Jim Lahey is credited with making no-knead bread trendy. But as with many dishes, the recipe’s lineage is more complicated.
In 1998, Suzanne Dunaway was behind the takeout counter at her wholesale bakery, Buona Forchetta in Los Angeles, when a literary agent walked in to pick up some bread. The agent was a regular customer, and she had an idea. “Do you want to write a book on this?” Dunaway recalls Betsy Amster asking her at the time. “No one’s ever done it before.”
The “it” that Amster was referring to was making artisan bread without kneading it. Conventional wisdom dictated that to make most kinds of bread, no matter the flavor, style, or variety, some form of kneading was required, because kneading developed gluten and gluten gave structure to bread. But at Buona Forchetta, Dunaway’s breads — focaccia, pan rusticos, baguettes — were all made without kneading. The breads were mixed with a lot of water, folded a couple of times, left to rise, then baked. “Everybody I knew was making sourdough loaves overnight, or waiting a week for the starter to bubble,” she says. “I just said to myself — this is really easy, a kid could do it.” Dunaway took Amster’s offer, collecting the recipes for the no-knead breads that she’d been honing at the bakery into a book. It was published the following year, in 1999, with the title No Need to Knead: Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes.
Any person with even a vague interest in baking would likely recognize the term “no-knead bread.” In 2006, Mark Bittman wrote an article for the New York Times on the subject, crediting Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery for his “revolutionary approach” to bread-baking. Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe required mixing flour, a lot of water, salt, and yeast; letting the dough rise overnight; shaping, proofing, and then baking the bread the next day in a Dutch oven. Bittman said that the two-step technique — letting time develop the dough and steam from a covered Dutch oven create the crust — will “blow your mind.” It’s one of the Times’s most popular recipes ever published, with upward of 15,000 ratings, leading to the publication of Lahey’s 2009 book My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method.
Last month, likely fueled by more than a year of people getting into making bread at home, Times cooking writer J. Kenji López-Alt revisited the 2006 recipe, tweaking some of Lahey’s techniques, emphasizing how “hugely influential” the no-knead method was. In the story, Peter Reinhart, author of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, told López-Alt that Lahey’s “genius was in incorporating and modernizing a few different old techniques known to bakers” but the most important development was the name. Lahey concurred: “Mark gave it the no-knead name,” Lahey told the Times. “I thought it was a mistake — it’s just ancient bread made before fears and electricity — but he’s the writer so we went with it.”
“Soon, home bakers and professionals began iterating on the process,” López-Alt wrote. A section of López-Alt’s story was titled, “No Need to Knead.”
Dunaway had published the first English-language book on the subject of no-knead and was furious: She believed that the Times had rewritten history, not once, but twice. When she saw López-Alt’s article, “How the No-Knead Bread Recipe Changed Baking,” Dunaway sat down and immediately wrote a letter to the Times cooking editor, Sam Sifton. “‘You know, maybe your researchers made a mistake somewhere,’” Dunaway wrote. “Here’s my book. Here’s the picture of it.”
By no means was Dunaway’s book obscure: No Need to Knead had been nominated for a James Beard Award in 2000, was featured in Bon Appétit and the Los Angeles Times, and Buona Forchetta, which closed in 2003, was frequently hailed as one of the top bakeries in Los Angeles. In 2017, Dunaway had been featured in Modernist Bread, a five-book, 2,500-page tome, crediting her as an early progenitor of the no-knead technique. “Everybody knew about this. My exposure was everywhere,” Dunaway says of the time period a few years before Lahey’s recipe came out. By the time Lahey’s recipe was published, Dunaway had moved to Rome. “I wasn’t out there tap dancing,” Dunaway says. Lahey’s recipe went viral and he was heralded as a revolutionary.
Who gets to be a revolutionary? Throughout the history of bread-baking, female bakers toiled in domestic settings, making bread for their families (or white women’s families), a fact that people like Michael Pollan have often encouraged home cooks to romanticize. “Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” Pollan says, forgetting the often hidden unpaid labor that women and people of color had to perform for generations to get that kind of food on the table. The lionizing of domestic recipes tends to happen when they are translated into a mainstream professional sphere, frequently by male chefs.
But is it actually possible to invent a new technique or recipe with the oldest food in the world? Ownership of techniques and recipes is a fraught concept in both domestic and professional settings — food narratives through history have been stolen and coopted as a function of white supremacy — and there’s a long recorded history of bread-making that shows no-knead techniques are far from new. Lahey’s loaf has been lauded for its revolutionary simplicity in bringing bread-baking to the masses, but it’s only one of many. One of the earliest no-knead recipes was published 80 years ago in a cookbook by British food writer Doris Grant, who became known for her wartime “Grant Loaf.”
In the 1943 book Your Daily Bread, Grant wrote an entire chapter on breads that were fast and easy to make, as a means to encourage housewives, who were her primary audience, to provide healthful food to their families. Grant loathed industrial food and the way vital nutrients were stripped from staples in service of commodification, so her solution was to develop fast, easy recipes to counter the harm of industry. “OF COURSE it is quicker to open a tin than to prepare an equivalent home-made dish, especially for the housewife who is out at business all day,” Grant wrote in her book Dear Housewives in 1964. So the Grant Loaf, made with stone-ground whole-wheat flour, salt, yeast, and a little sugar, required no kneading. The headnotes on the recipe reads, “Remember that whole-wheat dough must not be kneaded and only requires a few minutes to mix.” While Grant is credited as an early originator of no-knead bread in Modernist Bread, Grant is given no airtime in Bittman, López-Alt, Lahey, or Dunaway’s writing of the no-knead bread history.
These recipes may be just different enough that no-knead bread is less a technique than a broader concept, but only one of them, in the end, became the default. Lahey told Eater over email that all of this is “nothing new.”
“My recipe is very simple, uses minimal yeast, and has a long slow ferment,” he wrote. “I believe that, in essence, my bread making technique is similar to a method practiced for thousands (THOUSANDS) of years, with the exception being the use of commercial yeast.” (Bittman did not respond to a request for comment.) To Lahey, however, “most 90-minute bread recipes make mediocre bread.” Grant and Dunaway’s loaves — for the sake of ease and accessibility — can be produced in that amount of time.
Maybe it is the case that there’s nothing new under the sun, that all ideas are just mirrors of others before them. Lahey’s “revolutionary” Dutch oven technique is a repeat of a baking method used since Roman times; the wet dough approach was known among professional and home bakers for decades. “It seems that [Dunaway] was upset when Bittman and my article came out (and it would appear still is),” Lahey said, adding that he hadn’t heard of Dunaway or her book before that. “My method led a revolution in home baking,” Lahey continued, “and books on baking incorporating my method.” Lahey’s viral recipe catapulted him into notoriety after it was published, despite evidence that his method was — as he put it — “nothing new.” Years later, Lahey’s no-knead recipe is the no-knead recipe.
Everyone else who came before him? They just laid the groundwork.