Daily bread. Few two words evoke such primal survival instincts, elicit universal ties to humanity or just make your mouth water, depending on who you are. They might conjure spiritual stirrings, bringing to mind the staff of life. You might recall your grandmother in the kitchen or salivate at the mere thought of your local bakery. For some the institution of bread and its associated rituals runs deep in their lives while for others, it is just another carb.
Around the globe and across time, most cultures have eaten a version of this staple to the extent that their bread has become part of their cultural identity. For many, this part of the meal is as integral as, yes, water. On the contrary, most Americans lack any semblance of reverence for the lovely loaf. Until I discovered The Lahey Method recently, I was like most Americans.
What is the Lahey Method of Bread Baking?
My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method by Jim Lahey (published by W.W. Norton & Company) offered such an easy process of making bread that I couldn’t resist giving it a try. It especially appealed to me since my chronic wrist tendonitis takes kneading - and all of its related baked goods - off of my kitchen “to-do” list. Instead of all of the aerobic effort required by kneading, this method takes time and a little forethought. If you can manage those, you’ll be richly rewarded with surprisingly tasty loaves.
Mind you, I’ve had inklings of how enriching it can be to incorporate bread into your diet. We even tried growing wheat at the farm to make our own flour. When the ripe harvest of winter wheat was picked clean kernel by kernel by marauding deer and turkey, I rethought the romantic notion of crop-to-table. I’ve also had the privilege of glimpsing the paramount place bread can hold culturally. When I lived in France, bakeries brimmed with lively conversation as lines spilled out doors at day’s end when 9-to-5ers popped in for their daily loaf en route home to dinner. Baguettes along with traditional loaves of all shapes and sizes were snatched up with enthusiasm.
Back at home we have a renowned chef in our family, John Pisto of Monterey, California, who gifted my boyfriend the aforementioned cookbook which has enriched our meals with the staple that was missing from our menu. As Jim Lahey puts it, Good bread should be a masterpiece of contrast, crackling as you bite through the browned, malty-smelly crust, then deeply satisfying as you get to the meaty, chewy crumb with its distinct wheaten, slightly acidic taste. If that sounds appetizing to you, by all means try his method. Even loaves that I thought would be failures - when my attempts at following his steps strayed from his approach - yielded bread fitting his lofty description if I just kept going and got the loaf into the oven.
So, are you ready? Go to the source for his specific instructions, featured in his book replete with savory and sweet loaves, novel and traditional varieties and recipes that incorporate bread into sandwiches, soups and even desserts. He says: “The book is all about learning to bake with the Lahey approach, not robotically following instructions”. What follows is my interpretation of his approach.
No-Knead Bread Recipe Using the Lahey Method
- 3 cups bread flour
- 1 ¼ teaspoons table salt
- ¼ teaspoon instant or active dry yeast
- 1 1/3 cups cool water
- Wheat bran, cornmeal or additional flour for dusting
Mix all ingredients into a bowl large enough to allow the mixture to at least double, making sure that the dough is very sticky to the touch. Cover the bowl and let it sit at room temperature (ideally 72 degrees), out of direct sunlight, until the dough has more than doubled and the surface is bubbly. This will take 12-18 hours. The fermentation occurring during this slow rise will impart the flavor, so be patient.
Generously dust a work surface with flour. Scrape the dough onto the board or surface, using floured hands or a bowl scraper to nudge and tuck the dough into round, or the shape of your baking vessel (mine is oval). The dough will be very sticky and resemble batter as much as dough. Do not add flour to this loose, sticky mass. Just shape with floured hands.
Place a cotton or linen tea towel (Lahey cautions against terry cloth) on your work surface and generously sprinkle with wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Gently transfer the loaf to the towel, seam side down.
Confession: I’ve combined Steps two and three, pouring the dough “batter” right onto a liberally dusted cloth/ towel and coaxed the shape more by folding the dough in and over on itself than by tucking alone. This reduced handling and avoided transferring and flipping the loose mass that tends to have a mind of its own.
Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot for 1-2 hours allowing it to nearly double. If you gently poke it with your finger, making the indentation about ¼ inch deep, the impression should hold.
A half-hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with the rack in the lower third position, and place your heavy cooking pot in the center of the rack. Lahey bakes the bread in what he calls “an oven within an oven”. He says to use an enameled cast-iron (Le Creuset), seasoned cast-iron (Lodge) or all-ceramic (Emile Henry) pot.
Confession: Lacking these pots, I use an oval ceramic casserole dish inside an enamel camping cookware roasting pot and have had success. Lahey says “don’t feel too uptight about any of this”, and encourages improvisation once the basic method is understood, so I trust he’d approve.
Using pot holders, carefully remove the HOT preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel, lightly dust the dough with flour or bran and quickly but gently either lift with your hands or “pour” the dough, inverting it into the pot. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.
NOTE: Several times I’ve had the dough stick to the towel. Be not afraid: dust your hands with flour or coax the dough off the towel with a baking spatula and just keep going. Don’t worry if it is not neat and tidy. These loaves not only have flavor and texture, but they may develop personality, too! Fear not.
Remove the lid and continue baking the bread 15-30 minutes more, until it achieves a deep chestnut color but isn’t burned. When done, carefully remove the loaf from the cooking pot with a heatproof spatula or pot holders and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly, about an hour. Resist tearing or slicing it until it is completely cool.
Et voilà! Lahey suggests that you take your time with your first bite. He says: “Think of the first bite as you would the first taste of a glass of wine: smell it (there should be that touch of maltiness), chew it slowly to appreciate its almost meaty texture, and sense where it came from in its hint of wheat. Enjoy it. You baked it, and you did a good job”.
After you’ve delighted in the delectable fruit of your labor and wonder how to keep it fresh lacking an old-fashioned bread box, I’ve found that reusable beeswax wraps work great for preserving your homemade goodness.
Sarah Joplin has worked in art sales and publishing for more than 25 years. Having grown up on 50 acres near the Missouri River, Sarah’s extensive travels have made her appreciate her modest farm in Mid-Missouri all the more. Read all of Sarah’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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