There are bakers and there are cooks.
It takes a chemist's love of precision to be a baker. Me? I'm a cook.
However, I do love to bake bread.
In fact, I've been on a bread-baking kick for the past several years, experimenting with everything from the old-fashioned knead-it-up method to neo-hippie, grow-your-own-wild-yeast-before-you-even-start-mixing-the-dough recipes.
Recently, however, I learned a method so wonderful that my experimental wanderings may be over.
The breakthrough occurred when I took a class with the legendary Jim Lahey, founder of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York and the man behind a sensational recipe for no-knead, slow-rise, no-fuss bread.
Could baking bread really be as easy as he suggested?
Yes, it can.
I went home after the class and adjusted Lahey's basic formula to my liking, adding extra whole wheat flour, toasted walnuts and rosemary. Otherwise, I followed his instructions, weighed the ingredients, mixed them together and turned out an attractive, delicious loaf of bread.
One of the ways to ensure success is to measure your flour by weight, not volume. When you scoop and measure flour by volume, such as with a measuring cup, the amount of flour you get each time can vary widely, sometimes by several ounces. The discrepancy is due to how tightly or loosely the flour is packed. A few ounces may not sound like much, but it can make a big difference in baked goods.
That's why I recommend investing in a good kitchen scale if you're going to bake bread. The one I own, which registers both ounces and grams, has turned out to be useful for a number of kitchen tasks.
And please remember: This is not your grandmother's bread, or at least it's not your grandmother's method of making bread. So don't be thrown off by the wetness of the dough (it's very wet), the temperature of the water added (it's cool, not warm), or the temperature at which the dough first rises (it's room temperature, not warmer).
The only downside to this recipe is the need to plan ahead.
Even though mixing the dough takes no time at all (30 seconds), you have to let it rise for at least 12, and preferably 18, hours. Then, after you've shaped it into a loaf (another 30 seconds), it needs to rise for yet another hour or two. Finally, it takes 45 to 60 minutes for the bread to bake, and it has to cool completely before you can eat it.
But if you can deal with the amount of time necessary for the dough to set up, you may find yourself eating really scrumptious, fresh and healthy artisanal bread several times a week.
And every time you bake one of these loaves, your whole house smells wonderful.