Time Makes a Better Bread – and A Better Bread Maker

Jim Lahey Bread 2

I”ve been making Jim Lahey’s bread for about four years now.

My first attempt was in New York City during Hurricane Irene, when I knew I’d be home for at least 24 hours with nothing to do but make this bread. which has a 12 to 18 hour rise, followed by a second two hour rise prior to baking.  The result was delicious, though a little flat.  But hands down the best bread I’d ever baked.

no-knead-bread first attemps
My first attempt at Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread

I decided to try making bread during weekends at our cottage in the Endless Mountains, and immediately gravitated to Mark Bittman’s speedier version of Lahey’s recipe. The shortened 4 hour rise time allowed me to start the bread first thing on a Saturday morning and still have it ready by lunchtime.

That bread making schedule made us some very pretty breads and served us well on many a Saturday lunch.

Bittman speedier no-Knead bread

But not really.

You see, we often did not roll into the driveway of our cottage until very late Friday evening, especially if traffic was bad getting out of New York City. By that point, the thought of bread for tomorrow’s lunch was nowhere near my consciousness – all I wanted was bed. Next morning, by the time I got up and thought of bread, it was way too late to start a loaf if we were planning to do anything else that day.

So the sad truth is, though I like to think I did, most weekends on the mountain I did not make bread.


This summer I got smart and took off a bunch of Friday afternoons. Now we leave earlier from New York City (1 pm is the latest if you want an under 4 hour trip), and I work using my laptop and cellphone hot spot while Mr TBTAM drives. The result? One evening, I actually found myself sitting on the front porch on a Friday evening with a glass of wine at 6 pm!

This got me thinking – why not start the bread now instead of in the morning? After all, Lahey’s original recipe has an overnight rise.

The first phase of the recipe is so easy that I have it memorized and can get the bread set up to rise in 5 minutes. I can even start it at home while we’re packing up the food, and let it start to rise in the car while we drive! Next morning, I can sleep as late as 9 am and still have time to finish the second rise and bake it before lunch, leaving me a free afternoon to hike or swim or kayak.

If I want the whole day free, I set an alarm for 5, set up the second rise and head back to bed till 7:00, at which point I get up, heat the oven for a half hour while I shower, then bake the bread from 7:00 to 7:45 am. After cooling (an absolutely essential part of the process), the bread will be done by 8:15 am, and I have a full day to play.

My early morning bread making schedule

Somewhere along the line, I bought Lahey’s book and learned the actual science behind his bread. This brought home the reality of why this longer making bread is just a better bread than Bittman’s speedier version. The overnight rise is really a short fermentation, and the bread attains a wonderful sourdough-like taste. The crust it forms is thicker and the bread sturdier yet still soft – ie., better gluten. Lacey’s book also taught me to respect the rest after baking, during which the bread “sings” as the steam escapes, and never, ever to cut into the bread till it has cooled.

A big advantage of the overnight rise for me is that it is not as temperature dependent. It can get really cool up here on the mountain, and there were times I put the bread in the car and drove to a sunny spot to get a decent rise from Bittman’s speedier rise recipe. But when the yeast have 12 or more hours to do their thing, temperature seems not to be as critical. (If it’s going to be a really cool night, I do increase the yeast just a teeny bit as insurance.)

Speaking of temperature, I’m still wondering just how hot I can go when baking this bread. Bittman’s original article says 450 degrees, but in the NYTimes video Lahey says “500, even 515” degrees, and in his book, he says 475 degrees. (The bread pictured here was baked at 475 degrees.)

Lahey’s pics of the bread making process in his book are invaluable. I also strongly recommend watching this video from Mark Bittman to understand just how wet this dough is. Over time, I’ve gotten the confidence to know that if following the recipe exactly on a given day yields bread dough that’s a little too thick, I can add water and make it “just right”. This is the sort of skill that only comes with time and experience.

So try this bread. Then try it again. And again. And again.

With time, and sooner than you think, you’ll be making one amazing loaf.

Jim Lahey Basic Bread


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