Beginner’s luck

13 Apr


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a baker. Never have been. Never tried to be.

If you thought that my standards ran high for pastas, I’ve got news for you: I’m way more obsessive about bread. Bakers, good ones, are wizards in my book. I have never before seriously considered loitering on their magnificent, magical turf.

Until now.

You are looking at the first loaf of bread that I have baked in my entire life. And all it took was a weeks-long home quarantine in the middle of a global pandemic to make it happen.

I had some help. The recipe is Jim Lahey’s, he of the very fine Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. (Here is a link to the recipe, though it is also reprinted below.) Further assistance was provided by two people who have for a decade or so prodded me (sometimes mercilessly) to give bread baking a try, they being “Beth Queen of Bakers” and “My Pain in the Ass Friend Tom.” Via phone, text and email these two old friends were with me the entire way. And I thank them.

So, let’s get started, shall we.


In a large bowl mix together 3 cups bread flour, 1 1/4 teaspoons table salt and 1/4 teaspoon instant or other active dry yeast. (I upped the yeast to a little less than 1/2 teaspoon, which is explained below.)


Add 1 1/3 cups cool water and quickly mix with your hands or a wooden spoon. The dough should be very wet and sticky; if it isn’t add a little more water. Then cover with plastic wrap and let it sit for 12-18 hours at around 72 degrees F. (A couple things: We don’t keep our house that warm overnight, which is why Beth and Tom suggested upping the yeast a little bit. I also let the dough sit for a full 24 hours, as I was advised that a longer rise might add to the finished product’s flavor.)


This is how the dough looked after 24 hours. Still very moist, and bubbly.


Next thing to do is dust a work surface with flour and gently remove the dough from the bowl and onto the work area.


Then sprinkle some more flour on top and gently bring things into a round form.


Like so.


Cover the dough with a cotton or linen towel and let sit an hour or two until the dough has almost doubled in size (I gave it 2 1/2 hours). Around 30 minutes before the end of this rise preheat your oven to 475 degrees F and warm a 4 1/2-quart covered dutch oven inside the oven.


Carefully remove the heated dutch oven from the oven, remove its cover, and gently place the dough inside. Then replace the cover and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes remove the cover and continue baking for another 15-30 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown.


Fifteen minutes is all this took.


Remove the bread from the dutch oven and let it completely cool on a rack before cutting it open.

DSC_0027 (1).jpeg

I don’t say this to brag. Really, I don’t. Beginner’s luck turned out to be awfully kind to me. This bread is awesome. Crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, and the flavor is absolutely perfect.

I’m (almost) speechless.


You may be wondering whether all-purpose flour can be substituted for bread flour. I know I did. And so I decided to give it a try. I did everything exactly the same except for swapping out the flour.

DSC_0029 2.jpeg

Here’s the result. The bread was just as crisp on the outside, but not quite as chewy inside. Still a really nice loaf that I would totally make again.

If I were a baker, that is.




3 cups (400 grams) bread flour

1 1/4 teaspoons (8 grams) table salt

1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) instant or other active dry yeast

1 1/3 cups (300 grams) cool water (55 to 65 degrees F)

Wheat bran, cornmeal, or additional flour, for dusting


A 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-quart heavy pot


1. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Make sure it’s really sticky to the touch; if it’s not, mix in another tablespoon or two of water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature (about 72 degrees F), out of direct sunlight, until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size. This will take a minimum of 12 hours and (my preference) up to 18 hours. This slow rise—fermentation—is the key to flavor.

2. When the first fermentation is complete, generously dust a work surface (a wooden or plastic cutting board is fine) with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough onto the board in one piece. When you begin to pull the dough away from the bowl, it will cling in long, thin strands (this is the developed gluten), and it will be quite loose and sticky—do not add more flour. Use lightly floured hands or a bowl scraper or spatula to lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.

3. Place a cotton or linen tea towel (not terry cloth, which tends to stick and may leave lint in the dough) or a large cloth napkin on your work surface and generously dust the cloth with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Use your hands or a bowl scraper or wooden spatula to gently lift the dough onto the towel, so it is seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, making an indentation about 1/4 inch deep, it should hold the impression. If it doesn’t, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

4. Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with a rack in the lower third position, and place a covered 4 1/2–5 1/2 quart heavy pot in the center of the rack.

5. Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel, lightly dust the dough with flour or bran, lift up the dough, either on the towel or in your hand, and quickly but gently invert it into the pot, seam side up. (Use caution—the pot will be very hot.) Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly. Don’t slice or tear into it until it has cooled, which usually takes at least an hour.

11 Responses to “Beginner’s luck”

  1. Vi April 13, 2020 at 12:13 pm #

    You took the leap! Congratulations on a raging success with your first go-round. Watch out, though, breadmaking is addicting (speaking from experience). Made your meatballs last week, husband says they’re the best. He eats them with eggs for breakfast.

  2. twinklechar April 13, 2020 at 1:21 pm #

    If only everyone wasn’t out of yeast and bread flower I would play along today. Sigh…

    Pictures and recipes from your fam help keep spreading the warmth we need. Keep it up!

    Charlene #ryeforbreakfast as in not bread 😜

    • mistermeatball April 13, 2020 at 2:17 pm #

      I should have mentioned that the ONLY reason I had on hand the flour and yeast required is because Beth and Tom stock me up whenever they visit–and of course bake breads for me.

  3. CLAUDIA April 13, 2020 at 2:14 pm #

    Since I have 2 Dutch ovens I’ll try this recipe. I love to knead the dough so this probably won’t be my normal recipe. Kneading is therapeutic. One correction: in the body of the story you say “4 1/2 cup Dutch oven. I thought that sounded very small, but later you changed it to quarts.

  4. Matthew Fanning April 13, 2020 at 8:37 pm #

    Nice looking bread! Looks and sounds professional.try not to get too cocky when you make it next time. You did great! Thanks for sharing

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Kate April 14, 2020 at 3:43 pm #

    I also don’t consider myself a very good baker and have had luck with this bread—it’s a confidence booster! I have been making the Bon Appetit no-knead focaccia too, and that’s amazing as well.

  6. Augusta Umanski April 20, 2020 at 3:43 pm #

    Some wonderful You Tube videos from No Knead Bread Central. Even easier than Jim Lahey’s recipe. Take a look. I have nothing to do with the site, other than having used it as a guide to easier bread making.

  7. Doreen LaBella November 20, 2021 at 8:40 pm #

    What if you do t have a Dutch oven what could I use?

    • mistermeatball November 20, 2021 at 11:00 pm #

      I suppose another type of oven-proof pot (with a lid) that’s deep enough should do fine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: