Old-school bakeries had made old-style bread in immigrant neighborhoods all along, but by the 1970s, most Americans were happily eating the spongy white factory stuff. In the '80s, Berkeley's Acme Bread Company was among the new-generation Bay Area pioneers to bake loaves that evoked the crusty, chewy pleasures of Tuscany or Paris. Today, many U.S. cities boast no-compromise artisan bakers, including New York, where Jim Lahey has set the standard since 1994 with his Sullivan St. Bakery. But Lahey's most important work has served the home cook: His no-knead, Dutch-oven method—duplicating the crust-building steam action of bakery ovens—produces astonishing results. Lahey's recipe went viral in 2006, and he published his first no-knead book, My Bread, in 2009. His pizza book comes out this year. Meanwhile, deeply expert bakers have pushed the Dutch-oven style further: Ken Forkish's brand-new manual, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, which gives a nod to Lahey, is an inspiring place to start.
PHOTO: Hands of the Master: Jim Lahey sliced into some real bread at Sullivan St. Bakery earlier this year. (Frederic Lagrange)