Mastering Sprouted Wheat Bread

Have you ever had sprouted wheat bread? It’s known most commonly as that biblical quoting stuff they sell in the freezer at your local health food store– Ezekiel bread. I have always loved the stuff, it’s the only packaged bread that remotely interests me. It’s supposed to be much more nutritious than bread made from plain flour, and I do believe that’s true, but my real draw is taste and texture– Ezekiel bread has a rich, fresh wheat flavor and nubby texture that I just adore.

The only problem (apart from the price) is that, like any real bread, it gets stale quick and therefore the store has to keep it in the freezer. Being in the freezer, not very many people think to buy it and it sometimes sits in there for a loooong time. It’s almost always so dry that you have to toast it to be able to eat it, and I have even had a few loaves that were literally dehydrated around the edges.

I had wanted to try making my own sprouted wheat bread for years– fresh, moist and affordable! But you need to have a way to grind the sprouted “berries.” It takes either a meat grinder or a food processor (a grain grinder only works on dry grain), so when I finally got a food processor for my birthday two years ago sprouted bread topped my list of uses. I spent a few months experimenting and got some almost, but not quite awesome results. There were a fair number of inedibley dense loaves though and I eventually gave it up.

To make sprouted grain bread, first you soak wheat berries overnight in plenty of water. Then you drain off the water and leave to “sprout,” 6-24 hours or more depending on the temperature. You aren’t sprouting nearly to the degree you might imagine, just watching for the grain to split open at one end and the little white tails to poke out.

When the grains are ready you grind them in either a food processor or meat grinder, and that is when the miracle occurs. First it just looks like a bunch of chopped up wheat berries, but as the grain is chopped finer and finer the gluten is released and suddenly it becomes a cohesive mass of (very nubby) dough.

Part of the reason my loaves were coming out too heavy during my initial run of obsessive trailing, was that my food processor was just not getting enough of the grains ground fine enough before a dough formed, and so not enough gluten was being released. I was getting an extremely coarse bread, essentially chopped grains with just enough gluten to hold them all together, but not enough to sustain much real rising power. The heaviness was daunting, but I do adore bread with real texture and the flavor was amazing– so purely wheat. I felt the golden bell of perfection ring siren-like in my ear. I knew somehow, someday I would need to master this bread.

Several months ago, in the wake of our cancer scare, I bought a big fancy masticating (grinding) juicer ostensibly to make My Man healthful juice. What I have really ended up using and loving it for is sprouted wheat bread! You just remove the screen to turn it into a food grinder, and it does a beautiful job, getting a much finer grind than the food processor. It’s easier to use and easier to clean. I have made a few perfect loaves, and hardly any inedible ones. Overall, a great success.

But! You probably don’t have a masticating juicer laying around, right? (If you do, see below) Fear not, for although my juicer gave me the motivation to get back at my sprouted bread technique, I have since learned a few things and even figured out how to transfer my improved recipe and technique to the food processor. All for you, dear few people who have the time and inclination to fret about such things!

The absolute most important part of making sprouted grain bread is getting just the right amount of sprouting going on. As the grain wakes up and pushes that first little rootlet out, it converts the complex carbohydrates into simple sugars to feed the emerging plant. If you let the grain sprout too much, there isn’t enough starch structure left to support bread, and your loaf will be very, very heavy and gummy and not good at all. I read several recipes that said to let the sprout grow to anything from 1/4 inch to “the length of the grain.” Unless I am missing something, this is purely bogus and tragically misleading. From my experience over the last several months, anything over a 1/8th inch is not worth even using**

Watch your grain closely for the first few times. The soaked grain won’t do anything at all for the first few or several hours, then you will see each grain split open just a little at one end and reveal the white inside. A small tip or protrusion will start to bulge out (we are talking very, very tiny here). At this point the process starts to move much faster so keep a close eye. Longer sprouting time makes for a sweeter, fuller flavor but it also makes the bread gummier and heavier, this is a very fine balancing point which I am still navigating. You can actually make very good bread any time after the grain splits open, but I believe the magical perfect moment occurs sometime after the emergence of a visible tip or tail and before it reaches 1/8th inch in length.

