No-Knead Bread: A Complicated Method for Very Easy Bread

A how-to based on my bread experiences

I’ve been trying to make nice bread for a very long time, and I’ve made many bad loaves. This has led me to countless youtube videos and articles, and I wanted to compile what I’ve learned over the past few hundred loaves.

Photo by Vicky Ng on Unsplash

High hydration doughs → Airy, holey bread

One of the best use-cases for no-knead bread is with a high hydration dough because its high water content (large ratio of water to flour) makes it very difficult to work the dough, or knead it. Working the dough by slapping and punching and twisting and folding and pressing it is essential to link the proteins in the flour to form long networks of gluten. These gluten networks become like little balloons that inflate when the bacteria and yeast produce carbon dioxide. The gas-producing elements that we add to flour and water eat the sugars in the flour to fart out CO2, thus pumping the gluten balloons full.

Gluten development is critical to make strong gluten balloons that will massively inflate upon baking, producing an enviable and photogenic crumb: beautiful and large holes in the bread’s cross-section. Another important aspect of crumb structure is water content. Wet doughs contain more water, which will evaporate in the oven, producing steam, which inflates the gluten balloons more than carbon dioxide ever could.

Important Factors

  • Gluten Development
  • Dough hydration

Unfortunately, these factors are at odds with one another. Gluten development is the result of bread kneading or working, which is very difficult to do with a wet and sticky high hydration dough.

So how can we figure out a way to develop the gluten networks we need for big bubbly bread while maintaining as high hydration as possible?

The answer lies in the secret of no-knead bread. Let the yeast do the gluten development for you! As yeast consume the flour to fatten themselves and multiply exponentially, they release gases. The microscopic bubbles of carbon dioxide struggle to find their way to the dough surface, and in their futile journey, they push and mix tiny amounts of dough.

The yeast farts knead the dough automatically, which is both mind-boggling and incredibly cool.

Given enough time, the gas bubbles will do as good a job at gluten development as we ever could with our two hands or a dough hook.

One of the keys to no-knead bread is really just leaving it alone. The more we try to interfere or mess with the dough, the less it will rise in the oven (oven spring) and the less pretty our bread will be.

Ingredients

While many consider baking to be a science in the laboratory sense, I tend to disagree. Humans have been making food over the fire and in makeshift ovens since before the dawn of modern science and standard units of measurement, and I firmly believe that you do not need a kitchen scale to make excellent no-knead bread.

While grams may be king in commercial kitchens and for precision-obsessed home cooks, the real key to making nice bread is experience. Every flour will clock in with a different density based on their processing treatments and strain of wheat, and different temperates and humidities in your kitchen will make exact mass measurements something of a pipe dream. Learn to feel the dough and listen to it, and note down what works and doesn’t work for your flour, your kitchen, your baking container, and your oven.

Don’t be afraid to make bad bread. The ingredients are cheap and even bad bread is edible.

  • 3 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1.5 cups of tap water
  • 1 tablespoon of kosher salt
  • 0.5 teaspoons of active dry yeast or instant yeast

The recipe is very forgiving. I don’t level my cup measures, and I use the same 1C measuring cup to measure out the flour and the cup and a half of water. It’s not very precise, but that’s okay.

If you’re not confident working with wetter doughs, or this is your first time making no-knead bread, measure out the half cup of water in your 1C measure, and splash a little into the sink (maybe a couple of tablespoons). This makes the dough a little easier to shape later on.

Measure out the salt and yeast in whatever spoon you have (remember that there are 3 teaspoons in 1 tablespoon), and if you’re way off, then it really doesn’t matter.

Mix the ingredients together with that spoon until there’s no more dry flour on the bottom of the bowl. This might take 3 to 5 minutes, and if you want, you can pseudo-knead the dough to make it come together faster.

Cover the mixture with plastic wrap tightly to protect your dough. I’ve found fruit flies from not doing this before, but this is mostly to prevent the dough surface from drying out because that’s just nasty to touch and work with.

Leave it alone for somewhere between 12 and 24 hours.

