This is not just the best bread you'll have ever made; it's the best bread you'll have ever eaten. Your friends will not believe you made it, and they certainly won't believe that you didn't need to knead it or fuss with it or do anything other than stir it together with a wooden spoon.
The recipe is a combination of Jim Lahey's no-knead bread, which ran in the New York Times a few years ago, and the simple crusty bread recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day -- a book that you should hunt down if making bread turns out to be your thing. Experiment with different flours, or find something you like and stick with it; the cost, in terms of both time and money, should discourage all fear.
Active time: 5 minutes
Total time: 4 hours (rising-time and oven-time)
Yield: 3 loaves
3 cups warm water
1 1/2 tablespoons yeast (2 packages)
1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons kosher salt, depending on your saltiness preference (or half as much table salt)
1 tablespoon white vinegar
6 1/2 cups flour (See Ingredient Note below)
- Pour the water into a large bowl or plastic container -- one that you won't miss, since it may be in the fridge for a few days -- then sprinkle in the yeast, salt, and vinegar. Use a wooden spoon to stir in the flours, and mix until there are no dry patches. The dough's texture may seem all wrong: too loose, too shaggy, too sticky. This is fine. Cover it with plastic wrap or a shower cap and let it rest and rise at a warm room temperature for at least 2 hours and up to 5 hours.
- At this point, you can bake it or refrigerate it for up to two weeks to bake later.
- To bake it: sprinkle some flour across the surface of the dough and use a knife to cut off a piece that's about a third of it; refrigerate the remaining dough. Turn the dough in your hands to stretch its surface, pulling it under to create a taut, rounded top and a gathered-up bottom (imagine that you're giving the dough a firming face lift and tucking all that baggy, extra skin underneath). You will want to do this kind of quickly, keeping your fingers moving lightly over the surface of the dough, rather than plunging them inside, where they will stick. If your hands get doughy, stop what you're doing, wash and dry them, reflour the dough, and try again.
- Sprinkle a pizza peel or wooden cutting board heavily with flour then lightly with cornmeal, put the loaf on it, sprinkle the top with flour, cover it lightly with a dish towel, and let it rest for 40 minutes (if you're using refrigerated dough, increase this rest time to 1 1/2 hours).
- Half an hour before the dough is ready, heat the oven to 450 F, and put a heavy, covered pot inside to heat. I use a Corning ceramic baking dish with a glass lid, but cast iron, enamel, Pyrex, or ceramic all work well, so long as it holds at least 2.5 quarts and has a lid.
- When the dough has rested, use a serrated or very sharp knife to slash an X across its top; do this with authority, so that the knife doesn't stick and so that the slashes are a good quarter-inch deep. Now pull the pot out of the oven, remove the lid, put the loaf in X-side up, replace the lid, and pop it into the oven. Did that go okay? Not so great? The dough stuck a little to the board and your hands and dumped into the pot at a weird angle? Don't fret. It will figure itself out in the oven.
- Bake the dough for 25 minutes, covered, then remove the cover and bake another 15 minutes. At this point, it should be beautifully browned. Cool on a rack before slicing, or you will end up with a mess of damp, shaggy crumbs. I know you're going to eat it hot anyways, but I just wanted to have said that.
Ingredient Note: In this version, I used 3 cups white, 3 cups whole wheat, and 1/4 cup each ground flax and wheat germ. My usual recipe is 2 cups white, 2 cups wheat, 1 cup white wheat, 1 cup rye, and 1/4 cup each ground flax and wheat germ; this makes a quite dense and grainy and wholesome loaf. Make it with all white flour, and your kids will fall to their knees in gratitude -- or mine will, if you invite them over.