I just made the best loaf of bread ever, after years of baking and using every trick known to home cooks. The crust is chewy and crackly; the crumb peasant-coarse and perfectly textured, with the slightly fermented bite found only in true artisanal loaves.
Here`s the best part: There`s no kneading. None! There`s no need for baking stones or misting the inside of your oven to try for, but usually fall short of, that perfect crust. And anyone with the least amount of baking know-how can do it.
The hands-in work takes maybe 10 minutes. You need a heavy, covered 6-quart or bigger pot. Cast iron or enameled cast iron is ideal. And you need about 18 hours of time, during which you do nothing -- to the bread, anyway.
This magic trick ran recently in The New York Times and is adapted from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York`s Hell`s Kitchen. I adapt it further for y`all.
In a large bowl, thoroughly combine 3 cups of all-purpose flour (bread flour`s better), 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast, 1-1/4 teaspoons sea salt. Now add 1-5/8 cups water and stir until well blended. Don`t worry; the dough`s supposed to be sticky and kind of loose. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside at warm room temperature for at least 12 hours; 18 is much better.
When little bubbles cover the dough, flour a work surface, turn the dough out onto it, sprinkle it with more flour, then fold it over on itself once, then once more. (A dough scraper makes this a lot easier.) Lay a piece of plastic wrap over it, and leave alone for 15 minutes.
Spread a non-terrycloth dishtowel on your work surface and heavily dust it with cornmeal (more rustic than flour, but you can use that, too). With flour-covered hands, work the alarmingly soft dough into a ball, as best you can, and put it seam side down on the towel. Cover it with another dusted towel and walk away for two hours. But...
Put your empty, covered pot in the oven and turn it on at least 30 minutes before the dough`s ready. Preheat to 450.
When two hours are up, take the heated pot out of the oven, slide your hand under the towel and quickly turn the dough over into the hot pot. It`ll be a mess, no worries. Shake the pot a little to even out the dough, put the lid on and stick it in the oven. After 30 minutes (DO NOT PEEK), take off the lid and let the crust brown for 15 or 20 minutes. Then tip the loaf out of the pot onto a cooling rack. That`s it.
If you want to know why this recipe uses so little yeast, is so soft and sticky, and bakes in a pot, let me know.