Jun 282007

Bread-baking has become a bit of an obsession of mine. As I mentioned in my writeup for The Herbed Bird, I started doing it around Thanksgiving when I got really, really tired of store-bought bread and realized that I could probably do a much better job myself.

Well, I turned out to be right. Since I had never kneaded before and didn’t have anyone to show me how to do it, it took me a couple of months to really figure out what the heck I was doing. My first couple of loaves were, well, bricks, but they were much better tasting bricks than the stuff you buy from the grocery store! I probably wasn’t doing myself any favors by skipping the refined flour either — ask just about anyone who bakes bread and they’ll tell you that whole wheat bread is much more difficult to make. I didn’t care — I was going to make delicious whole wheat bread and that was final.

I did see many improvements in my bread over time, as my mom came to visit and showed me how to knead, as I read more on the subject, and finally, as I bought the cookbook that taught me just about everything that matters about whole-grain bread baking, Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. The acquisition of my Kitchen Aid stand mixer might have something to do with it too. Once all that came together, I started making what I would consider very good bread.

Basic whole-wheat bread

About a month ago though, I started making what I would call outstanding bread. I credit this entirely to the low temperatures long-rise method outlined in the book mentioned above. By letting the dough ferment for 24 hours instead of the usual 3, you get incredibly light dough whose flavors have developed marvelously without any of that sour taste that is so often found in bread. Let me assure you that you do not need to stuff two teaspoons of yeast into your dough to get your loaf to rise! I also find it much easier to fit this rising-deflating pattern into my daily life. I can make bread any day of the week with this method because I do not need to block off six hours to attend to dough that must be deflated every hour or so. Another bonus: for reasons that I can’t explain, the loaf is more nutritious and keeps longer than its rushed cousin.

So what are you waiting for??? Go make this loaf! I find it’s perfect for anything from sandwiches to toast to eating with soup to dipping in olive oil. You (and anyone you bestow this magnificent loaf upon) can thank me later.

Basic whole-wheat bread

Basic Whole Wheat Bread
Adapted from Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book
Makes two loaves

¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
½ cup warm water, 105°-115°F
6 cups whole wheat flour, preferably stone-ground (a brand like Bob’s Red Mill)
Vital wheat gluten, added according to package directions
2½ teaspoons salt
2¼ cups lukewarm water
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons molasses (not honey — it will dramatically hamper the rising power of your dough)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Dissolve the yeast in the ½ cup warm water.
Mix the flour, gluten and salt in a large bowl, stirring to make the flour fluffy. Make a well in the mixture.
Dissolve the molasses in the 2¼ cups lukewarm water. Add the oil. Pour the liquids and the yeast mixture into the well in the flour. Starting from the center, combine to make a smooth batter and then gradually incorporate the flour from the sides of the bowl. Alternatively, use a stand mixer to stir the ingredients until just combined.
Cover with a lid, plastic wrap, or damp kitchen towel and let sit for 20 minutes. This is called the autolyze step and will allow the wheat to better absorb the liquid and form a better network of gluten strands before kneading.
Knead by hand or with a stand mixer until dough is smooth and elastic (about 600 strokes or 20 minutes by hand). Dough will become lustrous and supple near the end.
Move to a large bowl in a cool area (55°-60°F) and cover. Try a dark closet/pantry or room with a window open (this works well in Alaska, at least). You may need to get creative with enclosing the bowl in a box with a cold pack.
Allow to rise for 20-24 hours (yes, hours!), gently and thoroughly deflating every 8 hours and re-forming the dough into a smooth round each time. Allow the rising environment to become a little warmer towards the end.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Keeping the smooth top surface (the gluten film) unbroken, deflate the dough from one side to another, expelling all of the accumulated gas. Divide the dough in half and gently form into two round balls, still preserving the gluten film. Let the rounded balls rest, covered, for about 10-15 minutes, until soft.
Shape the balls into loaves and let them proof for two more hours in a warm environment. A half hour before bread goes in the oven, preheat it to 425°F.
When the dough tests ready (indentation in the dough slightly/slowly fills in) place the loaves in the oven. After ten minutes turn the temperature down to 325°F. Bake until an instant-read thermometer reads 210°F in the center of the loaf, about 45-75minutes. Allow to cool completely before storing.

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