I'm probably not alone in this: I head over to a fancy new bakery and pick up a large, beautifully bronzed loaf of sourdough bread for $8. I take it home, excitedly, and rip into the bread while it's still warm. I enjoy a few slices over the next 24 hours, as an appetizer, breakfast toast, and a sandwich. And then the rest? It just sits there getting stale.
I love leftovers, but old bread can be a challenge. When you've got a small household, it's easy to end up with ends and nobs of bread that grow too stale to even grind up into breadcrumbs. Most smaller rounds of bread from the average grocery store are simply not as good as those aforementioned specialty loaves, so in order to have excellent bread shaped on a small scale, it is best to make it yourself.
Now I know what you're thinking: How on earth will I find time to bake bread? I often think the same thing, and I cook and write about food for a living, so I know what you mean. But listen — there's actually a way to incorporate bread-baking into even the busiest of lifestyles. I'm talking about no-knead bread.
Yes, this style of bread-baking probably peaked in popularity in the mid-aughts, but that's no reason to discount it. No-knead bread actually can allow you to take control of your baking schedule, throw dough in the fridge willy-nilly, and pop it in the oven when you've got some free time on Sunday afternoon. And, even better, you can even bake miniature loaves for two following this method. Here's how:
Start with a starter
The very best way to ensure a flavorful loaf of bread is to give the dough a long, very slow rise. I like to start all of my loaves by letting a small portion of the dough sit at room temperature with a touch of yeast to get all bubbly and flavorful. This style of starter is called a poolish, and it amplifies the ability of a small amount of yeast to leaven a relatively large loaf of bread. Ever had a loaf of bread that just tasted straight up like yeast? That baker used a large amount of yeast, which leavened the dough in a matter of hours. For better flavor, you'll want less yeast and more time.
You can mix up this starter before you go to bed and let it sit out on your kitchen counter overnight. In the morning, you'll come back to find it looking like a bubbling swampy mass. This is a good thing. It should also smell vaguely like vinegar and sourdough. This is also a good thing.
Add more flour, water and a lot of salt
Next, you'll dump in the rest of your flour and water, along with more salt than you likely think is necessary. Trust me on this one: You can use this much and you'll be thankful you did. All you need to do when you add these remaining ingredients is give the whole bowl of goop a stir, until the mixture is homogenous. No kneading, no fretting, no nothing.
Let the mixture get to know itself for a few hours; long enough, say, to clean the kitchen and walk the dog. Then cover the bowl and pop it in the fridge. You can leave it there for the rest of the day, or even up to a week. It'll get more flavorful over time, but your bread will still be tasty if you bake it relatively quickly. The only real catch here is that once you pull the bread out of the fridge, you'll need to be ready to hang around for several hours while it proofs and bakes. Save this step for a weekend, or for a day when you're not in the office.
Side note: Here's where I tell you to go out and buy a kitchen scale, and to learn to measure in grams. Yes, I know, the first time you read a recipe written in grams, you'll find the numbers arbitrary and hard to remember. But, I promise, it will make all of your baking projects so much easier and more consistent. Ever wonder why a cake turned out perfect one day and a little weird and gummy the next? You likely used slightly different amounts of flour and sugar. When measuring by volume, it is super easy to accidentally pack in a little more flour into your measuring cup, or to under-fill a tablespoon. Want to be consistent? Measure in weights, and preferably grams, which are a much smaller unit and therefore more exact. The bread recipe below has been written in grams first, with approximate cup equivalents second, to encourage you to bake with a scale.
Shape and proof
On the day you're ready to bake, pull the dough out of the fridge. Let it sit on your counter until it has warmed back up to room temperature. This'll take around an hour or so, depending on the temperature of the room. Now heavily flour your work surface and plop the dough out onto it. Be careful not to punch down or deflate the dough too much — we want to keep all of that air inside.
Grab a corner of the dough from the underside and pull it up and over, towards the center of the round. Grab another section of the dough next to the first and pull it towards the center. Continue to do so until you've formed the dough into a taut ball with a seam in the center. Pinch that seam together and then flip the dough over so that the smooth side is on top. Let it hang out while you get your proofing basket ready.
What's that now? A proofing basket is, technically, a wooden (often woven) basket in which shaped freeform loaves rise before baking. You can absolutely go out and buy a proofing basket if you'd like, but I prefer to save my money and just use a medium-ish bowl. Before putting the dough in there, though, you've got to line it to prevent sticking. I like to follow the guidance of San Francisco's Josey Baker here and line the bowl with a kitchen towel that has been rubbed generously with rice flour. Rice flour somehow magically prevents the dough from sticking to the towel and allows it enough traction to crawl up the sides of the bowl as it proofs.
Once you've rubbed down your towel good and well with rice flour, place it in the bowl, flour side-up, and smooth out any wrinkles. Carefully and deftly pick up the dough round and place it, seam side-up, in the bowl. Now cover the bowl with a plate or more plastic wrap and let it sit until doubled in size — this will take somewhere between four and six hours.
