All you need is a bit of flour, salt, yeast, water and about 20 hours, or so. Here's how:
First, make sure you have an oven-proof vessel of some sort with a lid — I use a pyrex casserole dish. A cast iron pot or a La Cloche clay baking pan would be ideal if you want to invest. The bread will conform to the size of the pan, so keep that in mind when you make your purchase.
Next, combine together 3 cups of white flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of instant rise yeast in a bowl. Add 1 1/2 cups of room temperature water to the mixture and stir until combined.
And you're done! That's it. That's basically all the work you're going to have to do. The rest is just a waiting game. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and let it sit at room temperature for 18 hours. The dough will look odd — it should be a kind of stringy/wet/dry lump of goo. But as time passes, the yeast will basically do the kneading for you. Eventually the lump of goo will look like this:
Admittedly, it looks a little bit brain-esque, but stick with it. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and pat it down. Then fold it in half, then in half again to make a ball. Cover it with a tea towel and let it rest for 15 minutes. Then lay the tea towel flat and sprinkle some cornmeal on it. Transfer the dough onto the towel and sprinkle the top with a bit more cornmeal (you can use wheat bran for this, too... I find cornmeal to be very tasty). Cover with the other half of the tea towel and let rise for two more hours.
About 15 minutes before the dough is done rising, pop your baking pan into the oven and preheat it to 500 degrees (both the oven and the pan have to be piping hot). After 15 minutes, invert the risen dough into the pan, cover with the lid and bake for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, remove the lid and bake for another 15-20 minutes, or until the top is dark brown. Slide the loaf into a cooling rack, and voila, perfect bread every time. Here's what the finished product looks like right out of the oven:
You will be amazed at the quality of this bread. I even venture to say it might be among the best you've ever had — the crust is crunchy and the crumb (the inside) is moist and chewy, and full of perfect air bubbles. Making this wonderful bread has become my new weekend tradition (that way I won't be tempted to load up on carbs all week).
Note: If my directions are utterly confusing, watch this youtube clip with the recipe's creator, Jim Lahey of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery and New York Times food writer Mark Bitman: www.youtube.com/watch?v=13Ah9ES2yTU