Simple enough to get started immediately, with little hassle or fuss. Exhaustively detailed enough to provide months of learning and pleasure experimenting and refining your skills!
Taste-wise, the results are fantastic. I spend a lot of time in France, and the bread I baked from this book on my very first try is at least as good as your average bakery in the country known for its amazing bread. It is not as good as the very best, but as a simple daily 'everyday" bread, this book gives you a near perfect solution.
The secret to the book's popularity is not just the excellent recipes, but the carefully thought out no-knead method using high moisture dough. The water in the dough develops the gluten, making kneading unnecessary. The book is well written, well organized and attractively laid out with photos and info boxes with additional information engagingly presented. It simply and clearly details everything you need--the ingredients to buy, the skills you need to develop, tools to buy, etc.--in order to make fresh homemade bread part of your lifestyle.
At the core of the authors' method is a secret most professional chefs already know: You can make your bread dough in advance and store it in the refrigerator, and it actually gains flavor over time. This is super convenient as you can mix when you have time, and just pull out the ready-to-bake dough when you want it! While this is not anything new (I learned it years ago from a professional chef friend of mine), the authors do a wonderful job exploring in detail how to use this concept to simplify your life.
The "master recipe," the core of the book, makes enough dough for 3-4 loaves; You can keep it in the fridge for up to two weeks, snipping off a piece of dough to bake whenever you have a hankering for bread. Everything in the book is meticulously documented, clear and simply written.
The authors do a particularly good job describing the trade-offs between time-saving methods and superior results. For example, a longer preheat of the pizza stone you're baking on may give you a more divine crust, but you may prefer to save energy and time with a shorter preheat; the authors demystify the issue and clearly describe the trade-offs so you can make your own decision. This is a pleasant contrast from cookbooks that simply tell you the way things must be done and don't offer you reasons why or clearly explain how much difference it makes if you take a short cut.
The section on "what to buy" also strikes the perfect balance between perfectionism and practicality. For example, the authors recommend a dough whisk to mix the dough, saying it works faster than a wooden spoon and offers less resistance. But for those who don't have this implement, and may not want to buy one, they note, reassuringly, "a wooden spoon works fine."
Another thing I like about the book is the troubleshooting section. If your bread's crust is not crunchy enough, for example, it lists three possible ways to fix it.
Is it really just five minutes a day? Well, almost...for me, on mixing day it takes about 10 minutes of my time, and on baking day, another ten minutes of active work. The method is simple: You mix four ingredients (yeast, warm water, salt and flour) in a large bowl or plastic container, let it rise for two hours on the counter. The "master recipe" makes enough for 3-4 loaves. You pop it in the fridge, where you can leave it up to two weeks, and whenever you want to bake, snip off enough for a loaf, shape it rapidly and let it rest.
Another tradeoff in the book is that a longer rest time gives you better "crumb" or the texture with nice big holes in it. The authors recommend a minimum of 40 minutes but up to 90 minutes; I get great results with an hour. Once it's rested, you score it with a knife, slide it into the oven onto a hot pizza stone and cook for a half hour. Hot bread comes out of the oven 1.5 hours after you start. (Do I chow down on the hot bread? Sadly, no. The authors recommend cooling completely because the texture is best if you don't cut too early.)
If you want your bread ASAP, you can simply snip off some dough and make a Naan in a cast iron skillet. Just snip off the dough, roll it out into an oval, and cook 2-3 minutes on each side. The results are stunning: The best Naan I've had in my life! The smaller the amount of dough, the less "resting" time you need: The baguettes and the dinner rolls in the book, also made from the master recipe dough, take about forty minutes from the time I decide I want one.
This book is one of two that, in recent years, have popularized the no-knead high moisture method. The other is My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method. The main difference between the two are that Artisan's master recipe details an initial two-hour rise on the counter, while Lahey's method uses less yeast for a slow rise of 12-18 hours; you have to plan ahead more with Lahey but the method also involves minimal labor. Another difference is that this book's master recipe uses all-purpose white flour, while Lahey's uses bread flour--whole wheat or white, depending on the recipe you choose. (There are some whole-wheat recipes in the Artisan book but the core of the book is the all-purpose flour master recipe.)
One area of significant discussion among afficionados of no-knead high-moisture breads is whether the slow rise or faster rise is better. I haven't tried Lahey's book yet, but I have experimented with doing a longer rise on Artisan's master recipe. The authors recommend a two-hour rise probably because they want to keep it simple, nonfussy and accessible; longer rises necessitate more lead time and planning. But they also note (and their frankness and detail is the reason they get five stars) that many people prefer the flavor of a longer rise. They note that you can simply use less yeast and wait until it rises the proper amount. (When it collapses slightly, it's at the end of its rise.)
I did a bakeoff this weekend between this book's master recipe involving a two-hour initial rise, and a test dough which rose for ten hours. The master recipe has a tablespoon of yeast, and I used a third as much in my test dough. I baked one loaf of each side by side on the same pizza stone, and then took them to a dinner with ten friends. Both breads were delicious. But when given a side-by-side comparison, almost everyone preferred the lower-yeast long rise bread because it had a less strong "yeasty" flavor. One friend described the yeast flavor as "winey." Several people liked both about the same, but those who had a preference all preferred the slower rise. I also waited two days and did another test with more mature dough, and again, the slower-rise lower-yeast version has an edge. My conclusion is I'd rather do a longer rise when I have the lead time, but the two-hour rise is just fine if I have a deadline.
In addition to providing the basic method, this book is chock full of fun and inspiring recipes--for example, three-citrus marmelade and Asian-style pork bun which look scrumptions!
I buy very few cookbooks these days as you can find most of what you need on the Internet. However, this one is really a treasure. Even if you've been baking bread for years, the book is chock full of useful professional tips you may not know. The section on parbaking alone is worth the purchase price. When you want hot bread on a deadline (for example you want to bring fresh bread to a friend's house but have no time the day of the event), you can simply cook it most of the way, cool and freeze--and the day of the party bring it and pop it in the oven for five or ten minutes.