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 (or flour)
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 (or more flour, if you’re out of 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), cover with plastic wrap, 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 after the oven 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.
Updated 12/25/2018 with a few clarifications.