3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 tsp. instant yeast
1 scant Tbsp. salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed
In a large bowl, combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 15/8 cup tepid water and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at room temperature (about 70 degrees) for at least 12 hours, preferably about 18 (Bittman said he has gone to 24 hours without a problem). Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles and gluten (long strands that cling to sides of bowl when tilted) is well-developed.
Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle dough with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface and to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) or Silpat mat with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam-side down on towel or Silpat mat and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel (or plastic wrap) and let rise for 2 to 3 hours. When ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
At least a half-hour before dough is ready, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 4- to 6-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it preheats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel (or Silpat mat) and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it might look like a mess, but that's OK. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Remove from oven, invert pan and cool bread on a rack. Makes a 11/2-lb. loaf.
Note: Instant yeast is also known as rapid-rise yeast. Active dry yeast can also be used without proofing (soaking to make it active). Mark Bittman of the New York Times reports success in using up to 30 percent whole-grain flour, up to 50 percent whole-wheat flour and up to 20 percent rye flour. When adding flavors - caraway seeds, chopped olives, onions, cheese, walnuts, raisins - Bittman suggests adding after you've mixed the dough, but they can also be folded in before the dough's second rising. Bittman adopted this recipe from Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City.
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