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 while you were watching angel-sized snowflakes drift past your window. In fact, it will so totally not occur to dinner guests that you yourself baked so stunning a loaf that you may need to say a little modest something, such as, "Is the bread okay? I worried that it was a little too…" Delicious? No. "… crusty." That's a nice, humble way to alert them, don't you think? It is crusty--and also tangy and fragrant and beautiful. It is a revelation, not totally unlike sex, and you will walk around with a secret, knowing smile, eager to return to the yeasty embrace of your dough.
The recipe makes enough dough for three loaves--about a week's worth--which means that you can quite readily, if you want, mix up a batch of dough once a week and bake all the bread your family eats. Which is what I do. Which sounds so crazy, even to me, that I have been afraid to write about it. But there it is. It costs very little, and the bread is as wholesome as you make it, and it's wildly delicious, and it will give you such a home-makery, off-the-grid satisfaction. Bring on the Apocalypse! You'll just hole up with your good bread.
I encourage you to make bread baking your New Year's resolution. It's so much easier and tastier than those vast, pesky abstractions like patience or compassion or gratitude.
I first made a version of this recipe in 2006, when the New York Times ran Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread. And, like many people--including my mother, brother, and friend Peggy, to whom I forwarded the recipe--I couldn't quite believe it. Because I had kneaded my share of bread in my soytastic, hairy-armpit life, believe me. I had warmed oats and molasses and millet and baked up difficult, earnest loaves of difficult, earnest bread--rewarding in its dense and oaty way, true, but nothing you would mistake for something other than what it was. Although wow, now my brain is disgorging some unappetizing memories of a lemon tahini loaf that tasted like I'd proofed the yeast in bile. Also of some perfectly acceptable challah, which is a fun bread to make with children on account of the braiding and the sweetness. But this bread, here, is total bakery bread: crusty and yeasty and chewy--like something you'd wrap in a tea towel and bicycle out to your lavender-scented picnic if you lived in Provence, which I wish I did, not that I've ever been there. It's so good you'd make it even if it weren't easy. But that's just it: it's totally easy. Especially this recipe, mine, which is an amalgam Jim Lahey's perfect baking method with the quick-rise dough from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day with my own addition of vinegar for an instant sourdoughness and whole grains for goodness. You can refrigerate the dough for up to two weeks, and the older it gets, the sourer: beery and almost cheesy, in a delicious way that will drive your kitten mad with bready lust.
Yes, it might take a little getting the hang of. If you've made bread before, then the dough is damper than what you're used to. It will, in fact, seem all wrong. Just go with it. Even if things go a bit awry: the loaf might stick to your hands or the board, and you'll just want to sprinkle everything with flour and use a light touch. Keep calm and carry on--and prepare to be addicted. Happy New Year!
Fantastic Fearless Five-Minute Bread
Makes 3 loaves
Active time: 5 minutes; total time: 4 hours
This is a combination of Jim Lahey's no-knead bread recipe, 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 (the pumpernickel in that book, for example, is worth the cover price). 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.
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 (In the bread pictured, 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.)
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, 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 face lift and tucking all the 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, and put a heavy, covered pot inside to heat. I use a Corning ceramic baking dish with a glass lid, but I used to use my enameled cast iron Dutch oven (over time, I felt like I was ruining that pot, though). Cast iron, enamel, Pyrex, or ceramic all work well, so long as it holds at least 2 quarts and has a lid. Don't burn yourself, okay?
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.