A Thanksgiving baking project: almost-no-work bread

Well over a decade since I got into the habit of baking sandwich bread from scratch, I still remember how nervous I was at first about winding up with a deflated loaf. The recipe I’m sharing here cuts that risk as close to zero as possible; all it asks in return is about 24 hours of time.

Because I, too, am a little hesitant to try out a recipe with that much latency, I waited to try the “No-Work Bread” recipe in my well-read copy of Mark Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything” (which you may have seen in the New York Times as “No-Knead Bread”). I shouldn’t have: This product of Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey is the most fault-tolerant bread recipe I know, and if you start it by mid-afternoon Wednesday you can have it ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

(My apologies if you’ll be spending Wednesday afternoon on highways or in the air. Maybe bookmark this for Christmas?)

  • 4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 2/3 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups water, about 70 degrees
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal

Mix the flour and salt in a 2-quart bowl. Stir the yeast into the water, and after a few minutes mix that into the dry ingredients for longer than seems necessary. This may look like a mess, but as long as you don’t have any chunky bits left, you should be fine.

(Bittman’s original recipe calls for half a teaspoon of instant yeast, which I never buy because Costco sells regular yeast in a 2-pound package. The last time I made this, I forgot the 1:1.33 instant-to-active-yeast conversion and threw the non-instant yeast in with the dry ingredients. Everything turned out fine; as I said, fault-tolerant.)

Take a 3-quart bowl and coat it with the olive oil. Dump the dough into it, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it alone for about 18 hours. You’ll know it’s done, or close enough, when it’s risen to near the top and it’s covered with bubbles as if they were craters on the surface of the moon.

(While the dough enjoys that long rise, you may want to watch an episode of the Great British Baking Show for motivational purposes.)

Dust a clean surface with flour and pour the soggy dough onto it–taking a moment to enjoy the aroma of the risen, fermented yeast. Fold the dough over a couple of times into a ball, more or less, and cover it with plastic wrap for 15 minutes.

After that rest, scatter more flour on the dough and re-form it into a ball. Scatter the cornmeal on a silicone baking mat, wax paper, or a towel (as in, something that you can grab to lift the dough off the surface) and leave the dough ball there for two hours.

About an hour and 15 minutes into that last rise, put a 3- to 4-quart pot, cover included, into the oven and preheat it to 450 degrees. Half an hour later after hitting 450°, open the oven, remove the lid and dump the dough into the pot.

This is when the results–a damp glob slumped unevenly in the pot, part of it stuck to its side–may look like a culinary catastrophe. Ignore the untidy appearance, put the lid back on, and shove it in the oven for 30 minutes.

Open the oven, remove the lid and you should see that the bread has settled back into a somewhat flattened ball. Set the lid aside, close the oven and bake for another 20 minutes. If the crust looks browned like something in a real bakery, it’s done; otherwise, try another 10 minutes.

Let the bread cool for 30 minutes. Try not to eat it all at once.

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Our weekly bread (among other recipes)

For an allegedly digital individual, I revert to analog ways more often than you might guess. I live in a 93-year-old house, dry clothes on a line in the summer, own a manual typewriter, and like to get my hands dirty gardening. And I haven’t bought sandwich bread since 2005 or so, because I bake my own.

I came across this recipe–after many years in which I couldn’t get sandwich bread to work–about eight years ago in the Post’s Food section. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s article, headlined “The Lazy Loaf,” promised bread in under four hours, and her instructions lived up to that advance billing. (In the spring of 2010, I was delighted to see Beranbaum post a few comments on my own blog.)

I’ve since made a few tweaks to the recipe, including variations for hot dog and sandwich buns as well as English muffins. I’m still seeing if I can get the hang of bagels.

FYI, I posted a version of this on my Facebook page in February of 2011. But the visibility of old Facebook notes is minimal, and I’d like to think that many of you missed this the first time around.

Sandwich bread

Our Weekly Bread

Makes a 9-inch sandwich loaf

  • 1 1/4 cup hot water out of the tap
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast (one standard packet, although I measure it out of a Costco-size bag)
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 3 1/2 cups flour: I usually combine 2 1/2 c all-purpose unbleached white flour with 1 c whole-wheat flour, but I’ll use as much as 1/2 c and as little as 1/2 c of the latter, and sometimes I’ll mix in some rye or flaxseed flour for a heartier flavor.
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon of herbes de provence, Italian seasoning or dried oregano (optional, but recommended if you’re using all or mostly white flour).
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus additional for the bowl

Add yeast and honey to the hot water and whisk together. Let stand for 10 minutes, until the yeast foams.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flours and mix in the salt and, if using, any dried herbs. Pour in the water/yeast/honey mixture, then the oil.

Use a standing mixer’s dough hook to knead the dough until smooth and springy, about 7 minutes (the original recipe says you can knead by hand for 10 minutes, but I’ve never tried that). The dough should be soft and cling slightly to your fingers, not the bowl. Shape the dough into a ball, kneading a few times by hand.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot. Set aside to rise until the dough has doubled in size, from 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on the temperature.

Butter a loaf pan. Turn the dough onto a work surface, such as a clean countertop dusted with flour, shape it into a rectangle and fold the longer side over. Then flatten that into a rectangle and fold that over again. Finally, flatten it a third time, then roll that up tightly and pinch the seam with your fingers to seal it.

Place the roll, seam-side down, in the pan, then cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise until almost doubled, from 45 minutes to as long as an hour and 45 minutes depending on temperature. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees about 30 minutes into that second rise, longer if it seems to be going slowly; if you let the pan rest on top of the oven, the residual warmth will help the yeast do its job. Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes.

Remove the bread from the pan and let it cool on a rack for at least an hour, preferably two.

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