There was a time when I was growing up that money was a real issue for our family. My mom was a single mom for several years, and then remarried – except that both she and her new husband were free-lance musicians in New York City. (And you know how well THAT pays!) They sacrificed a lot for me and for my brother – among other things, they scraped money together to send us to a private school a few blocks from where we lived so we could get out of the New York public schools – in the 60’s those schools were a little rough, especially in the area where we lived, and successive strikes and riots made the decision a no-brainer for them in spite of the financial challenges it posed.
I know all this now, but as a child I was oblivious. We were beloved, we had enough, and we had no idea that money was tight or any of the other ways in which our parents sacrificed for us. (One more thing to have been thankful for as we raised our glasses yesterday.)
One of the ways my mom saved money was to make all our meals from scratch, as much as possible, including our bread. It was an involved process that was fascinating to me and my brother, and it was a real treat to be allowed to climb up on a stool pulled up to the counter and help with the kneading and turning and flouring. (There’s a family story involving my brother at the age of 6 or 8, kneading bread rather violently as he said, “Take THAT, [insert name of person he was angry about here]!” My mom knew all about redirection before it was a popular child-rearing technique.)
I went through a phase where I baked bread for my own family, but honestly – a military wife, working full time, with a small and very active child, plus trying to complete my college degree in an adult education program, and eventually taking that much time to create a fresh loaf of bread became something that dropped off my “must do” list. And anyway, I could never replicate those gorgeous artisan loaves that came out of professional ovens, with the crisp, thick, golden crusts and dense, chewy interiors, which is what bread is really all about.
Enter Pinterest. I pinned this recipe a while back, but it seemed so ridiculously easy that I thought, “There must be a catch.”
Nope. No catch.
About a month ago, I gave this a try and was so floored by the results – and how EASY it is! – that I’ve been making a loaf every few days. Because temperature, humidity, and a whole host of other things make a huge difference, I tweaked the recipe over successive bakings until I zeroed in on the perfect bread for us. Try my version or the linked version and then adjust it in small increments until you come up with something that works for you, both in terms of taste and texture. Here’s mine (complete recipe at the bottom of this post):
Put six cups of all purpose flour, two teaspoons of dry active yeast, and two teaspoons of salt in a large bowl. Stir to combine thoroughly, then slowly add 2-2/3 cup of liquid. (I use one bottle of dark beer poured into a large measuring cup, topped off with water to make the full 2-2/3 cup measure.)
It’s going to be a wet, sticky dough, but that’s OK – that’s what you want. Stir with a rubber spatula until everything is combined, being sure to get all the way down to the bottom so there are no pockets of flour left. When you’re done, you should have something that looks roughly like this.
Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and leave it to sit on your counter in a warm, draft-free place for 12 – 36 hours.
You read that right. I started with 18 hours the first time I made a loaf, but it didn’t rise enough for me and both Nick and I prefer a sourdough or malty-tasting bread, so the addition of the beer and the longer rise time to 36 hours wound up being perfect for us.
So here’s the deal: take five minutes one evening to combine these ingredients in a big bowl and then walk away. Just… walk away. Come back two mornings later, and you’ll have something that looks like this.
It should have darkened slightly and have lots of bubbles on the top. And the smell…. oh my gosh. The smell will be heavenly.
Lay out a large sheet of parchment paper on your counter. Sprinkle it with flour. (Trust me on this – the original recipe suggests a cotton kitchen towel. Don’t fall for it. You want parchment paper.)
Take your trusty rubber spatula and scrape around the sides of the bowl to bring the dough together a little bit before turning it out onto the parchment paper.
Sprinkle a little more flour on top – and then, gently and quickly, form it in to a sort of a ball shape by pulling the sides away and tucking them under, turning them as you go. When you’re done, you should have a smooth-topped blob of dough with all the edges tucked in. And really messy, sticky hands – you should flour your hands first, but even so there’s going to be no way to get around this part. Sorry.
Sprinkle with a little flour and then cover with a clean cotton kitchen towel (not terry cloth) and let rise for two hours. (Total active time invested at this point: 10 minutes, max.)
When you’re a half hour from the end of that rise time, turn your oven on to 425 degrees. (For our UK friends, that’s Fahrenheit – I have no idea what it is in Celsius!!) Put the oven rack smack dab in the middle of the oven.
