Learning to bake bread is a bit more intimidating than tackling DIY burgers or burritos, but it’s a fundamental skill that will serve you well for a lifetime. As any disgruntled Parisian expat living in the U.S. can tell you, not every city has great bakeries. But if you know how to make your own perfect loaf, you’ll always be the master of your own carbs destiny—and honestly, it’s not nearly as hard as you’ve been lead to believe.
“It’s something that sounds very complicated to do, but is available to everybody,” says Kamel Saci, head baker at Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria and Il Buco in NYC.
Back in 2006, when Jim Lahey published a no-knead bread recipe in The New York Times (one of the first truly “viral” recipes), it set off a small earthquake in the world of tech-addicted home bakers. Lahey promised you could make exceptional bread at home with nothing more than a heavy covered pot, flour, water, salt, and yeast (no mixer or special bread oven required). But Saci says great bread is a bit more complicated than stirring three ingredients together, letting it rest, and throwing it in a pot in the oven—which he says creates good, if not slightly heavy and dense, bread.
“You need to know the right way to do it,” says Saci, who promises that just a little more effort makes a world of difference. Saci suggests moving the dough a tiny bit, or what he calls “easy kneading”; more specifically, Saci folds the bread for one minute every half an hour for 1.5 hours (that’s three, one-minute kneads), before putting it in the fridge to slow-ferment overnight. This minimal kneading creates a light, airy bread with perfect structure.
Saci learned the tried-and-true technique described below from his mother, who lived in the French countryside and made from-scratch bread just like her neighbors.
Here are a few more essential principles to keep in mind while following Saci’s bread recipe:
1. Steam is created when bread is baked inside a covered, pre-heated pot. The steam makes the bread proof; gives it a golden-brown color and a shiny “glow”; and makes the crust crackly, crisp, and crunchy.
2. After it has fermented overnight in the refrigerator, you must take your dough out of the fridge at least an hour before you put it in the oven (so that it is slightly cooler than room temperature).
3. The pot you bake the bread in has to be a heavy, covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex, or ceramic). Le Creuset works great.
4. Here, Saci uses white flour, but you can use 20% whole wheat and 80% white.
How to Make “Easy-Knead” Bread à la Il Buco
Makes one 1-pound loaf
For the poolish (a.k.a. pre-ferment):
*250g all purpose flour
*5g dry yeast (saf-instant is a good brand)
For the dough:
*250g all purpose flour
*6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex, or ceramic)
*Kitchen scale (to measure out ingredients)
Make the poolish (pre-ferment)
A preferment is a portion of bread dough that is made several hours in advance, then incorporated into the final dough. Using a pre-ferment improves the flavor, texture, aroma, and shelf life of bread.
1. In a bowl, whisk together 250g AP flour, 175ml water, and 5g yeast.
2. Put the mixture into a large (preferably see-through) container with a lid, and close the lid. Let the mixture rest for one hour at room temperature, then put it in the fridge for a minimum of 12 hours.
3. After 12 hours, the poolish will double in size in the container, and look a little bit like a science experiment.
Make the bread dough
1. In a large bowl, combine the remaining flour (250g) and salt (15g). Make sure the ingredients are well incorporated.
[NOTE: In his demo below, Saci is incorporating the yeast and not using a poolish. You will want to make the poolish in advance and incorporate it into the dough.]
2. Make a small well in the middle of the mixture with your fingertips. Pour water (175g) into the well, along with the poolish. With a wooden spoon, go from the middle and mix outwards, slowly incorporating a little of the water and poolish at a time into the flour until blended. The dough will be shaggy and slightly sticky.
3. Now it’s time for the “easy kneading,” or working the dough just a little bit. To do this, press down on the dough with the heel of your palm, pushing it forward, and then pull it back towards you. Fold the dough this way for 1 minute, or until it comes together into a ball.
[NOTE: Here, Saci uses a pastry scraper, but it’s not necessary—you can use your hands.]
4. Cover the bowl with a towel and let rest for 30 minutes.
5. After 30 mins, uncover and knead the dough for 1 more minute, or until smooth. While you work, dust the dough with just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to your fingers. Cover the dough and let it rest again for 30 minutes.
6. Now it’s time for the third and final knead, this time for about 1 more minute, until very smooth. Shape the dough into a ball, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
Let the dough sit at room temperature for 45 minutes, then put the dough in the refrigerator to rest overnight (8-12 hours).
7. The next day, take the dough out of refrigerator, unwrap the bowl, and let it sit out until it comes to room temperature (about 1 to 1.5 hours).
8. Preheat the oven to 500°F. Be sure to put the empty pot in the oven 20 to 30 minutes before you’re ready to bake the bread, so that it’s hot when you place the dough in it.
9. Place the dough into the pre-heated pot.
9. Make slits in the dough (as seen below) and quickly cover with the lid, so it doesn’t lose heat or steam. Put the dough in the preheated oven and bake for approximately 30-40 minutes.
10. After 15 minutes, you can take the bread out of the oven and check for doneness. You are looking to see that the crust is getting dark on the bottom, and the top is beginning to color.
11. After another 15-25 minutes, take the bread out of oven.
12. IMPORTANT: Take the bread out of the pot right away. This will prevent the crust from getting soggy from the steam.
13. Tap the bread with your finger, and “listen for doneness.” The bread should have an echo, which indicates that it’s airy inside. Wait a few minutes for the bread to cool, then slice. Slather with butter or eat as is (your call).
Depending on what type of cooking vessel you use and how you shape the dough, you can make other bread shapes as well.