A Conversation with Baker Jim Lahey + His Recipe for No-Knead Bread
Baker Jim Lahey, owner of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery and author of the recently published cookbook My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method, was in town the other day on a brief 2 day leg of his current book tour. He sat down with us to talk about the book and his no-knead method, popularized by a 2006 Mark Bittman article in the New York Times.
Sarah Goodfriend Baker Jim Lahey
Lahey is something of a bread socialist, and he talks about his no-knead method the way a grass-roots politician might talk about town meetings. "I like to call it the food democracy movement. The democratization of good food is that it doesn't only have to be for the good restaurants; it's for everyone." Simplifying the process of bread-baking is the guiding theme of the book, which was co-written by Rick Flaste, a former Los Angeles Times editor. "The difference between a good loaf of bread and dog shit is just a couple decisions that people make," says Lahey. "It has nothing to do with the ingredients themselves."
As for whether Lahey was in town canvassing for bakery locations, he says that yes, he's interested, but that "there isn't anything on the table" yet. Turn the page for Lahey's views on his technique, whether bread needs saving, and his recipe for no-knead bread.
Squid Ink: Is the recipe in the book any different from the one published in the New York Times? I ask because I made them both, and this one seems even better.
Jim Lahey: The quantities of water and flour are different. I don't really view the recipe as the end all and be all, and I try and state that throughout the book. It's really about a process. the book is like a guide, not an absolute. Because flour can vary, water can vary. Humidity isn't really as big an issue. It's temperature, and also flour and its ability to absorb water.
SI: Do you have a favorite type of flour?
JL: You know I don't. Because there are brands of flour and there are milling specifications with names associated with them, but it's not like there's a specific wheat grown in a specific region of North Dakota with a specific terroir. I think that because it's such an ancient commodity it's lost its.... You know how buckwheat's treated in Japan? it grows in a particular prefecture in a particular region and for that reason it's better or worse. We don't really have that kind of discourse with wheat.
SI: So how did you come up with this technique?
JL: I came up with it while I was living in Florida. I tried making bread and every time I tried making it in the conventional way, the dough would fall apart. I noticed as I was making the dough that the dough came together very quickly and exhibited qualities of being kneaded, like in moments. I created the method in 1992 or 1993 to see if it was possible to bake the same style of bread that I was making in New York at the time there. And I did. The only difference was that I couldn't knead the dough. I knew it had something to do with the chemical composition of the water, I just hadn't analyzed the water at the time. it was only maybe 10 years later that I actually got a water sample from Miami and submitted it to tests to find out what the chemical composition of the water was, including the water's ph. the magnesium phosphates were off the charts. I think it was magnesium phosphate; it's a phosphorus of some sort.
Then it dawned on me that all bread was made without kneading because it was the way bread was once made. it was a logical conclusion, because if it was very difficult to make good bread, if it there was this intimidating task of having to knead it, then how would the known world have been conquered by this society of ancient Rome? It would have collapsed under their own exhaustion from having kneaded all that bread. And then I was asked, years later to make some bread to mimic the ancient Roman's bread, and I focused on this method as the way. Then I thought, um, I should pitch this to Gourmet Magazine. This was after I had created a bunch of confederates who had taken my no-knead class. Ruth wasn't interested. She was like, why are you here? This is it? I have to say, had Gourmet published this recipe, they might still be around today. It's immaterial now of course. This is a very Larry David moment.
SI: How did you come up with the pot as a method for baking?
JL: The idea with the pot was to mimic the interior of an oven, to recreate radiant heat.