An important part of achieving an authentic bread: The crust. And key to that was figuring out how to replicate the heat and steam of a professional oven. The answer, as recalled in Bob Spitz’s 2012 biography of the trailblazing cookbook author and television host, lay in lining the oven with quarry tiles and dropping a hot brick in a pan of water.
Thankfully, we don’t have to go to the lengths (and use the 284 pounds of flour) Julia did to get a good crusty bread — and not only because the bricks she and her husband, Paul, were using contained asbestos.
Instead, the answer lies in a common piece of kitchen equipment you may already have: A pot, ideally a Dutch oven. Yes, if your prestige piece of enameled cast-iron (which might start with Le and end in Creuset), isn’t getting as much use as you think it should, now is the time to pull it out. Get ready for some of the crustiest bread you’ve ever had.
Readers loved the last no-knead bread recipe I published, a focaccia from Zoë François and Jeff Hertzberg of “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” fame, so I decided that was the route I wanted to go for a crusty, whole-wheat loaf. This time, I turned to Jim Lahey, the baker and cookbook author who helped turn no-knead bread into a mainstream concept.
My first loaf: Superb. My second, third, fourth and fifth loaves: Just as wonderful. One of the star attractions was the crusty crust. The oven within the oven makes all the difference. You preheat the Dutch oven for about half an hour before baking, so it’s screaming hot by the time you gently dump the dough in. It’s so hot you can actually hear the dough start cooking when it hits the surface of the pot. You’re also going to start generating steam almost immediately, which you seal in by putting the lid on. That environment is what gets you the kind of crust you would only expect from an artisan bakery.
Wonderfully crackling, if a bit messy when slicing, this crust encases a delightfully chewy interior made especially airy by the high proportion of water in the dough. (Refresher: No-knead doughs work because the wetter dough means the gluten, or protein, strands can slip around to find each other and form that trademark structure.) The contrast between the two textures was satisfying, and the inclusion of whole-wheat flour mixed with bread flour provided appealing color and nutty flavor, amplified by a long rise at room temperature. Lahey calls for a ratio of 3 parts bread flour to 1 part whole-wheat flour. Feel free to experiment with the proportion of whole wheat, but keep in mind that too much might lead to a texture that is too gritty or dense (the sharp edges of the other parts of the wheat included in whole-wheat flour can shred that coveted gluten structure).
Each loaf I made was a little different in shape and color, but they all tasted great. So, please, don’t sweat about getting the perfect round. We’re all about flavor and character here — and, in this case, crust. That, you’ll get every single time.
NOTE: The dough needs to rest and rise twice; first for 12 to 18 hours, and after it’s shaped, for 1 to 2 hours (all at room temperature).
- 300 grams (2 1/4 cups) bread flour, plus more for the work surface
- 100 grams (3/4 cup) whole-wheat flour
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt (table)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried instant yeast
- 300 grams (1 1/3 cups) cool water (55 to 65 degrees)
- Wheat bran or cornmeal, for dusting (may use additional flour)
Stir together the flours, salt and yeast in a medium bowl. Add the water; use a wooden spoon or your hands to mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let the mixture sit at room temperature until its surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough has more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours.
Generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a rubber spatula or lightly floured hands to scrape the dough onto the surface in one piece. Use your lightly floured hands to lift the edges of the dough up and in toward the center. Gently pinch the pulled-up dough together, cupping the edges in your hands as needed to nudge it into a round (don’t worry about making it a perfect circle).
Place a clean dish towel on your work surface; generously dust the towel with wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Gently place the dough on the towel, seam side down. If the dough feels sticky, dust the top lightly with more wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it. Place the dough in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it has almost doubled in size. When you gently poke the dough with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for an additional 15 minutes.
About half an hour before you think the second rise is complete, position a rack in the lower third of the oven and place a 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-quart heavy Dutch oven or pot with a lid in the center of the rack. Preheat to 475 degrees.
Use pot holders to carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven, then lift off the lid.
Uncover the dough. Quickly but gently invert it off the towel and into the pot, seam side up. (Use caution — the pot and lid will be very hot.) Cover with the lid; bake (lower rack) for 30 minutes.
Remove the lid; continue baking until the loaf is a deep chestnut color but not burned, 15 to 30 minutes more. (If you like a more precise measure, the bread is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the bread registers 200 to 210 degrees.) Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly before serving or storing.
Adapted from “My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method,” by Jim Lahey (W.W. Norton, 2009), as posted on LeitesCulinaria.com.
Tested by Becky Krystal; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Calories: 120; Total Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 240 mg; Carbohydrates: 24 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 0 g; Protein: 5 g.