This recipe caused an absolute storm when it was first published by the New York Times in 2006. I have made this loaf several times and have always had the same, consistently great results.
This bread is, as the name implies, made with very little kneading. Time – in the form of 18 hours resting and rising – does the work of intensive kneading and also allows the bread to develop its flavour. It is very important not to rush this bread – with time comes flavour comparable to a loaf from the finest bakeries.
The second component of the recipe is the container the dough is baked in. All that matters is that it is oven proof to a very high temperature and has a heavy lid that seals well. Casserole dishes, cast iron pots, ceramic pots and even glass Pyrex containers can all be used as long as the two main criteria are met. In effect, what we are creating is an oven within an oven.
The last component of this bread is pre-heating the pot in the oven before putting the dough inside. This bread is made with a very sticky dough with a high water content and the idea is that the heat from the pot when it meets the water in the dough will create steam, which is trapped by the lid, and will result in a deliciously crisp crust that is golden brown and shatters when you bite into it.
3 cups plain white flour or 440 grams (doesn’t have to be bread flour, any high quality white flour will do)
¼ teaspoon instant yeast (once again, any yeast is fine, just whatever you have in your cupboard)
1 tablespoon salt
¾ cup tepid water
In a large bowl combine 3 heaped cups of flour, yeast and salt. Add the water, and stir until blended – the dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at least 15 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature.
The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place the dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Punch the dough once or twice to knock out some of the larger air pockets. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let it rest on the bench for another 15 minutes.
Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal and put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let it rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
At least a half-hour before the dough is ready, heat oven to 23 degrees Celsius (450 degrees Fahrenheit). Put a 5-7 litre heavy covered pot in the oven as it heats. When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over into the pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that’s OK. Shake the pan once or twice if the dough is unevenly distributed and don’t worry, the loaf will straighten out as it bakes.
Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until the loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before slicing.