Then – and this is the key – grab a 6 – 8 quart covered Dutch oven. I use this awesome one I got on eBay.
(It is EXACTLY like the one my mom used to make homemade soups when I was growing up. EXACTLY. I totally heart this piece of kitchen hardware.)
Put the Dutch oven in the oven and leave it there for the last 30 minutes of the dough’s second rise. At the end of the half hour, the pan and the oven will be screaming hot, which is exactly what you want.
Now, let me take a quick detour to tell you why this is necessary. Those gorgeous crusty boules you get at artisan bakeries have those beautiful, thick, crisp crusts because of the steam the bakers use in their high-heat ovens. Trying to replicate that in a home oven is a pain in the keister – believe me, I’ve tried it, complete with partially opened oven door and a squirt bottle aimed at a hot baking stone. Not fun, and way way way too much work.
Enter the screaming hot, cast-iron Dutch oven. When paired with a wetter-than-usual bread dough in an enclosed environment, you get… steam. So essentially, what you’re doing is creating an oven within an oven, which captures the moisture from the wet dough and uses it to create that gorgeous crust that even a spray bottle can’t replicate.
So here’s how you do it.
Put a cooling rack on your stovetop or countertop, close to the oven. You want to work quickly, but don’t rush – those pans will stay plenty hot for what you need to do next. Just have everything lined up and ready to go. Put the Dutch oven on the cooling rack and remove the top.
Your dough will have plumped up and and flattened out a little. And trust me when I tell you it is still gooey. Which is a good thing. Remove the kitchen towel, and slide your hand underneath the parchment paper, picking up the gooey mass.
If you’re taking photos, get your husband to take pictures as you carefully flip the dough – upside down, seam side up – into the screaming hot Dutch oven. (And no, you don’t need to oil it first.) Flour is going to go everywhere, but it will make your kids laugh and it cleans up easily with a damp paper towel.
Carefully peel the parchment paper off the bottom (now the top) of the dough. (Now do you understand the wisdom of parchment paper??)
Put the lid on the Dutch oven and put it back in the regular oven. Set a timer for 45 minutes, go put on a flowey, gauzy dress and water your plants while sipping an ice cold crisp Chardonnay. If you’re into that sort of thing.
In other words, you’ve now spent a total of about 12 minutes total active time on what is going to be the best bread you’ve ever tasted. Go do something fun with the time you’re saving.
After 45 minutes, take the lid off the Dutch oven. Try not to scream with excitement over the gorgeousness that is in your oven. (My “gorgeousness” unfortunately did not include a clean oven. Please pardon me.) Active time check: 12.25 minutes.
Leave the bread in there for another 5 – 10 minutes. Check on it about half-way through – the point here is to let the bread get a deep chestnut color, but not burnt.
OK, seriously. This smells sooooooo good.
Take the Dutch oven out of the oven. Turn the boule out onto your hand – using a hot pad, ’cause that sucker will be really hot – and put it on the cooling rack right side up. (Set the Dutch oven someplace safe and let it cool before washing it. Don’t warp or crack your enameled iron pieces!)
And then lean in and listen closely to the bread. Because the bread will start singing to you.
No, I have NOT had too many glasses of ice cold crisp Chardonnay! The bread will literally begin to make an amazing crackling sound as it cools. It’s going to be really, really hard, but make yourself wait to cut into the bread until it’s completely cooled on the outside. If you cut too soon, the inside will get gummy. (I know this because I could not make myself wait on the first loaf. Even gummy, that loaf was better than anything from the store.)
Then take it to your friend’s house for Thanksgiving and let them oooh and ahhhh over the amazing home-made bread you slaved over for them. And drink their wine.
Total active time: less than 15 minutes. Seriously. There is no reason NOT to do this. Cheap. Absurdly easy. And really, really good. No excuses – the linked recipe includes some substitutions if whole wheat is your thing.
So there it is – from my house to yours, the Watson version of Amazing No-Knead Bread just in time for the holidays. Leftover bread makes awesome croutons or stuffing. Seriously. And if you actually attempt this, drop me a line and let me know – I’d love to hear how it turned out!