no-knead bread

A couple of years ago, on November 8, 2006, an article in the New York Times on no-knead bread caused rippled around the food-blogging world. Esteemed cookbook author Mark Bittman adapted professional baker Jim Leahy’s recipe for his ongoing food and recipe series in the New York Times. From there, it went across the web.

Supposedly, the original recipe became so popular that – because it’s dangerous to knobs on Le Creuset pots – those knobs were being widely stolen. Following links dealing with this supposed theft back, I get to here. The proof is thin enough that this story may well be urban legend.

Bittman returned to the challenge of the recipe, developing another version which was higher in whole wheat and had a shorter proofing time of only four hours, a third to a fifth of the originally-recommended duration. Others took up the challenge of variation too, including the first of the two mentions of it I ran across this week. Pim Techamuanvivit, in The Foodie Handbook (2009), compares and contasts Leahy’s original recipe with Bittman’s variation, and tries her own variations, from a purple loaf to one using her own sourdough starter. (pp. 207-212) She also quotes that knob theft story.

The second time I encountered the recipe this week was on the blog Lottie + Doof, in a post entitled Pizza (Pulp Fiction + Jim Leahy), where the comments wandered into a confusion of just who to credit with the no-knead recipe. It’s not a one-part transmission story since both Bittman’s multiple variations and Leahy’s own version are publicly available. Leahy’s boost from Bittman led to the title of his next cookbook, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method (2009).

It’s also not a one-part transmission story because Leahy didn’t invent no-knead bread. He refined and adapted existing recipes, so he certain deserves credit for that, as well as his role in bringing it to Bittman’s attention. The oldest no-knead recipe which Google News offers is from The Milwaukee Journal, 1945. It cites “a baking expert who has perfected this method which entirely eliminates the task of kneading bread”. The recipe is fast, but – among other things – doesn’t make use of the later addition of a Dutch oven to retain moisture during baking. The recipe was probably taken from a Pillsbury pamphlet produced in that same year, “Bake the No-Knead Way”. (Mentioned in this article.) It was developed by Ellen Pennell, working for Pillsbury Mills, as the director of Ann Pillsbury home service activities.

Even as Bittman came back to make a whole wheat version of Leahy’s recipe, so too did Milwaukee Journal readers request a whole wheat version of the no-knead recipe they’d printed; it was published only a few weeks after the first. Skipping ahead, past a moderate handful of other mentions and versions, a 1981 article from The Sumter Daily Item observes that “If you browse through the pages of your grandmother’s cookbook, you’ll provably [sic] find a few yeast bread recipes that require no kneading….” The article’s suggested improvement on “your grandmother’s cookbook” was to microwave the loaf, instead of baking. I have no idea how good or inedible a microwaved loaf would be.

In 1982, cookbook authors Carol Bates and Ceri Vaughan authored The Easy No-Knead Bread Book. Bates, along with Sylvia Isaac, wrote a 1987 followup, The Even Easier No-Knead Bread Book. Without immediate access to those, I can’t say what they added or changed about the process, but they certainly will have helped publicize it to some degree.

To observe that versions of no-knead bread pre-date Bittman’s 2006 article in no way disparages what Bittman and Leahy have achieved. I don’t know that a Dutch oven was involved in the process before Leahy, and its retention of moisture is, from all accounts, one of the major reasons why the recipe is so popular. Bittman was the popularizer; Leahy’s recipe wouldn’t necessarily have ever gained a fraction of its current fame without him. (I do idly notice that the recipe achieved its modern fame by means of two men; the rest of its history is, as far as I have traced it, developed by women.)

The importance of PR should never be underrated. Just because something exists, doesn’t mean anyone knows about, to be able to use and take advantage of it. After all, I bet you’d never heard of Ellen Pennell before today, the original developer and publicizer of no-knead bread. Or was she? It wouldn’t surprise me at all to know that the recipe pre-dates 1945.

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*© S. Worthen 2009