This is the most excited I’ve been about a new recipe, I think ever. I’ve been baking this loaf for everyone I know, and they all think I’m a genius. When I tell them how easy it is, the typical answer is: “sure, easy for you.” But honestly, it is absolutely effortless!
So here's the scoop: Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan came up with a revolutionary new way to make bread that doesn't require kneading and calls for only 1/4 tsp. of yeast. It was on the Times list of most emailed stories for about a week, and I’m sure every food blogger in the known universe has tried it, with what appears to be unanimously spectacular results. I've made the loaf at least ten times now, and every time it’s been so beautiful I’ve taken pictures of it.
Innovations in bread making are rare; the method has been more or less the same for thousands of years, streamlined only by electric mixers with dough hooks and bread machines. What makes Jim's bread different is the ratio of water to flour: it's a very wet dough (about 42% water, which is at the extreme high end of the range that professional bakers use to create crisp crust and large, well-structured crumb) which couldn't be kneaded even if you wanted to. He then lets time do all the work; the long, slow rise develops the gluten in the same way kneading does in a few minutes. Gluten is formed when water comes into contact with flour, and according to Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.
Revolutionary idea #2 was to bake the bread in a heavy pot; ideally anything enamel, cast iron, Pyrex or ceramic. He suggests a Le Crueset pot, and that's what I use, except that it's a $20 knockoff from Winners that works every bit as well. Bread bakers go to great lengths to achieve the perfect crisp, crackling crust – expensive steam-injected ovens, ice cubes in a pan on the bottom rack, or spray bottles that you use to quickly and intermittently spray inside the oven door in an attempt to increase humidity as the crust develops. Lahey's way around this is to bake the bread in a heated pot, which creates a closed environment that traps the bread's own steam and creates a perfect crust. You don’t even need to grease it!
This is the sort of bread I’d buy at a high-end bakery, the kind I'm willing to pay the big bucks for. It requires absolutely no skill, and only a few minutes of actual work. And since all it contains is regular all-purpose flour, salt and a teeny bit of yeast (another good thing- all my homemade loaves tend to be too yeasty) it costs about 20 cents per loaf. It even keeps well, despite the fact that it contains no fat.
So here’s the recipe – it’s what’s for dinner! (Makes great sandwiches, tuna melts, and begs to be served with chili or soup.)
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