Outside of a bread machine, this is the easiest bread recipe humans have yet devised. You know refrigerator bread? It's easier than that. You know no-knead bread? It's easier than that. Why? Because it's a no-knead refrigerator bread! Once the dough is ready — and the measuring and mixing only takes about 20 minutes — only a hot oven and a half an hour separates you from a piping hot loaf of your own. Anytime you want bread, you just form a loaf and pop it in. I still like to make more complicated breads sometimes — croissants, bagels, that sort of thing — but this is my dead-easy standby.
What's so great about this particular recipe is that allows for spontaneity. It's the very opposite of the usual eighteen-step, multi-stage rising and proofing bread recipe, which requires about six hours of intermittent attention and energy. This recipe is spur-of-the-moment. Friends coming over for an impromptu drink? Put some bread in. Need something to take to a dinner party but no time to stop at the bottle store? Put some bread in. Hungry? Put some bread in. I've made this recipe in at least five countries and five U.S. states; I've made it in dorm rooms and holiday houses and at the childhood homes of friends, in New York City studio apartments and, once, in an office kitchen. I've made it at altitude and at sea level, in gas ovens and electric, and using some things that only barely qualify as "resealable containers" (like a plastic water pitcher) or as "measuring cups" (like drinking glasses). This bread recipe has never failed me. And now, it will never fail you.
You'll need everything you see here. Click any image to enlarge. From left: 1. Active dry yeast or an equivalent amount of your preferred yeast. 2. Salt. 3. Flour. 4. A large, resealable container. 5. A liquid measuring cup. You will also need dry measuring cups and spoons — or, you know, drinking glasses — warm water, and a spoon for mixing.
This recipe is adapted from Five-Minute Artisan Bread, a recipe that I first heard about on the (excellent) radio show The Splendid Table. It's an easy recipe that in years of baking I've made even easier by eliminating a few steps in the original that, in my experience, don't make a noticeable difference to the results. First, take 3 cups of warm water — I stick my (clean) hands in it to make sure it's a comfortable temperature and not too hot — and pour it into the resealable container. Stir in 1.5 tablespoons of salt. Salt adds flavor, and it also inhibits the yeast's growth while the dough is rising. This is just about the perfect yeast-to-salt ratio.
Add 1.5 tablespoons of yeast. Stir.
Let the mixture sit for a few minutes, until the yeast fully dissolves and starts bubbling.
Then add approximately 6.5 cups of flour. Just dump it all in there, there's no point in adding it cup by cup.
Stir the whole mixture together until a loose, very sticky dough forms.
When there are no more pockets of unmixed flour or water left, place the lid loosely on top of the container, and let the dough sit at room temperature until it rises. The process of rising is pretty impressive, if you think about it. Long, stringy glutens are forming in the dough, and as the yeast rehydrates, it feeds on sugars in the flour. In turn, the yeast produces alcohol (which flavors the dough) and carbon dioxide (which makes the dough rise). The bubbles of carbon dioxide get caught in the matrix of glutens, and the gas gradually stretches them out — which gives the bread great texture.
When the dough has risen to the top — which might take 1-2 hours, depending on your room temperature — punch it down slightly (if necessary) to fit the lid onto the container. Seal it.
Place the container in the fridge for a few hours, or overnight. This dough will keep in the fridge for 3 weeks. The low temperature sends the yeast into a kind of suspended animation; the dough isn't dead, but it's no longer really "rising" in the sense of growing in size. It is rising in the sense that the yeast continues ever so slowly releasing carbon dioxide and sweet, flavorful alcohol, and that the glutens keep on deliciously stretching. The principle of no-knead bread is simple: kneading stretches the glutens, but if you are patient enough, the carbon dioxide will do the work of stretching them out for you. Add in the fact that you can keep the dough in suspended (but increasingly delicious) animation in the fridge for the better part of a month, and this might just be the world's best bread recipe. And honestly, the dough only improves with time. The longer you can stand to wait to make a loaf, the better and more flavorful your bread will be.
Whenever the desire for fresh, home-made bread next strikes, take a loaf pan, a cast-iron skillet, a cookie tray, or whatever you want to bake on, and preheat your oven to 450 Fahrenheit (230 Celsius). Grab some kind of oil (I use rendered bacon fat, as you can see, because rendered bacon fat improves everything) and grease the pan.
While your hands are all oily, pick off a hunk of the dough. Form it into a loaf. I've been doing this so many years that the dough no longer sticks to my hands, even though it is a very wet dough. Greasy hands and a thoroughly chilled dough really help with this. Reseal the container, and return the remainder of the dough to the fridge, where it will continue developing its flavor.
Slash the top of your loaf with a sharp knife. This step isn't strictly speaking necessary, but it gives a more professional appearance. Otherwise the top of your loaf will tear itself open as it bakes.
Ta-da. Bake your loaf for 30-35 minutes at 450 Fahrenheit (230 Celsius). I recommend kicking the temperature up to 500 Fahrenheit (260 Celsius) for the last 5-10 minutes. It really improves the crust.
There is no need to wait for the formed loaf to reach room temperature, or to proof it. Seriously; I've done it all kinds of ways, and a loaf that goes into the oven at fridge temperature tastes just as delicious (and has as good a crust and crumb) as one that's been left out on the bench for an hour. This dough can go from fridge to oven in a minute flat and come out tasting like heaven.
The next step is best described in GIF format.
One batch of dough as described above will make around 3 loaves of the size shown here. My maybe favorite part of this whole recipe is that when you finish your last loaf, you don't have to wash your container. Even if you don't have time to mix a fresh batch of dough, just seal the lid and return the empty container to the fridge. In a week or two when you do want to mix a new dough, the remains of the yeast in the last batch will have deposited a delicious pool of greyish alcohol at the bottom of the container. Just pour your warm water on top of that liquid and follow the recipe as above. Not washing the container is a great way of getting that delicious, three-week-old-refrigerator-dough taste in a dough that is in fact just hours old.
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