Two hands creating yeast symphonies. Two hands stretching across the keys of a piano. Listening to “Well, You Needn’t,” got me to thinking about baker Jim Lahey and jazz musician Thelonius Monk. Space and silence, two words often associated with Monk’s music, also capture Lahey’s no-knead method, his ballad to baking bread. Using less rather than more, Monk didn’t rely on a cascade of notes. Lahey abstains from vigorous kneading of dough. I listen to Monk and wonder about his pilgrimage between notes, from the traditions of slide piano to his harmonic innovations. Jim Lahey also tips his hat to tradition. His reverence for the ancient art of Italian baking inspired him to develop his no-knead approach.
Food writer Mark Bittman let the genie out of the bottle when he wrote about Lahey and his no-knead method a few years ago. I felt compelled to try his technique several days later, as did many others. Bittman’s article expanded like rapid-rising yeast across the web and within days a new religion was born. We were believers. We had the spirit. We testified. It was like a great laying on of floured hands. Baking guru Rose Levy Beranbaum took the journey along with us.
I would love to say that my initial attempts were a piece of cake. But they weren’t. This is a wet, sticky dough and I added more flour than was necessary when I shaped the loaves. This is not to say that they weren’t a revelation. Each time I took a loaf out of the oven, I knew without having to taste it, that this was the real deal. I was ready to buy 30 Dutch ovens, open a bakery, and wait for the lines to form. I still have that WOW moment every time I bake a no-knead loaf. It’s that good.
Like a loaf of bread loaded into a pre-heated oven, Lahey’s first chapter in his recently published My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method, is a burst of biography leavened with inspiration. He is a thaumaturgist popping out from behind the curtain or a barker selling his magic elixir at the midway. His passion for baking bread burns with an artisanal fury. Reading his story made me feel that it was possible to achieve any pie-in-the-sky dreams that I might have.
The no-knead method is pretty much what it sounds like. Stir together flour, water, yeast, and salt. No-kneading required. What it does require, however, is patience. Patience to let it rise. Greater patience to let it cool off before cutting into it. The dough needs to sit 12-18 hours before it can be shaped and baked. I’ve never gone under the 12 hour mark, but I have let it sit longer than 18 hours. I have also stuck it in the refrigerator after shaping it and baked it the next day. Similar to a jazz tune, this method has endless improvisations. I have yet to make a bad bread. They are usually downright heavenly. Lahey begins with the master recipe or formula in the book. You should also start with the master recipe before going on to your own improvisations. His recipes for chocolate coconut bread and olive bread immediately became family favorites. One slice guarantees overwhelming joy. The laws of the bread deities forbid me to say what will happen when you bite into a second slice. Use discretion when sharing a loaf. Yes, you want to spread the joy, but do you want everyone becoming your friend—for life? I often play around with different flours. My semolina version makes my wife swoon and causes my daughter’s eyelashes to flutter uncontrollably. Lahey’s adaptation for pizza is a great change of pace. For other no-knead versions, including video tutorials, check out Breadtopia. My favorite is the seeded sour.
Playful and inventive, Thelonius Monk danced at the piano. When I listen to his music, my feet become frisky and start tapping out a dance of their own. Lahey’s no-knead approach, like a Monk tune, is an economy of ingredients, a song of simplicity. Both hit all the right notes.