Being a somewhat lazy, short-cutting sort of cook, I’ve always been intimidated by the labor, time and skilled technique required to make bread. But then the pandemic and sheltering in place happened and bread baking became the thing to do. At least that’s how it seemed, judging by the vast number of recipes, news articles and Instagram posts circulating about home-baked bread. And the fact local store shelves have been wiped clean of flour and yeast. Late to the party, but feeling some nagging FOMO, I figured I should probably try my hand at least one loaf during the lockdown.
“I find bread baking to be extremely therapeutic. During ‘normal’ times, I bake it pretty much every day.” — Mark Bittman
Not wanting to feed and coddle a sourdough starter or work with a dough that requires lots of effort, I opted instead to try baking the simplest recipe I could find that uses instant yeast, involves no kneading and rises relatively quickly. Speedy No-Knead Bread is a variation of Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread recipe that former New York Times food columnist, former Berkeley resident, prolific cookbook author and enthusiastic bread baker Mark Bittman made famous.
“I find bread baking to be extremely therapeutic,” Bittman said in an email. “During ‘normal’ times, I bake it pretty much every day (I give a lot away).”
Like most basic bread recipes, Speedy No-Knead Bread involves four ingredients: bread flour, yeast, salt, and water; five if you count oil to grease the bowl. It rises in just over four hours with no kneading required. It’s easy and fool-proof enough for a child or a baker of my ilk to manage.
I made a single loaf one afternoon, and it was just as speedy and simple as promised. I used Bob’s Red Mill Bread Flour, a packet of instant yeast that I found stashed at the back of my refrigerator (expiration date long past) and salt, which happened to be a fine sea salt that I had in an open box in the cupboard. I chose a deep, lidded cast iron Lodge Pan for baking.
Bittman was right. The process was sort of therapeutic. I particularly liked handling the cushion-y, yielding dough after the rise, and its tangy, toasty, comforting smell during baking. Just out of the oven, the crust was crispy, the interior texture (known as the “crumb”), warm and chewy. I put a lot of meals on the table, but there was something particularly satisfying about producing that round of bread. My family ate the entire loaf in one sitting.
I made a few more loaves after that first one, changing things up a little here and there. I experimented adding herbs, nuts, and other additions. I turned the dough out onto parchment paper and then lowered both into the iron pot. My daughter, an inveterate sourdough baker, suggested putting two ice cubes beneath the parchment before baking to create steamy moisture for a crispy, glossy crust. Chase Agee, owner and bread baker extraordinaire at Base Camp Bakery, had other helpful advice:
“Use a scale and a thermometer! Both of those tools are incredibly useful in the bread-making process. You should scale every ingredient, as volume measurements are not accurate, and a thermometer should be used to get correct water temperature and to make sure your dough is maintaining proper fermentation temperatures. Otherwise, your dough could either move way too fast or not fast enough, but it’s hard to tell without a thermometer to guide you.”
I tried all these things, and while they may have raised my game, the important point is, the bread was perfectly tasty following the simple recipe instructions as written. (Though I suspect some of these techniques make more of a difference with sourdough bread, which seems a bit more fussy.)
As my expired yeast would suggest, the Speedy No-Knead ingredients are relatively forgiving (although it’s possible I got lucky). However, variations, I’ve since learned, produce different results and are worth some attention to detail.
Flour, for example. The no-knead recipes call for bread flour, which has a slightly higher protein content than all-purpose flour. More protein produces more gluten and gives bread its chewy consistency. All-purpose and other flours can be substituted, but Bittman thinks bread flour is a better choice.
“You gotta use bread flour for the best results,” Bittman told me. “It will be okay with all-purpose purpose flour, but the crumb will be tighter and less chewy. If you want to add whole wheat flour, up to 1 cup is okay; for rye, up to a ½ cup. But again, the crumb will be tighter and you will probably need to add a little more water to get the described consistency.”
Yeast is what makes the bread rise and not turn out like a hard, flat cracker. The Speedy No-Knead recipe calls for instant yeast, which is sold in 1/4-ounce packets at grocery stores. If you see packets of active dry yeast on the shelf at the store and wonder if you can use that instead, the answer is yes. Instant, as the name would suggest, is easiest to use because you mix it right into the dry ingredients. Active dry yeast is granular with a consistency similar to cornmeal and needs to be dissolved in warm water (approximately 110ºF) before being added to the other ingredients. Solid cake yeast can also be substituted for active dry or instant. Sourdough starter is a somewhat more complicated alternative to yeast that makes a more complex-tasting bread.
Salt is another critical ingredient. Not all salts are created equal. Non-iodized sea salt makes for better flavor than table salt. Different brands of fine sea salt can taste more or less salty, which can, in turn, influence the taste of the bread. Experiment to figure out which you like best.
Flour and yeast have been a little challenging to find in stores recently, although more local markets seem to be back in stock. Call the market to confirm they have what you want on hand before making the trip. Bittman mentioned he liked using flours from Community Grains (founded by Oliveto owner Bob Klein) when he lived in Berkeley, which are available in the bulk sections at grocers like Monterey Market.
For all the intimidation I’ve long felt about bread baking, I’ve been kind of amazed to discover how easy it is to produce a very palatable loaf of bread with basic ingredients at home. The continuing demand for supplies suggests others may feel similarly. Bittman hopes the trend is lasting.
”Seeing so many people getting into bread baking right now is so gratifying – I hope people stick to it. There’s nothing like having fresh bread around (and stale bread, for breadcrumbs).”
Mark Bittman’s Speedy No-Knead Bread
Makes one loaf, approximately 14 slices
Prep Time: 50 mins, plus 4 1/2 hours rise time
3 cups bread flour
2 1/4 teaspoons (1/4 ounce) instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups water
Oil, as needed
Combine flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Add water and stir until blended. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest about 4 hours at warm room temperature, about 70º.
Lightly oil a work surface and place dough on it; fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest 30 minutes more.
At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450ºF. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under dough and put it into pot, seam side up. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes.
Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.
Variations: Customize your loaf by experimenting with any of the following additions, alone or in combination. With the exception of things sprinkled on top of the loaf, all additions should be stirred in with the main ingredients in the first step.
- Garlic: mince 1-2 cloves of fresh garlic
- Herbs and spices: a few tablespoons chopped fresh or dried herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, cracked pepper), or just a pinch of ground ginger and white pepper
- Spice blends: a few tablespoons Herbes de Provence or vadouvan, a mild French curry with cumin, coriander, turmeric, black garlic, nutmeg, cardamom and other spices, which according to John Beaver, owner of Oaktown Spice Shop, “gives a lovely golden glow but also adds a savory richness.” Beaver also recommends Italian blend Erbe Italiane di Lusso, which “adds a complex herbaceous flavor balanced with a touch of lemon zest and garlic;” pumpkin pie spice mixed with sugar for a twist on cinnamon sugar; or a simple combination of cinnamon, cardamom and sugar
- Cheese: stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or cheddar cheese
- Dried fruit and nuts: raisins, cranberries, cherries, crystallized ginger, walnuts, sesame or sunflower seeds add crunch and flavor. Bittman recommends plumping the fruit in warm water and draining before adding
- Olive oil: another tip from Bittman — add 2 tablespoons to the dough with the water
- Toppings for the loaf: sprinkle large flake sea salt or Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel Sesame Seasoning on the top of the loaf just before you put it into the oven. Beaver suggests nigella, sumac and za’atar — all toppings used on flatbreads that could work on a loaf as well.
Recipe reprinted by permission of Mark Bittman