I am not a baker. I am not very careful about measurements and, since I rarely have all the ingredients at hand when I want to make something, I tend to make substitutions. I must have inherited that tendency from my mother who once put coffeemate into our breakfast cereal when we ran out of milk (not the same!). This works fine for dishes such as stir-fries and soups where I can use my eyeballs to measure and ingredients are interchangeable, but not so much for baking. So, I approached Mark Bittman's no-knead bread recipe with some trepidation.
Luckily, the recipe only requires four ingredients. Mix flour (3 c), salt (1 1/4 tsp) and yeast (1/4 tsp) in a large bowl. In a measuring cup, mix water (1 5/8 c) with a spoonful of honey -- not in the recipe but I couldn't help thinking that the yeast was going to have to work for 18 hours so maybe it needed an extra boost. Combine the dry and the wet ingredients together to form a sticky blob. Cover the bowl with saran wrap and put someplace room temperature and out of the way. I put mine in the oven (off!) for 18 hours.
After 18 hours, the blob doubles in bulk and the surface becomes dotted with bubbles. Here, the Bittman recipe says to fold the dough onto itself and let rest for 15 minutes. I think this is supposed to create a pretty seam that splits open when the bread bakes. After making this bread three times, I've concluded that this step is unnecessary. Also, the more steps, the more chances for things to go horribly awry. Dump the blob onto a well floured dishcloth. Make sure to use a lot of flour, otherwise, the dough will stick to the towel. Not fatal, but it means less bread to eat later. Coax the blob into an approximate ball shape, trying not to deflate all the yeast's hard work. Add more flour to the top and then cover with another towel to rest. The final resting phase takes 2 hours total.
1.5 hours into the resting phase, put a dutch oven (with lid) into the oven and crank the heat to 500 degrees. Apparently, one is not supposed to put a Le Creuset dutch oven lid into the oven because of the black plastic knob but mine has survived so far. Bake the empty dutch oven for half an hour. Then, lifting the towel by the ends, dump the dough into the dutch oven, cover it and put it back into the oven with the lid for half an hour.
After that time, take off the lid and bake for another 10-15 minutes until the bread is a nice golden brown and transfer to a cooling rack. Remember in Ratatouille where Colette tells Remy that the secret to choosing great bread is in the sound of the crust? When the bread comes out of the oven it immediately starts to cool and shrink. The steamy environment created by baking the loaf in an enclosed pot creates a super crispy crust so as the bread shrinks, it sings. Actually, it sounds more like Rice Krispies, but still very cool.
I have used 1 c of whole wheat flour instead of white and 1 1/2 c of whole wheat flour instead of white. I would not recommend going more than 1 c whole wheat as the bread gets rather dense beyond that amount. Also, my dutch oven is only 4 1/2 quarts and the Bittman recipe calls for a 5 or 6 quart pot. I don't think it really matters. This bread is super easy to make and the results are delicious, with a crackling crust and a light, chewy interior!