I baked a loaf of bread yesterday. It was delicious. It was easy. It was cheap.

Last winter, I undertook a quest to find the best whole wheat bread in a grocery store. I like sandwiches and I like toast, so removing bread from my diet isn’t an option. While trying to balance cost and nutrition, I eventually discovered Rainier Organic’s Sasquatch Grain & Seed Bread. At about 10 cents per ounce, this stuff is cheaper than all but the “artificial everything” breads. Best of all? Eating it is like eating a field of wheat.

Several people suggested that I might want to make my own bread. At the time, I dismissed the idea as crazy. I can remember my mother spending a lot of time kneading dough and shuffling loaf pans when I was a boy. I may be working from home now, but I’m not interested in devoting my life to baked goods.

Minimalist bread
Still, there are few things better in life than a hunk of warm, crusty bread slathered with honey or jam. (Perhaps with a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese on the side.) So when Brad suggested insisted I try Mark Bittman’s minimalist “no-knead” bread recipe, I took the plunge into home baking.

In this New York Times video, Bittman visits the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen to learn the secret of great bread from owner Jim Lahey.

Turns out this bread really is so easy that anyone can make it. And the total cost? According to Andy at The New Cook, this bread costs about 63 cents per loaf, or about a nickel per ounce. That’s roughly the same price as the cheap artificial stuff in the grocery store, but you’re getting a loaf of fresh, crusty bread. That’s tough to beat.

(For a great variation, check out SmarterFitter’s Four-Seed No-Knead Bread.)

A perfect loaf?
Cook’s Illustated tackled this recipe in their January 2008 issue. While they admitted that it was easy, they didn’t like the “bland flavor” and the unreliable rising. Using their methodology of relentless refinement, they added a bit of salt, reduced the water, and introduced a secret ingredient: beer.

Cook’s Illustrated calls their version “Almost No-Knead” Bread, or No-Knead Bread 2.0. This bread is started on the first day and baked on the second. Other than planning ahead, it’s almost effortless and results in a wonderful chewy bread with a crunchy deep-brown crust. Here’s the recipe (with some minor modifications from us):

Almost No-Knead Bread

  • 3 cups unbleached flour (15 ounces)
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons water, room temperature or just slightly warm
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons mild-flavored lager, room temp and flat (note: we use a pale ale)
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar (note: we use white balsamic vinegar from Trader Joe’s)

Day one
If necessary, heat water and beer in microwave to make them closer to room temperature. Whisk flour, yeast and salt in a large shallow bowl. Add water, beer and vinegar. Using a rubber spatula, fold mixture, scraping up from the bottom until a dry, shaggy ball forms. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 8 to 18 hours, until the surface is covered with bubbles. Total time for day one: about ten minutes.

Day two
Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead 10-15 times. Wash out the dough bowl and lay a 12×18 piece of oven-safe parchment paper inside it and spray with non-stick cooking spray. Shape the dough into a ball by pulling edges into the middle. Transfer dough — seam-side down — to the parchment-lined bowl and spray surface with cooking spray. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until dough has doubled in size and does not readily spring back when poked with a finger (about 2 hours).

About 30 minutes before baking, adjust oven rack to lowest position and place a 6-8 quart Dutch oven (with lid slightly ajar) on rack to heat. Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Lightly flour top of dough and use a very sharp knife to make one slit, 6 inches long and 1/2″ deep. Carefully remove hot Dutch oven from oven and remove lid. Pick up dough by lifting parchment paper and lower into Dutch oven. Add lid and place in oven. Immediately lower temperature to 425 degrees and bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove lid and continue cooking 20-30 minutes longer, until the bread is a deep brown and sounds rather hollow when tapped.

Remove and transfer to a wire rack and cool to room temperature.

Total time for day two: about ten minutes.

For more on this recipe, check out the Cook’s Illustrated web site, or visit Breadtopia (a blog devoted to bread!).

Delicious!
Kris and I have been making this bread for three months now, and it’s fantastic. I’ll admit that it’s not the healthiest stuff (it’s little more than flour and salt, after all), but it’s delicious — especially with home-made strawberry jam. Along the way, we’ve learned a couple things. If you have a good kitchen scale, for example, we recommend weighing the the flour rather than measuring by volume.

Also, in the winter, our house is too cold (54 degrees) for this to rise properly overnight, so we use a water/beer mixture that feels slightly warm to the touch to give it a kick start, then turn on the oven light and put the dough into the gas oven.

The cost for a single loaf of this bread runs about $1.50. The flour is about 60 cents, the yeast is about a quarter, the beer costs about forty cents, and the other ingredients cost a few cents each. So, for a little more than the cheap bread in the grocery store, you can have a loaf of actual artisan bread.

The real joy is the ease of this recipe and the sense of accomplishment from baking your own bread. Your friends will be impressed!