You can do less or you can do more, but I usually mix my dough up around 9 pm the night before and then take it out of the bowl around 6 pm the next day. Don’t poke the dough, don’t jostle it, and don’t yell at it. Just let the yeast do the hard work for you in creating beautiful gluten balloons.

Shaping

This is one of the trickiest parts of baking, and it took me many loaves until I felt like I had gotten the hang of it. I probably still don’t do it well.

When you’re ready to shape the dough after its long, long rest, take a deep breath. The key is confidence and speed, because the longer you touch the dough, the more likely it will stick to your fingers. Also, the more you touch the dough, the more you will remove the precious little air bubbles that the yeast have struggled for so long to create. Keeping these intact is essential to produce a large crumb.

  1. Remove the plastic wrap from the dough bowl. The mixture should look very wet and bubbly. If it looks like white vomit, that’s okay.
  2. Pinch some dough at the edge of the bowl and put it up and over to cover the dough like a blanket. You can press it into the dough so it sticks to itself. You don’t need to grab a lot of it, but try to make your way around the bowl in less than 10 pinch and covers. It should look smooth after you make your full way around. This helps trap air inside the dough and makes it a little easier to shape.
  3. Flour a work surface liberally. Grab a 4 finger pinch of flour and spread it on the table. Do a couple more. Do not flour the dough in the bowl.
  4. Overturn the bowl so that dough slowly slides into the flour. This may take a minute, because the dough wants to stick to the bowl. You can scrape out the bowl a little if there’s stuff left in there.
  5. When the dough has finally come to rest in the flour, you can begin kneading. IMPORTANT: do not flour the top of the dough. It needs to be sticky so that the dough sticks to itself.
  6. Try to spread out the dough into a rectangular-ish sheet, being very gentle with the dough. Do not punch it. You can hold an edge and let gravity pull the rest down. Make sure that the sticky side on top stays sticky.
  7. Fold an edge over itself so that it covers about two-thirds of the sheet. Stick it down. Fold the opposite end over so that it completely covers the original end that’s now flour side up. Stick it down.
  8. Now start at either end that hasn’t been folded and roll up the thin rectangle to form a little roll. Try to stick everything together, but it’s okay if it doesn’t. Flip the dough so that the seam ends are down. Leave it alone to re-inflate the gluten balloons a little. This is called the “proofing” stage.
  9. Cover your dough with plastic wrap or a bowl or a wet kitchen towel.
  10. Let the dough rise for an hour or two. This helps make the gluten balloons fill, and ends up producing a nicer crumb. If you go longer, this may result in overly puffy bread that doesn’t taste like anything and bakes a little too soft.

If you want to bake right away, around halfway through this rising period, start preheating your oven to 450F. If you don’t want to bake right away, cover the dough and place it in the fridge for as long as you want (up to 7 days…or more?). This deepens and develops the flavor of the bread, and also makes it easier to score.

Baking

With Dutch Oven

Place the dutch oven or any oven-safe (to 450F) container inside the oven as you preheat. You want it to be HOT. This is key to the production of steam to “spring” the bread. We want maximal oven spring so that the crumb sets nice and open by rapid steam production before the gluten firms and locks in the structure of the crumb- that is, we want lots of wet heat as fast as possible. We choose to bake at 450F because this is the listed safe limit for many oven-safe containers. Any lower, and the bread won’t bake as nice and crispy, and higher temperatures really make that energy bill pop.

Baking with a dutch oven

  1. Preheat the dutch oven inside an oven turned to 450F.
  2. Carefully turn the dough onto a lightly floured piece of parchment paper. This allows for easier transfer into the hot dutch oven. You want the seam side up, but if the seam has disappeared on you, no worries.
  3. Score the dough around 45 degrees off the diameter with a sharp knife or razor blade. If the centerline of the bread is a longitude through Greenwich create a quarter-inch deep slice (i.e. shallow) through New Brunswick.
  4. Place the parchment paper and dough into the hot dutch oven and carefully replace the lid. Bake at 450F for 25 minutes.
  5. Remove the lid and bake another 25 minutes, or until the bread looks nice and dark. If you’re worried about burning it, take it out at 15 minutes and let it sit for a little. You can also plop the whole loaf back into the oven to finish toasting up.

