When I want to make something, this is what I do: first, if it's not something I can reasonably throw together on my own, I search out recipes online, or in the few cookbooks I actually own; next, I come up with a few recipes that look decent, and I pick and choose elements from them that sound good or about right; finally, I'm left with a Frankenstein-ian recipe pieced together from multiple sources, and it either works out or it doesn't. I just cannot follow a single recipe exactly as it is written all the way through. I make substitutions. I add more or less of certain ingredients. I take it in another direction entirely. Recipes are great for advice, but I like to do my own thing. So I was always quite wary when it came to serious baking. Sure, I can make a cake, or cookies, or an occasional pie---but bread? It seemed to rely on a certain exact alchemy that I just wasn't made for. I failed every high school chemistry lab because I was too blasé about exact amounts or times or whatever. It's just not my style. But bread is chemistry. It requires a precise ratio of flour to yeast to water that must be met for the proper things to happen. Or so I thought.
Enter Jim Lahey and his no-knead bread. Or, rather, enter Jeff's sister Melissa, and her gifting me with Jim Lahey's book, My Bread, this Christmas, which started this whole thing. The Lahey method is very forgiving---the long fermentation process, about 18 hours, means the the exact ratio of flour to yeast is not so important. That leaves just flour and water. Lahey recommends measuring the ingredients by weight, as to be more precise, but (because I don't own a scale) I've found that volume measures work fine as long as you reach the right consistency. The dough shouldn't be too dry, as not to incorporate all of the flour, but it also shouldn't be too wet, as to be runny. You should be left with a firm dough that holds its shape, but which is just wet enough that all of the flour is well-mixed. Then you cover it and let the yeast do the rest of the work.
The only catch is, you need something suitable to bake it in. I tried to get around his prescription for a 4-5 quart dutch oven by using my mom's old 3 1/2 quart Corningware casserole, but there were problems. It wasn't really big enough, and it was square, which messes up the whole 'boule' thing he's going for. But Jeffrey saved the day when he got me this lovely Emile Henry ceramic you see above. It makes a much prettier loaf, a perfect boule, and it's great for soups, fruit preserves, etc. as well. But you could just as well use a simple cast-iron pot, which you can find just about anywhere for less than $50. It's a worthy investment if you make bread in it several times a week. It really appalls me how much you have to pay for bread in supermarkets. Anything they can label as 'artisanal', i.e. not processed white bread, they try to sell for $3-4 a loaf. When, really, if you make enough bread, including the cost of the pot, this bread is still made for pennies. And it requires less than an hour of active cooking time.
So, without further ado, here is the most basic bread, a simple pane. It has a moist, open crumb as you'd expect in many Italian-style breads. I'll definitely post some adapted takes on this simple recipe, but first let's master the basics.
Adapted from Jim Lahey's My Bread
3 cups bread flour (400 grams)
1 1/4 tsp salt (8 grams)
1/4 tsp active dry yeast (1 gram)
1 1/3 cups cool water (300 grams)
[dough after first rise]
Part I: In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients. Add the prescribed amount of water and first stir with a rubber spatula to incorporate. Add a bit more water if necessary (I usually find it necessary), wet your hands with cold water, and use your hands to fully incorporate the dough. As I said before, you're looking for a dough that is just moist enough to incorporate all of the flour. It should be really sticky. Then cover the bowl well (I use a piece of plastic wrap secured with a rubber band) and leave in a warm spot out of direct sunlight for about 12-18 hours, until the dough is doubled in size.
[dough after kneading]
[dough after second rise]
Part II: When the dough has risen, dust a work surface with flour and scrape all of the dough out of the bowl. With well-floured hands, fold the sides of the dough blob in to the center, lightly kneading it into a round shape. Lahey then recommends wrapping the dough in a tea towel dusted with flour or wheat bran, but whenever I do this the dough always gets stuck to the towel. So, instead, I'd recommend dusting the outside of the dough ball well with either flour or wheat bran and placing it in a clean bowl. Cover the bowl with a towel and let sit in a warm, draft-free spot for another 1-2 hours, until it has almost doubled in size again.
[preheated pot with uncooked dough]
Part III: About half an hour before you want to bake the bread, preheat your oven to 475 degrees with the rack placed in the lower third of the oven, and place a covered 4-5 quart dutch oven (cast iron or ceramic) in the oven to preheat. When it's time to bake, carefully remove the pot from the oven, place the risen dough into the pot, cover, and place back into the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Then remove the lid and bake until the bread is a deep brown. Lahey suggests 15-30 minutes here, but I find that about 10 minutes is about as long as I can let it go. You'll think it's burning, but you want it to be dark. Remove the pot and carefully lift the bread out and onto a rack to cool. Do not slice the bread until it is fully cooled, about 1 hour---this may seem trivial, but it's very important. You'll also hear the crust of the bread cracking as it cools. This is normal and all part of the fun.