NKotB to the NKB

I resisted it for over a year. Despite the tidal wave of praise being heaped on it, I told myself I wasn’t going to go with the masses. I was going to ignore it. Everyone was talking about it. Friends loved it. Everywhere I turn I was confronted with it. Cookbooks are now coming out with their own versions of it.

“I make my own bread,” I told myself firmly. My bread is a three-day journey involving 30-year-old sourdough starter (NO YEAST, she says, looking down her nose at you), local fresh-ground flour, expensive rising forms, spray bottles, razor blades, linen, and luck. My bread is amazing.

I almost never make it.

But the alchemy of flour, yeast, salt and time resulting in really good bread coming out of the oven is one of the few miracles an atheist like me is privy to, and I couldn’t resist it forever.

I’m not a gigantic fan of The Bittman, but I have to give props where props are due – I’ve been making the No-Knead Bread every other day for 2 weeks in a tiny vacation cottage kitchen with inadequate bread-making supplies* and it has come out shockingly fantastic every time.

I must therefore, a little bit grudgingly, add my voice to the hugely gigantic chorus, no tidal wave, no really more like a tsunami, of blogs, forums, articles, and even baking guru Rose Levy Beranbaum extolling the virtues of the NKB. There is even a pot made just for it (any old ovensafe pot works, I like a 3-4 quart one personally)!

Of course, I have modified the recipe a slight bit making it, dare I say it, even easier. I don’t even bother transferring it from its rising bowl to the counter top for the second rise. I just hold it with one hand (not an easy feat with a dough this wet) while I toss some flour in the bowl used for rising, then let it slump back in for the second rise.

While I’m in the (soy-based) crow-eating mood and am praising dudes I have formerly hated on, I should state that Peter Berley has an excellent chapter on sourdough bread in his book (I’m not going to link to it, it’s the only really good thing in the book), where he recommends baking bread in a cast iron pot. Mark Bittman/Jim Lahey aren’t the inventors of this method, alhtough they do deserve credit for perfecting it.

For copious pictures of the NKB, check out the zillions of blogs referenced above, or OMG, the Flickr group devoted to it. The original NYT recipe also has an accompanying video.

My version of the infamous NKB follows, as a little birthday gift to my mom – a relatively novice bread baker who I hope will be tickled with this recipe.

It’s amazing that so many words seem to be necessary to describe literally five minutes of work, but here we go:

Makes one 1 ½ lb loaf

variations – replace some of the all-purpose or bread flour with no more than:

30% whole wheat flour OR
50% white whole wheat flour OR
20% rye flour (I made a loaf today with 1/2 c rye flour and 1 1/2 Tb. of caraway seeds – it was great!)

Feel free to add in nuts, seeds, chopped olives, dried cherries and chocolate chips, etc. This is the next variation I’m going to try.

[October 2009 update: I’m still making and adoring the NKB. These days I exclusively weigh the ingredients (in grams), and I think it’s made a huge difference. A reliable electronic kitchen scale is cheap, and will make your bread better, trust me. I also usually replace a few tablespoons of water with good bubbly sourdough starter. It gives the bread a more complex flavor. If you’re weighing the water, remember that sourdough usually weighs more than water so you might need to add a little back in.)

3 c all-purpose or bread flour (sometimes labeled “high gluten flour”), plus more for dusting (430 grams)
¼ ts. instant or active dry yeast (it doesn’t matter what kind of yeast you use) (1 gram)
2 ½ ts. sea salt
cornmeal or wheat bran as needed, optional

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast, and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups tepid water (345 grams) (though I am a professional chef, I can never figure out 1 5/8 cups water. I add more than 1 ½ cups and less than 2 cups – just enough to make the dough slightly too wet to handle) and stir until blended; dough will be sticky and shaggy. (At this point flavorings such as caraway seeds, chopped olives, onions, walnuts, raisins, etc can be added.) Cover bowl with plastic wrap (I use an unused shower cap). Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, (as much as 20-22 is OK) at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Sprinkle dough with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice (realistically, this shaggy mass will not do anything like folding over on itself. Just do your best, it’ll be fine). Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to itself or your fingers (it will still stick), gently and quickly shape dough into a ball (or something loosely resembling one). Generously coat a silicone baking mat or cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran, or cornmeal. Cover with a large bowl (or shower cap, if the bread is in the bowl) and let rise for about 1-3 hours, depending on outside temperature. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger. (The dough will not really look like a ball, just a mass, this is OK.)

3. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees (up to 500 is OK for faster browning, but be careful). Put a 3-5 quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats.

4. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is OK. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15-30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Adapted 12/2007 from the NYT November 8, 2006, which was adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery.

*No dough scraper—O almighty and most humble dough scraper, I will never take your fantastic bowl-cleaning talent for granted ever again! Poor ruined sponges!—no lid for the pot (a cookie sheet works…uh…pretty well), not even a bread knife (that one is my fault, usually I travel with my own).

6 Responses to “NKotB to the NKB”

  1. jenny s

    lagusta, i have my own rye sourdough starter…how would i use it to replace yeast in this recipe?


  2. lagusta

    Yay for starter! I would replace maybe 1/3 of the water with a really bubbly starter. I wouldn’t add any extra rye flour if it’s already a rye starter, I’m afraid that would weigh it down too much. When I make no-yeast bread I usually refrigerate it so the starter doesn’t eat all it’s food (flour) and get tired out before it goes in the oven, so that’s the only thing I would be worried about.

    You might want to put it in the fridge for 24 hours instead of leaving it at room temp for 18 or so, then the second rise might take longer (4 hours or so?) but I am really just making all this up.

    I’d first try the recipe as written just omitting the yeast and replacing it with starter as above – it if fails, you’re only out maybe 50 cents worth of ingredients, if that.

    Good luck! let me know how it turns out, I am very curious. If my starter wasn’t 6000 miles away and perpetually half-dead, I would try it myself!

    Also – a Google search might turn up some info – I bet others have tried it.

  3. lagusta

    Oh shiz, I used the wrong “it’s.” It should be “…so the starter doesn’t eat all its food.” I’m a crazy typo maniac!

  4. jenny s.

    thanks! i actually just used the rye-onion-caraway recipe from wild fermentation…should be ready by midnight. but i will definitely let you know as i will try this other method this weekend.


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