The way to achieve this is heat transfer as fast as possible, which is most easily done with a very hot cast iron dutch oven. Cast iron is both heavy and metal, which means it retains a great deal of heat. When we drop the wet dough into a hot dutch oven and cap it with a tight lid, volumes of steam are generated and produce the tall, springy loaf that we so desperately want. When the crumb has set, you can remove the lid to allow the top of the loaf to brown.

For the oven that I use, I’ve settled on 450F for 25 minutes covered and 25 minutes uncovered. This produces a fantastic crust and nice chewy bread with an open crumb.

One trick that I’ve used to increase the steam in the dutch oven to force a larger crumb is to wet the inside of the dutch oven lid with water and let it partially dry. The water inside the lid will help contribute to more dutch oven steam, leading to more oven spring (hopefully).

Remove the bread and let rest for at least 15 minutes. You can hear it “sing”, or crack, as it comes to room temperature.

Spread with butter, because this bread is a perfect vehicle for it, and enjoy your bread.

Without Dutch Oven

This method can also produce excellent loaves, though with a little more finessing. If you have a dutch oven use that, but if you don’t, this has given me some excellent bread.

Baking without a dutch oven

  1. Preheat an oven turned to 450F.
  2. Carefully turn the dough onto a lightly floured piece of parchment paper. You want the seam side up, but if the seam has disappeared on you, no worries.
  3. Score the dough around 45 degrees off the diameter with a sharp knife or razor blade. If the centerline of the bread is a longitude through Greenwich create a quarter-inch deep slice (i.e. shallow) through New Brunswick.
  4. Place the parchment paper and dough onto a baking sheet in the oven, and try to get as much water in there as possible.
  5. I advocate spritzing water with a spray bottle directly onto the bread or anywhere in the oven. Use a good amount, like 20 squirts, but if you don’t have a spray bottle, wet your hand flick water into the oven. Another great option is pouring a few cups of boiling water into a heated dish in the oven to generate steam. Bake the bread in a steamy oven for 30 minutes. You may want to spray in more water every minute or so for the first 5 to 8 minutes to get more steam in the oven.
  6. Remove the steaming tray if you used it, and continue baking for another 10 minutes until the crust is firm and nicely browned. The bread is done when a rap on the bottom crust produces a hollow knocking sound.

This method requires more attention but can produce open, airy bread even without a dutch oven. The trick is to simulate the enclosed, steamy environment of the sealed dutch oven by adding steam to the oven and keeping it closed. Remember, don’t open the door unless absolutely necessary because every opening can drop the oven temperature by up to 50F and remove precious steam.

Remove the bread and let rest for at least 15 minutes. You can hear it “sing”, or crack, as it comes to room temperature.

Spread with butter, because this bread is a perfect vehicle for it, and enjoy your bread.

Addenda

One interesting technique from Glen and Friends Cooking is the use of a saved yeast or levain. This technique can be used, just like a long fridge rise, to develop flavor in the dough. Similar to the way a sourdough starter might be used, this technique relies on a levain. It also can be used to rise bread without the need for additional yeast.

When the dough has finished its first rise (12–24 hours), take a small spoonful of dough, about the size of a walnut. Combine this dough with 1 cup of water and 1 cup of flour, and mix well. This will form a batter consistency that will soon propagate the yeast population. That mixture is called the levain, or biga. Let it sit out overnight to hydrate, and the following day, form your dough.

Mix the levain with 2 cups of flour and half a cup of water (for the same final proportion of 3 cups of flour to 1.5 cups of water) with a tablespoon of salt. Mix the dough and let it sit for 12 hours. If you want to, you can take another walnut of dough and save it for the next levain, by feeding it 1C each of flour and water. Shape the dough with the same method as before, and bake according to the directions above.

This type of bread will sour over time, and become a sourdough starter. Meanwhile, this levain bread will enjoy a deeper and maltier taste than traditional no-knead bread.

Citations

I love learning about anything, really. As a curious person, I’ve always been fascinated by how very distant fields can interact. Fermentation enthusiast.

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