these could actually go for another hour or so, but they almost perfect, and perfectly good enough for awesome bread. i would recommend erring on the less sprouted side till you get the hang of things…

I recommend starting this process in the morning, then you can soak all day, let the grain sit and think about things overnight, then watch closely for sprouting throughout the next day. If you see the grain split open right before bedtime, morning is too far away to let the sprouting continue. Trust me. Put the whole bowl in the fridge and take it out again in the morning to restart the process. This works just fine and saves a potential botched loaf.

**If you really get into this sprouted bread, you will at some point let the sprouting process get away from you. You’ll suddenly remember your grain after coffee the next morning and run panicking into the kitchen. The tails will be winding down through the mesh sieve looking for dirt. Don’t dump the bowl out for chickens (although they would love you for it, and it’s hardly a loss) just whiz the sprouts up in the food processor and freeze in four approximately cup sized portions. You can add these into a recipe of regular flour based bread and they work just fine, adding great flavor and texture.

these tails are WAY too long, but still great for adding into regular bread in small quantities

Other than timing, my main improvement has come from using a small portion of white flour. I use about 75% sprouted wheat (by dry weight) and 25% white flour. I realize this could get some Ezekiel panties in a bunch, but I’m no purist. I just want to make delicious toothsome bread that can truly fill my belly for breakfast, eggs optional. This is the stuff. So damned satisfying, on an almost primal level.

Please note that I do not recommend trying this recipe unless you are already a seasoned bread baker. Sorry. It is quite a bit more tricky than making bread from flour, with a much wider possibility for error. Might I recommend my Cherry Popper Recipe instead? If you are a seasoned bread maker, and you find the whole process as fascinating as me, check out my two part series on 20 years of recipe-less whole wheat bread baking Bread Every Day, Part One: Ingredients and Part Two: Technique.

Approaching Perfection Sprouted Wheat Bread

  • 2 cups hard red or hard white wheat berries
  • 1/4 cup lentils
  • 2 Tablespoons flax seeds
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon yeast
  • 1-2 Tablespoons honey
  • 3/4 – 1+ cups white bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • big squirt flax oil

Soak wheat, lentils and flax seeds in plenty of water for about eight hours. Drain through a fine meshed sieve, rinse thoroughly, and leave the grain in the sieve, set over a bowl and covered. Rinse again before you go to bed and take a close look at the grain. You probably won’t see any signs of sprouting yet, if you do, stick the whole thing in the fridge for the night.

In the morning, rinse and check your grain again. If you have to leave the house and you are concerned your grain might sprout too much in your absence, or if it’s ready but you aren’t ready to make the dough, just stick it in the fridge and continue later.

Whenever both you and the wheat are ready, begin with the recipe.

Warm the milk to child-bath temperature, stir in the yeast and let sit five minutes. Pour half the milk into your food processor, add half the sprouted grain (unless you have a commercial size processor you will have to do this in two batches, annoying but true) and turn it on. It will take several minutes per batch, first it will look like this:

Then like this:

And finally you will see lots of good gluten strands and a real (albeit wet and chunky) dough forming, like this:

Transfer the first batch to a stand mixer or large bowl, and process the remaining grain, mixed with the other half of the milk/yeast.