Get those ovens hot
About 30 or 45 minutes before the dough is done proofing, get your oven on. Crank it up to 475 degrees with a rack set in the middle. Place your Dutch oven and its lid on the rack to heat up with the oven. We want everything to be ripping hot when the bread is ready for maximum rise and browning.
A note on Dutch ovens: While you can use just about any Dutch oven you've got, we particularly like to use a small 3.5-quart Dutch oven, such as the one from Nest Homeware, for this recipe because the bread fits perfectly in the base. (It is pictured above, with soup bowls alongside for scale. It's cute.) Really, though, you just need a cast iron pot with a flat base and a lid. The lid is very important — it will help trap steam and hit the dough with a ton of heat, all of which contribute to oven spring (a.k.a. that miraculous event when the bread rises very rapidly).
Ok, now comes the only hard part: Getting the dough round into that hot Dutch oven. Luckily, since we're working with a small loaf, you'll likely be able to fit it in the palm of your hand. (I can, and I have very small hands.) Pull the hot Dutch oven base out of the oven and place it on a wire rack next to your proofing dough. Remove the plate from the top of the proofing bowl and sprinkle a bit more flour over the seam side of the dough. Now gently flip the round onto your hand (the flour will prevent it from sticking) and carefully but confidently place the round, seam side-down, in the hot Dutch oven. Use an ultra-sharp knife to cut a deep slash across the top of the bread. (This step will help the loaf expand to its fullest capacity.) Put the pot back in the oven and cover with the lid. Set a timer for 18 minutes.
When your timer goes off, take a peek at the bread. It should look like a beautiful but pale round loaf of bread. Remove the lid from the Dutch oven and continue to bake it until it is a deep golden brown, 10 to 15 more minutes. If you've got an instant-read thermometer, you can use it to check on the doneness of the bread — it should register at least 200 degrees. If it's still kind of pale and/or not up to 200 degrees, continue to bake for another few minutes until it gets there.
Stay patient and let it cool
Here's the second-hardest step. While it can be very, very tempting to slice into your gorgeous, warm loaf of bread, please don't. As with a steak or a roast chicken, your bread needs to rest before eating. There is still trapped steam inside, which will continue to cook the bread as it cools. Slice into it to early, and you'll find you've got a gummy loaf.
Carefully remove the bread from the Dutch oven and let it cool — completely — on a wire rack. It won't take too long, I promise.
No-Knead Bread for Two
Note: This recipe was tested by measuring all amounts in grams. For best results, you should do the same. If you choose to measure in cups, measure out the total amounts into bowls before starting the recipe. Measure out the starter from the bowls, using the remaining flour and water as directed in the recipe. We used Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt and SAF Instant Yeast.
Hands-on Time: 35 minutes
Total Time: 1 1/2 days to 1 week
215 grams (1 1/2 cups plus 1 1/2 teaspoons) all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
173 grams (2/3 cup) water
8 grams kosher salt (2 1/2 teaspoons)
1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
Rice flour, for proofing
In a large bowl, stir together 54 grams (about a heaping 1/3 cup) of the flour, 57 grams (a scant 1/4 cup) of the water, and the yeast. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until vigorously bubbling and smelling distinctly of bread and vinegar, 8 to 12 hours.
Add the remaining 161 grams flour, 116 grams water, and the salt. Mix with a wooden spoon until a loose dough forms. Re-cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill for 12 hours or up to one week.
When you're ready to bake, remove the dough from the fridge and let come to room temperature, about 1 hour. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured counter, being careful not to deflate too much of the air in the dough. Grab corner of the dough and pull it up and over to the center. Continue to grab the corners of the dough, pulling towards the center, to form a taut ball. Pinch together the seams of the dough, and then flip over so that the seam is facing down.
Generously coat one side of a clean cotton kitchen towel with rice flour and rub the flour into the cloth. Place the towel in a medium bowl or proofing basket, flour side-up. Sprinkle about a tablespoon more rice flour over the towel. Gently place the dough ball, seam side-up, in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a plate and let proof until doubled in size, 4 to 6 hours.
About 30 minutes before the bread has finished proofing, place a small, 3- to 4-quart Dutch oven and its lid on the middle rack of the oven. Heat the oven to 475 degrees.
When the oven is hot and the bread has proofed, sprinkle the seam side of the bread with a little more flour. Remove the Dutch oven base from the oven and, very carefully, flip the dough out onto your hand, seam side-down, and slide into the hot Dutch oven. Use a very sharp knife to deftly slice a 1/4 inch deep slash across the top of the dough round. Place the Dutch oven on the oven rack, cover with the lid, and bake until the bread has risen into a round loaf, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to bake until deeply browned and the center registers at least 200 degrees, 10 to 15 more minutes.
Remove the bread from the Dutch oven and transfer it to a wire rack. Let cool completely before slicing and serving. Sliced bread will stay fresh for about 24 hours; use any leftovers for croutons or breadcrumbs.