Rise and Shine

Who knew readers of The New York Times were such passionate home bread bakers? Scoring the coveted “most e-mailed” slot on the paper’s website on Wednesday wasn’t the election returns, but rather Mark Bittman’s article about Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey’s magical new no-knead bread-making method. In the accompanying video, Lahey claims a 4-year-old can make this bread; Bittman hedges and places his bet on an ambitious 8-year-old.

But the instructions and ingredients couldn’t be simpler: just flour, salt, a smidgen of yeast, and water, mixed together and left to rise for 18 hours. The gooey dough is poured into a preheated, covered pot to bake, so that trapped steam from the dough will produce a crackling crust and airy crumb just like one pulled from a $5,000 steam-injection professional oven, or so Bittman and Lahey claim. The pictures certainly showed a gorgeous loaf—caramel-crusted with a satiny, chewy-looking crumb pocked with holes, a loaf seemingly pulled fresh from the shelves of a great European bakery. And naturally, Harold McGee supplied some food-geek cred as to how the long rise gets the gluten molecules into proper alignment.

Eager bakers immediately started two threads on Chowhound, mostly to report how they were running out the door that instant to score bread flour and yeast. But is Lahey’s method really so revolutionary? Hardly, shrugs Fortune at Bread Coffee Chocolate Yoga. Baking bread in a pot, she claims, goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, and was most recently repopularized by Elizabeth David’s encyclopedic compendium, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, in 1977. Fortune also points out that Los Angeles baker Suzanne Dunaway wrote a whole book on this “slack dough” method, called No Need to Knead.

But would Lahey’s loaf really be the best thing since sliced bread, as Bittman claimed? This reporter started a loaf in her home kitchen to find out. Some 24 hours later, after scattering cornmeal and flour all over the kitchen, the bread was baked, cooled, and ready to taste. The verdict? A nice open crumb, very moist, and a decent crust, if not as hard and crackle-ready as Bittman’s. Worth the hype? Well, it was certainly easy, and anyone with a fear of kneading could do it, especially with a little less water and a little more salt. But better than the fabulous bread for sale at Lahey’s bakery? Not yet.