This post from June 2011 was updated in November 2011 and January 2012.
This recipe makes wonderful bread: crusty, open-textured, moist, and beautiful.
It needs no kneading, but this doesn’t imply any sort of trade-off. It’s a recipe for a perfect loaf which happens to be effortless, and an effortless recipe which happens to make a perfect loaf.
It’s based on Jim Lahey’s recipe from the New York Times in 2006 (also the subject of an article and accompanying video, and now a full-length book). But it’s even easier, as there’s no awkward middle stage with linen cloths.
In the eight months since we started using it, we’ve made virtually all our own bread.
What you need
- 400g strong white bread flour
- 370g water (or 370ml, but weighing is more accurate)
- One third of a teaspoon dried yeast
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Up to another 100g flour
- A lidded cast-iron casserole pot, around 21cm diameter. We’ve been told that a ceramic pot also works, but we haven’t tried this.
- The bread-making usual: scales (preferably electronic, for accuracy), mixing bowl, measuring jug, wooden spoon, wire rack, timer, oven
If you need any of this equipment, the above pictures link to Amazon (who give us a referral fee if you buy something).
What you do
There are three short steps separated by two risings.
Step 1: Mix
Measure the 400g of flour into the bowl. Add the salt and yeast, and stir briefly to mix in.
Pour in the water, all at once. Stir until fully mixed.
The result will be much stickier and wetter than normal dough, with a consistency more like cake mixture. You couldn’t knead it if you wanted to.
- In summer, cold water (i.e. room/tap temperature) is fine. In winter, use one part boiling to three or four parts cold to avoid slowing the risings down.
- The yeast quantity isn’t a mistake, though it’s a lot less than a standard bread recipe (and the back of the yeast packet) calls for. There’s also no need to reactivate it in the water first.
- Too much salt is bad for you, of course, but under-salted bread tastes really disappointing. We use two average-sized teaspoons, slightly over level, of sea salt crystals (which I suspect provide less salt in any given volume than fine table salt would).
Cover the bowl (e.g. with a large plate) and leave for 12 – 24 hours. Room temperature is fine in summer. In winter, somewhere a bit warmer — such as near a stove, boiler or hot water tank — works better.
Step 2: Add flour
The dough will have increased in size and spread out across the bowl. Its level top will dotted with bubbles, and it will be even more wet and gooey than before.
Stir in more flour, probably 50 – 100g, a handful at a time, until the mixture has just about formed itself into a dough: still stretchy, still sticking to the bowl, but half-capable of holding its shape.
Cover the bowl again and leave for another 2 – 12 hours.
Half an hour from the end of this rising, put the lidded casserole pot in the oven and start pre-heating to 220 degrees C.
Step 3: Bake
Take the now-super-hot pot from the oven and remove the lid.
Tip and scrape the re-risen dough into the pot, doing your best not to knock out all the air. It should look rough, ugly, and unpromising! Throw a bit of flour over the top for decorative effect.
Replace the lid and return the pot to the oven.
After half an hour, remove the lid.
After a further 15 minutes, take the pot from the oven. Tip the loaf out and leave it to cool on a wire rack. Admire!
- In summary, it’s: 30 minutes pre-heating the pot, 30 minutes baking with the lid on, and 15 minutes baking with the lid off. A timer/alarm is handy.
- A rounded flexible scraper (ours is cut out of the bottom of a plastic take-away carton) is good for smoothly transferring the dough from bowl to pot.
- Some oven temperature knobs stop marking temperatures at a point below 220 degrees. In this case you may need to experiment with how far beyond the end of the markings you need to go.
- The fully-baked loaf shouldn’t stick, so there should be no need to flour or grease the pot. If it does stick, it might be that the pot wasn’t hot enough — try turning up the oven a bit, and be sure to give the pot plenty of pre-heating time.
We rarely keep it quite this simple: various combinations of flours and seeds make a more interesting loaf.
Our favourites are:
Carpet the bottom of the casserole pot with poppy seeds just before you tip the dough in, and carpet the top of the dough with more seeds straight after (mere sprinklings will disappoint). The seeds should stick pretty tight and toast just the right amount during baking.
Optionally, also replace half the plain white bread flour with white spelt flour. This isn’t stocked that widely — we get Doves Farm stuff, from Planet Organic — but it adds lightness and really enhances the flavour, making a loaf that’s lovely for simple hot-buttered-toasting… and pretty much everything else.
Sesame and barley
Carpet the pot-bottom and loaf-top as above, this time with plenty of sesame seeds. Also replace around 100g of the normal flour with barley flour. Barley gives a brilliant nutty flavour, and the sesame seeds make for a delicious, crispy, toasty crust.
Barley flour is also not always easy to find. We usually get ours from an independent health food shop (Coopers, Lower Marsh, London SE1). If you can’t find it, some fine oatmeal is also nice in this loaf.
Caraway and rye
Replace up to 150g of the wheat flour with rye — which makes a tastier but heavier bread — and add a good teaspoon of caraway seeds to the dry ingredients at step 1. This loaf comes out looking gorgeous and artisanal if dusted with semolina flour just before baking.
Obviously you can experiment with adding different seeds and/or multi-seed flours. Bacheldre Mill do a malted 5 seed flour, but the fennel seeds in it are a bit overpowering. Wessex Mill’s six seed flour is much nicer. We replace 150g of the plain flour with this, and add a good handful of extra linseeds. Semolina flour on the top and bottom looks great on this one too.
For some coeliac friends we’ve made the poppy seed recipe, but replacing all the flour with the Doves Farm gluten-free variety, with surprisingly acceptable results (pictured right).
It’s a little bit chewy, but if eaten the same day it’s still really tasty, crusty and moist.
The results of our experiments with adding xanthan gum — which is sometimes used to give gluten-free doughs a bit of bounce — have been disastrously sticky and dense, though.
The recipe might sound demanding, but we find the steps quick and the pauses flexible enough that they’re easy to fit around our schedule.
In the week, we typically do step 1 in the evening after work, step 2 the next morning before work, and step 3 (baking) that evening. One loaf lasts us two days, so we start the next loaf the next evening.
Since the second rising can be done in two hours or so, you can also do the whole thing in one day if you do step 1 first thing and steps 2 and 3 the same evening.
Saving money (but maybe not the world)
Even organic flour only costs 50p for 500g, and the yeast is pretty nearly free. I estimate the gas or electricity to keep the oven at 220 degrees for 75 minutes could cost 50 – 100% of that again (anyone know more exactly?), but you’re still looking at a pound or less a loaf.
A domestic oven baking one loaf is almost certainly less energy-efficient than a commercial oven baking many, so making your own bread is probably not entirely green. Then again, if your oven’s electric you could always switch to 100% renewable electricity.