A Conversation with Baker Jim Lahey + His Recipe for No-Knead Bread

Sarah Goodfriend
Baker Jim Lahey
Baker Jim Lahey, owner of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery and author of the recently published cookbook My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method, was in town the other day on a brief 2 day leg of his current book tour. He sat down with us to talk about the book and his no-knead method, popularized by a 2006 Mark Bittman article in the New York Times.

Lahey is something of a bread socialist, and he talks about his no-knead method the way a grass-roots politician might talk about town meetings. "I like to call it the food democracy movement. The democratization of good food is that it doesn't only have to be for the good restaurants; it's for everyone." Simplifying the process of bread-baking is the guiding theme of the book, which was co-written by Rick Flaste, a former Los Angeles Times editor. "The difference between a good loaf of bread and dog shit is just a couple decisions that people make," says Lahey. "It has nothing to do with the ingredients themselves."

As for whether Lahey was in town canvassing for bakery locations, he says that yes, he's interested, but that "there isn't anything on the table" yet. Turn the page for Lahey's views on his technique, whether bread needs saving, and his recipe for no-knead bread.

Squid Ink: Is the recipe in the book any different from the one published in the New York Times? I ask because I made them both, and this one seems even better.

Jim Lahey: The quantities of water and flour are different. I don't really view the recipe as the end all and be all, and I try and state that throughout the book. It's really about a process. the book is like a guide, not an absolute. Because flour can vary, water can vary. Humidity isn't really as big an issue. It's temperature, and also flour and its ability to absorb water.

SI: Do you have a favorite type of flour?

JL: You know I don't. Because there are brands of flour and there are milling specifications with names associated with them, but it's not like there's a specific wheat grown in a specific region of North Dakota with a specific terroir. I think that because it's such an ancient commodity it's lost its.... You know how buckwheat's treated in Japan? it grows in a particular prefecture in a particular region and for that reason it's better or worse. We don't really have that kind of discourse with wheat.

SI: So how did you come up with this technique?

JL: I came up with it while I was living in Florida. I tried making bread and every time I tried making it in the conventional way, the dough would fall apart. I noticed as I was making the dough that the dough came together very quickly and exhibited qualities of being kneaded, like in moments. I created the method in 1992 or 1993 to see if it was possible to bake the same style of bread that I was making in New York at the time there. And I did. The only difference was that I couldn't knead the dough. I knew it had something to do with the chemical composition of the water, I just hadn't analyzed the water at the time. it was only maybe 10 years later that I actually got a water sample from Miami and submitted it to tests to find out what the chemical composition of the water was, including the water's ph. the magnesium phosphates were off the charts. I think it was magnesium phosphate; it's a phosphorus of some sort.

Then it dawned on me that all bread was made without kneading because it was the way bread was once made. it was a logical conclusion, because if it was very difficult to make good bread, if it there was this intimidating task of having to knead it, then how would the known world have been conquered by this society of ancient Rome? It would have collapsed under their own exhaustion from having kneaded all that bread. And then I was asked, years later to make some bread to mimic the ancient Roman's bread, and I focused on this method as the way. Then I thought, um, I should pitch this to Gourmet Magazine. This was after I had created a bunch of confederates who had taken my no-knead class. Ruth wasn't interested. She was like, why are you here? This is it? I have to say, had Gourmet published this recipe, they might still be around today. It's immaterial now of course. This is a very Larry David moment.

SI: How did you come up with the pot as a method for baking?

JL: The idea with the pot was to mimic the interior of an oven, to recreate radiant heat.


SI: When did Mark Bittman come into the picture?

JL: I went to visit Dana Cowin [editor-in-chief of Food & Wine Magazine]. And she said, maybe Mark Bittman would be interested in this idea. I was on my way to Italy, I sent him an email, sent him the recipe. And he tried it out and he said, we're running an article on this. I was very glad to have someone pick up the story. Because I had basically been trying to reinvent myself and reinvent the bakery. I wanted to save the bakery.

SI: Did it need saving?

JL: No, but bread needed saving. Bread was getting dumbed down too much. It's like, there was this artisan bread movement, of which I was a part. And then it kind of lost its value, it lost its meaning, it became a commodity. Then I came to this conclusion that if people could make good bread at home, if people could make excellent bread at home, then their own personal standards would be such that it would force them to make better bread. Because all of a sudden the standard is higher. I think this method has done more to improve the general standard for bread baking on a home level. It's the 'aha' moment, the happy accident. I put these things together, and I let it do its thing, and I come back to it 12 hours later and follow the rest of the steps and wow, I have this loaf of bread that's really good. And I made it. There's a sense of glee, joy, accomplishment.

Where to you live? You should try out the recipe with ocean water. That is the most primal feeling in the world. To go to the ocean and pull water out of the sea. It will blow you away.

SI: So you'd advise doing that with L.A. water?

JL: I'm sure there are trace quantities of whatever. But nothing that could hurt us will survive if the bread is baked properly.

[Note: Lahey's recipe for seawater bread, Jones Beach Bread, calls for seawater that has been passed through a coffee filter placed in a sieve, and omits the salt in the basic bread recipe.]

Sarah Goodfriend
no-knead bread

Basic No-Knead Bread

From: Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery.

Makes: 1 10-inch round loaf; 1 1/4 pounds

Equipment: A 41/2- to 51/2-quart pot (cast-iron or enameled cast-iron or ceramic)

3 cups bread flour (400 grams)

1 1/4 teaspoons table salt (8 grams)

1/4 teaspoon instant or active dry yeast (1 gram)

1 1/3 cups cool (55-65 degrees) water (300 grams)

wheat bran, cornmeal or additional flour for dusting

1. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Make sure it's really sticky to the touch; if it's not, mix in another tablespoon or two of water. Cover the bowl with a plate, tea towel or plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size. This will take a minimum of 12 hours and (my preference) up to 18 hours.

2. When the first fermentation is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough onto the board in one piece. When you begin to pull the dough away from the bowl, it will cling in long thin strands and will be quite sticky--do not add more flour. Use lightly floured hands or a bowl scraper or spatula to lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.

3. place a cotton or linen tea towel (not terry cloth) on your work surface and generously dust the cloth with wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Use your hands or a bowl scraper or wooden spatula to gently lift the dough onto the towel, so it is seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with more flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1-2 hours. The dough is ready when it's almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, making an indentation about 1/4 inch deep, it should hold the impression. If it doesn't, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

4. Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with a rack in the lower third position, and place a covered 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-quart heavy pot in the center of the rack.

5. Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel, lightly dust the dough with flour or bran, lift up the dough, either on the towel or in your hand, and quickly but gently invert it into the pot, seam side up. (Use caution--the pot will be very hot.) Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15-30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly. Don't slice or tear until it until it has cooled, which usually takes at least an hour.

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