No-knead bread

Bread, Richard Artschwager (1966)

A no-knead bread recipe is only a recipe in the sense that it exists as a set of instructions involving the combination of a set of ingredients. But the form of the recipe is fluid, unfixed and malleable in the way that things that are simple can often be. Any search engine will produce pages and pages of no-knead bread recipes.

Recipes found on sites like Pinch of Yum. Steamy Kitchen. Breadtopia. An Italian in my Kitchen. Brown Eyed Baker. Leite’s Culinaria. Jo Cooks. Jenny Can Cook. Basics with Babish. Sweet C’s Designs. Budget bytes. Simply So Good. Aline Made. The Spruce Eats. Frugal Living NW. Martha Stewart. Le Creuset. Sally’s Baking Addiction. Visit Tuscany. Girl Versus Dough. Pinch Me, I’m Eating! No Knead Bread Central. A stack of Dishes. Smitten Kitchen. Bless This Mess. Pinterest. Austin American-Statesman. Crunchy sweet. And so on.

The most popular iteration of the recipe—the one that spawned a million reposts, reiterations, and augmentations—is the no-knead bread recipe created by Mark Bittman in the New York Times and adapted from Jim Lahey’s recipe. Lahey is the creator of Sullivan Street Bakery, which opened in 1994 and now has two locations in Chelsea and Midtown. The bakery claims to provide bread for Manhattan’s best restaurants. The Times recipe came in 2006 and has been embedded in the culture of a largely self-taught amateur home-baking community.

Still from “No Knead Bread | Bread Recipe | The New York Times” by the New York Times (2006)

The beauty at the core of the no-knead bread recipe lies in its use of time. Time is the catalyst that allows for the growth of the dough, for the yeast to react to the enzymes in the flour, for the release of the carbon dioxide and alcohol that causes the dough to bloom and for the pattern of crevices in the crumb to build. But this a function of any baked good that relies on proofing for its rise and flavor.

Here, time is given an expanded role. In a basic white bread recipe, time enters the process in periodic intervals of rising punctuated by repeated interventions. The concept at the heart of the no-knead is the simple yet radical notion that by intervening in the leavening process as little as possible and leaving the shaggy mound of dough to itself and the air around it while doubling the amount time that it's allowed to proof, a high-quality boule—complete with a thick crust an airy crumb—will be produced. It asks and answers the question: can an impressive loaf of rustic bread can be forged through time and time alone?

It’s worth noting that there is actually some minor kneading to be done in the usual no-knead bread recipe. I suppose titles like “minor-knead” or “less-knead” don’t match the level of incantation-like chantability that “no-knead” can claim. But there is some hand work: the initial dough creation can be frustrating when tried with the wooden spoon, the dough sticky and wet; I prefer to use my hands—easier utensils to convince the globs to fall away from—and this act of bringing the dough together, even to the point where it can only just be called dough, feels like a kneading

Bread on the Head of the Prodigal Son, Salvador Dali (1936)

After the initial 18 hour rise comes another moment of kneading, though barely that. The dough is pulled over itself several times—a kind of coaxing through rearrangement—before being formed into a ball. Where a regular loaf of bread requires forceful, intensive movements from the baker’s hands, the no-knead recipe requires the inverse: the baker must step away from the dough to allow time to take responsibility over the kinetic energy supplied in traditional recipes by the body but in the no-knead by the act of doing nothing. Rather than engineering transformation through stuttering bursts, the long, languishing moment stretched wide becomes the primary conductor.

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The week of Thanksgiving, despite beginning a new work schedule at a new job that required I come in the late afternoon and leave late at night, I pledged that I would bring parker rolls—a baked good I had never attempted before—to a holiday lunch that included family members I hadn’t seen in a decade and a half, at least. Of course there was no time to make the rolls and I found myself in a familiar situation, a result of me agreeing to do something due to a sense of expectation put upon me by myself and imagined others without any kind of realistic assessment of my resources or capabilities.

Paige suggested I make the no-knead bread. It was a good suggestion, the essential aspects of the bread creation would while I slept. So I threw a loaf together and let it grow through the early morning, but even allowing 7 hours for the first rise completes less than half of the recommended time. The dough going into the second two-hour rise— a rise that would be completed with only enough time to get the loaf in the oven and cooked through before walking out the door—was obviously underproofed. Part of what makes bread baking so enthralling and often defeating is how—in every stage of the long process of bringing the dough together, kneading the dough, letting it proof (often in multiple stages), and the bake, where minutes can mean the difference between under or over baked—there’s an opportunity for a flaw to reveal itself, sometimes revealing the fate of the eventual loaf long before it will be realized.

I personally have never made a loaf of bread that I didn’t think could be improved or where there couldn’t have been something done differently. That’s why the no-knead recipe is so popular, so ubiquitous, why so many of the nearly 1,000 commenters on the Times recipe begin with some iteration of the phrase “I’ve made this for years.” It requires so few steps, so little physical intervention, and relies so heavily on the act of waiting in its creation that it allows few opportunities to commit an error. If you can leave it alone for 12 to 18 hours, it’s nearly impossible to fuck up.

Caricature No. 1 (Bread and Match), Koshiro Onchi (1948)

When there just isn’t enough of a distance between the moment you begin the loaf to the moment it must be carried out the door, you must do what you can. One of the tenants of bread-making, or at least my bread-making, is that you must see it through. Even when the dough is obviously imperfect, it must be made. It’s a part of why bread making gives me such anxiety, why I don’t make bread as much as I would like to.

On Thanksgiving, I made the imperfect loaf of bread and it came out of the oven diminutive and flat, obviously underproofed even before cutting it open to reveal its dense crumb. But even though I knew it would turn out this way hours before, I served the bread anyway. It was still bread. When you bit through the crust, you still found a yeasty surface suitable for spreading butter over. The loaf was still devoured.

For me to bake as much I’d like, I have to push myself past a reactionary and narcissistic attitude towards imperfection that I carry in many aspects of my life and my self-perception. Imperfection should not just be tolerated, it should be the altar I genuflect before. There’s nothing more apart of life than all of its little fissures, all that is unexpected and unchangeable, in  all that is linear and unceasing in time, both endless and not enough.

Last night, I put together another dough, another prayer made of dry-active yeast and salt and flour and water. This time I allowed nearly 18 hours for the first rest. Not quite 18 hours, I didn’t have quite enough time. But it will be a good loaf. There was time and time created space for the dough to slowly become itself unimpeded, the air inside it unfurling into hundreds of small stars.