When it’s all done, pour the honey, salt and oil on top of the mushy dough, then add the 3/4 cup of white bread flour. Mix on low for a few minutes, or hand knead for 5. Add more flour as necessary to make a moderately soft dough (it will be very sticky, in fact I haven’t tried this by hand, it might be challenging… But resist the temptation to add too much flour or your dough will be stiff and your loaf dry)

Let rise for an hour or two, until a finger poke does not bounce back. (Keep in mind, both now and when rising the loaf that this dough doesn’t have nearly as much gluten as a flour based dough, so it won’t rise nearly as high.) Pat the dough out into a rough rectangle and roll up into a tight log the length of your bread pan. Butter the pan generously and nestle the dough in. Cover with plastic and let rise for 45 minutes to an hour and a half, or until just shy of the finger poke spring back test. Turn the oven on to 350 F about halfway through the rising process. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until golden brown and hollow sounding when thumped. Remove from the pan and wrap the hot loaf in a clean tea towel to keep the crust from getting too hard. Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing! No cheating, you’ll gum up the bread slicing it too soon.

Like all real bread, this will only last a few days sitting out on the counter. Store in the fridge to keep up to a week, or slice and freeze if you want it to last longer.


**2013 Sprouted Bread Update**

Since this has turned out to be the enduringly viewed article on my entire blog (!) I thought I would post an update.

I have continued to make this bread, and enjoy it so much it’s almost an addiction. Once you taste it, it’s hard to go back to regular flour bread, which tastes flat to me now. My first improvement on the above technique was to sprout large batches of grain, grind it all at once, then store individual recipe sized lumps in the freezer for later use. I find this a little easier than the weekly sprouting, and makes each washing of the grinding equipment (a large portion of the work) worth 4 loaves of bread, instead of just one. I highly recommend it.

My second improvement was purely accidental. Poor housekeeping. I took out one of those frozen chunks of ground wheat to make bread with the following day, but forgot about it on the counter. A few days later when I remembered, it smelled like sourdough! I made up my dough with just water (instead of milk) and nixed the honey. I cut the yeast in half. I let the formed loaves rise in our cold garage overnight. The resultant sourdough sprouted wheat bread was the best loaf I think I have ever made or tasted. Unbelievable.

Since then I have attempted to repeat this, with variable success. I do find it needs a greater proportion of white bread flour (and water to match) to come out well. Sourdough and sprouted wheat can both make bread gummy and overly heavy, and when you combine them, the danger increases. I would recommend starting at 50/50 sprouted wheat to white bread flour, meaning apx 2 cups of sprouted grain, 3/4 cup of water and 1 1/2 to 2 cups of bread flour. After you get the hang of it, you can play around with increasing the percentage of sprouted wheat, or using some whole wheat flour in place of some of that white flour.

Normally I don’t like to make my staple bread less than 75% wheat. But I feel like with the combined health benefits of the sprouted wheat and the sourdough, and the outrageously good flavor and texture, it’s worth it.

Note that I am still using regular yeast, so this isn’t any pure kind of sourdough. I’m not a purist. For a wild yeast strong enough to rise bread, you’d have to feed it and grow it out several times. This ‘just leave it on the counter’ method is a quick and easy way to get a delicious half-soured bread. In our cool home (avg 65 degrees) I thaw my sprouted wheat two full days before I want to bake the bread, that seems to give the right amount of tang.

One last thing– in my experience with whole wheat sourdoughs, I find that they often get a very odd smell. It doesn’t necessarily smell like deliciously tangy sourdough. Mine often smells downright weird, not rotten but just strangely musty. Somehow in the baking process that musty smell nevertheless turns into yummy sourdough flavor. I do feel the need to stress however that if you suspect your soured dough is actually rotten or bad, please do not eat it!


2016 Update: Just wanted to tell you all that I am still following the above formula for half-soured sprouted wheat bread and loving it! I don’t manage to keep it on hand at all times, life is full and complex after all, but I go through good phases of making a loaf a week and eating a slice every morning with my (homegrown) egg. Breakfast of champions!


The Juicer Story

With the threat of radiation therapy hanging in our future several months ago, I researched and bought a $300 masticating juicer. I was convinced that I was going to start making healthful carrot-apple juices for My Man, and start growing and juicing wheatgrass, all of which are cancer fighting goodness. I read a lot about juicers in a fear induced researching bender, trying in my little way I suppose to feel like I had any control whatsoever over the outcome.

