always wonderful.

Credit: Mark Bittman adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery NYC. These are my further adaptations.

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