The “No-Knead Bread” Chef Now Has the Secret to Sourdough
How do you explain America’s ever increasing obsession with bread, even as the ranks of gluten-free adherents continue to expand?
Credit one pioneer in the world of artisanal bread: Jim Lahey. At his Sullivan Street Bakery, which began in a tiny storefront in Soho in New York in 1994, Lahey baked monumental loaves such as the long, oval, pane pugliese with a sturdy, almost-burnt crust and chewy, moist interior. Soon, he was supplying bread to prestige restaurants around the city, including Jean-Georges and the Spotted Pig, as well as to upscale markets like Dean & Deluca.
Since then, Lahey has embarked on a mission to empower home cooks to bake their own bread. Through the University of Bread seminars he teaches at his bakery headquarters in New York’s Hells Kitchen, the "no-knead" method he introduced more than a decade ago has become a sensation, turning an army of hobbyists into passionate bread makers. No-knead bread, as the saying suggests, is a loaf made with minimal ingredients and work; the only thing you need a lot of is time—at least 24 hours.
But Lahey’s no-knead bread has become a victim of its own success. “Everyone is an expert now; no one wants to take those no-knead classes,” he told me, referring to “They want to learn the next thing.”
That new thing? Sourdough bread, with its yeasty, lightly tangy flavor and buoyant crumb. If no-knead is the beginner loaf for home bread bakers, sourdough is firmly in the intermediate category. No-knead bread is made with pre-packaged bakers yeast, a fast fermentation that works fine, according to Lahey in his forthcoming The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook (W. W. Norton & Co., November 2017). “But it tends to preclude the development of more interesting flavor.”
Lacey continues: “If you are like me and want breads that are not merely predictable but awe-inspiring—with an open crumb and a bouquet of unbelievable flavors—then you’re going to need a different kind of fermentation, one that relies on a sourdough starter.” He prefers a liquid-y starter style mixture that he calls a ‘biga’ to help the dough ferment and rise.
In his upcoming book, Lahey devotes plenty of room to topics like "a beautiful fermentation," and he counsels readers on how to make their own. (His secret ingredient is a kale leaf, which has natural yeast clinging to it.) It’s a three-day process at minimum and can often take up to five days just to get the starter started, plus a couple of additional days to let it refresh.
For those who like short cuts, though, there is good news: Excellent ready-made starters are out there. The venerable baking company King Arthur sells a very good one, and Sullivan Street expects to have its own commercial product by this summer. Your local bakery or passionate bread baking neighbor might also be persuaded to give you starter for your bread.
In this exclusive preview, here is Lahey’s sourdough bread recipe, adapted from the The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, co-written with Maya Joseph. It takes four steps and, with a starter, can be done in about four hours.
The Ultimate Fast Sourdough
"Often I counsel patience when baking—so very often, the only secret to making a good bread better is to wait a bit longer, and let the flavors, fermentation, and rise develop, "writes Lahey in the book. "But as an impatient guy, and there are sometimes when I want to mix, bake, and eat a loaf not tomorrow, but today. Here is a recipe for those moments. It’s not instant bread, but it is faster bread. "
Yield: One 9-inch round loaf.
Equipment: A 4½- to 5½-quart heavy pot with lid; a large piece of parchment paper.
100 grams prepared starter (such as King Arthur Classic Fresh Sourdough Starter, $8.95)
200 grams (about 1 1/4 cups, plus 2 tablespoons) unbleached all-purpose flour
100 grams (about 2/3 cup) whole wheat flour
6 grams (about 1 teaspoon) fine sea salt
230 grams (about 1 cup, plus 1 tablespoon) 65F-70F water
Wheat bran, for dusting
1. In a large bowl, combine the white flour, wheat flour, and salt and whisk to combine. In a small bowl, whisk the starter and water until the starter is fully dissolved. Pour the starter mixture into the flour, and use a flexible spatula to quickly mix. Cover the bowl loosely with a clean kitchen towel, and let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
2. Turn the dough, pulling it off the sides of the bowl and folding into the center as you turn; work it as little as possible. Cover loosely and let rest for 30 minutes before turning the dough again. After approximately 5 turns, or 2 ½ to 3 hours, the dough should be ready. (Don’t expect to see a big increase in size in this dough—by turning the dough every half-hour, you are doing what I call the lazy man’s version of kneading the dough—improving the texture without much effort.)
Note: How do you tell when it’s ready? You want it to get to the point where it is capable of holding a shape, and not ooze into a pancake when you shape it into a ball. It should be so interested in sticking to itself that it easily peels off the bowl when ready to shape.
3. Place a large piece of parchment paper on a sheet pan and cover with wheat bran, so that you can no longer see the paper. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and form it loosely into a ball: hold it with both hands and gently tug the sides down and under, into the middle of the dough, to make a taut ball; don’t let the dough tear. Set the dough seam side down on the bran-coated paper. Dust the top of the dough lightly with more bran. Cover loosely with the towel and let it sit at room temperature until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 500F (450F if your oven runs hot). Preheat a cast-iron ovenproof pot with tight-fitting lid, such as Le Creuset, in the oven. Carefully remove the lid and transfer the dough on the parchment into the pot. Use a serrated knife to score the loaf with a long slash, to allow the dough to expand. Cover the pot immediately and place the pot in the oven.
5. Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes with the lid on. Carefully remove the lid and tear off any excess parchment. Bake for another 10 to 15 minutes with the lid off, until the crust is a very, very dark brown. (I urge you to let the bread cook, uncovered, until the top of the bread nearly blackens and the sides reach a very, very, very dark brown.) Remove the loaf from the pot. Cool the loaf on a wire rack. The loaf will continue to cook as it cools, so try to wait an hour or so before cutting into it.