According to Jim Lahey, one of New York City's premier bread bakers, there's a way to streamline the bread-making process so that even a 4-year-old can do it – eliminate the kneading. Lahey's no-knead bread, which he developed at his Sullivan Street Bakery, is a no-frills, crusty European-style loaf that you can't find in a grocery store. "There's still an aesthetic about what makes good bread, much like boutique coffee 30 years ago," says Lahey. "We are in our infancy when it comes to this subject." 

The secret to his no-knead bread is a long, slow rise, "allowing the fermentation to take care of the organization of the dough, as opposed to using friction [kneading] to align the protein molecules." The dough is made with only water, flour, yeast, and salt. If needed, he says, you can speed up fermentation by adding a quarter teaspoon of red wine vinegar and using hotter water. You can also control color through the length of fermentation – the longer the proof time, the darker the loaf; the shorter, the lighter.

Lahey cooks the loaf in a heavy, preheated pot to "mimic a traditional hearth oven by creating steam in the pot and trapping it there. Incidental steam will allow the crust and expansion and make the loaf bigger," he says. If you want to create a crumb that's more sandwich friendly (with fewer holes), use 15–20 percent less water per weight of flour, which allows less expansion of the dough, he says. Fermentation time also affects crumb: Over-fermentation makes the bread too dense; under-fermentation results in too little texture. To decorate the top once the dough is in the pot, creating crosswise scores works well, he says.

There are also ways to amp up the flavor and nutritional value, he says. For a sturdier flour, replace up to 30 percent of the unbleached flour with whole wheat, rye, or multigrain. If you wish, go ahead and add bran or semolina, but also add slightly more water to soften these harder grain bits. Honey is a tasty addition, but don't put in more than 10 percent of the flour weight. 

If you want additives like pine nuts, chopped and roasted walnuts, or chopped Kalamata olives, fold them in during fermentation. Also try fresh, sliced fennel or onions that you toss with olive oil and dry on a sheet pan in a 280°F oven; they will caramelize "like candy," he says. Add up to 300 grams of these to a 700-gram loaf – but beware that you may end up needing a bigger pot to accommodate the resulting larger loaf. As for salt, it's best not to stray from Lahey's well-tested recipe: Too much can retard the yeast and lengthen fermentation time.

Below is his recipe for one loaf of perfect no-knead bread, adjusted for the home kitchen. Feel free to go to town.

Jim Lahey's Perfect No-Knead Loaf

Ingredients
3 cups (430g) flour
1 1/2 cups (345g or 12oz) water
1/4 tsp (1g) yeast
1 1/4 tsp (8g) salt
Olive oil (for coating)
Extra flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal (for dusting)

Equipment
2 medium-size mixing bowls
6- to 8-quart baking pot or Dutch oven with lid (enamel, cast iron, glass, or ceramic)
Wooden spoon or spatula (optional)
Plastic wrap
2 or 3 cotton tea towels

Instructions

  1. Mix all the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Add water and incorporate by hand or with a wooden spoon or spatula for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
  2. Lightly coat the inside of a second medium bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest 12 hours at room temperature (about 65–72°F).
  3. Remove the dough from the bowl and fold toward the center once or twice. Let the dough rest 15 minutes in the bowl or on the work surface.
  4. Shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal. Place the dough seam side down on the towel and dust with flour. Cover the dough with a cotton towel, and let rise 1–2 hours at room temperature, until more than doubled in size.
  5. Preheat oven to 450–500°F.
  6. Place the pot in the oven at least 30 minutes prior to baking to preheat. Once the dough has more than doubled in volume, remove the pot from the oven and place the dough in the pot seam side up.
  7. Cover with the lid and bake 30 minutes. Then remove the lid and bake 15–30 minutes uncovered, until the loaf is nicely browned. Remove and let cool before slicing.