Success and failure have visited my numerous attempts at Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread. The first attempt – brilliant! Following the New York Times version of the recipe to a T, I found tender crumb, flake, crunch, and crust at the end of a blisteringly hot oven sentence. The second attempt – phenomenal! Third, fourth, fifth, still quite good, and by now I followed a scrap paper shorthand version of the recipe.
At about the sixth loaf, laziness set in, and even I, a novice in the lowest ranks of making bread at home, know that you really shouldn’t get lazy when it comes to baking. An extra 1/4 cup of flour would make it into the dough, or perhaps the yeast would get a warm water bath with a sprinkle of sugar, because surely I read somewhere that the yeast feeds on the sugar and then something ferments and oh, well that’s got to be good. I’d guess on the salt, toss in a few hefty pinches of Kosher. Wheat flour? Why not? I’ll just sub half, it’ll be healthier. Then I’d forget to set the timer on the oven, gauge the thoroughness of the bread solely by smell and the color of the crust, whip it out and immediately hack into the loaf to find… chunks of wet dough. Back in the oven it would go, collapsing slightly onto itself, overcooked in areas, doughy in others. Amazingly, some portions would still be edible, but more often than not I found myself chucking what started out as 3 (ish?) cups of flour because this mess couldn’t even be resurrected as croutons.
I gave up for a while – with amazing fresh bread for sale a few blocks away (Clear Flour! Iggy’s!), it was hard to justify 19 hours of waiting and flour all over the counter for a half-cooked loaf that the Mr. would cringe and say was “oh, great, really great. Maybe…maybe just a little longer in the oven next time?”
But two days ago I tried again, this time armed with the words straight from the horse’s mouth. Jim Lahey’s My Bread was available at the library, and after paying a $2.10 fine from 2006 (whoops), I was reading through his brief autobiography and origin of the no-knead recipe. I’m a weird fusion of recipe-following automaton and this-needs-paprika?!-guess-red-pepper-flakes-will-have-to-do type of home cook, relying on part intuition, part think-I-saw-someone-do-this-one-time, occasionally and surprisingly to some success. The Mr., on the other hand, reads Alton Brown cookbooks like I read a beach chair novel, but with post-its. He likes the science and the “fun” facts behind the recipe. Inspired by him, I sought out the reasoning behind the recipe steps: Why let the flour, water, salt, yeast mixture sit 18 hours? Why preheat the pot? Why even cook it in a pot? And, seriously, why let the bread cool before burning my fingers to tear off hunks to get in my belly sans accoutrements?
Lahey’s book answered all of these, and guess what? “Thorough cooling actually completes the cooking of the dough, and when you slice a hot loaf, you are releasing heat and moisture prematurely. The bread will taste underbaked and wet.” Aha! Synapses firing, so this is sort of like meat? You cook a steak, and then you let it sit for a few minutes before cutting into it so the juices are able to redistribute and don’t flow out of the meat. Juices are to meat as heat/moisture are to bread? Not the smoothest of analogies, but I get it now.
So this time I measured the ingredients (with the kitchen scale, no less!), left out the sugar, waited the full 18-hour rise time, set the timer, etc. The loaf was a little disheveled, flatter on one side, but with a golden brown crust and a fragrance to match. I waited until my bread had stopped “singing” (the adverb Lahey uses to for “that crackling sound as steam escapes”), and then I ate a whole lot of it. With Vermont Creamery butter (called “crack butter” ’round these parts) and HiRise’s sweet crimson Westerner Plum preserves (which will probably now be called “crack jam” ’round these parts). And it was so, so good.