I admit that, even as I entered my credit card information, I knew on some level that I would not use the juicer to make juice. Sometimes I just get it into my head that I have to do or buy something and I cannot rest until the deed is done. Not surprising to anyone, least of all me– my juicing days didn’t last more than a few weeks. Cutting up all those apples and carrots was a lot of work! And watching the juice go undrunk in the fridge just about killed me. But I patted myself reassuringly on the back with the idea that, given my circumstances, wasting $300 on something that I had hoped would help My Man’s health was entirely forgivable.

Plus, I had a fall back plan. Or perhaps it was an ulterior motive. Because I bought a very high quality masticating juicer, it doubles as a food grinder, you just have to remove the screen. Grinding sprouted grain for bread dough is much more effective than chopping it into oblivion in the food processor, and my Omega 8004 Masticating Juicer has become a workhorse of an entirely different color. I’m guessing that it works better than a meat grinder and might be the perfect home power tool for sprouted wheat bread.

If you too would like to try using a masticating juicer to grind sprouted wheat, you can pretty much follow the recipe above. The Omega 8004 has a special extra hard auger, the manual specified that you could grind grain in it (though, I would be afraid to try it on un-sprouted dry grain) and it has a 15 year warranty. I’m not sure I’d try using a lesser juicer unless I didn’t care if it broke, or had specific okay from the manufacturer. Sprouted grain is obviously not what these things were designed for, though it is surprisingly smashable once sprouted, you can even chew the grains.

The grinding is very straightforward, just pour the sprouted grain in a little bit at a time– don’t fill the hopper or it can get bogged down. Interestingly, the bogging down doesn’t happen when the grains are more sprouted, then I can fill the hopper and even plunge it down, and they go through fine. But it definitely happens when the grain is on the less sprouted side of things. Just go slow at first while you figure things out.

I put mine through twice. After the first grind it is still pretty chunky, though probably as good as the food processor. After the second grind it comes out as a hollow dough tube. I like to put the warm milk and yeast into my Kitchen-Aid bowl, then grind the wheat in on top of it. After the first grind, I scoop up the majority of the wheat one handful at a time to re-grind. Then I add the flour, salt, honey and oil and mix it on low for 10 minutes.

If you want to make 100% sprouted wheat bread, I would recommend a third grind to really release the maximum amount of gluten.

Enjoy your primal bread experience, and please leave a comment telling me it how it goes for you!

A Problem of Sandwiches

Over the last few years as I have made the transition from rowdy feminist to gracious housewife (no snickering) I have had to let go, painfully, one at a time, of many of my previously adamant conclusions about life. Some things that just sounded so wrong my 20s, I have had to accept in my 30s as the only sensical way forward.

In my 20s I was 100% certain that I would never:

  • separate my whites from my colors, or even own a washing machine for that matter
  • live in a house that had a tv
  • buy a multi-colored plastic toy new from the store
  • and I would certainly never, never pack my husband’s lunch

You can guess where all those conclusions led. I feel like my life overall has been a series of letting things go, but never so much as this whole marriage and parenting proposition. When two people get together and decide to throw everything they’ve got into a singular new venture, the only efficient way to do it is as partners– each person using their own unique skill set to cover whichever end of the workload they are most fit for. Depending on the particular partnership this might mean splitting the jobs straight down the middle, or it might mean designating areas of ability and expertise. In our partnership, like many others, we work toward the same end doing very disparate jobs.

The ‘end’ of course is a happy healthy family. Healthy people need to eat lunch, lunch has to come from somewhere and if I want to have some control over the wholesomeness, ethics and frugality of this lunch, then it needs to come from our kitchen. My Man, despite or because of his righteously brainy nature, does not take the time to make his own lunch. In his defense, the kitchen is decidedly my realm. It always has been, and I know that I do run a fairly intimidating front. I know what’s in the fridge, where it is and when it runs out. Moreover I have extremely strong opinions about everything food related.

At any rate, some time after our move down here to the real world I started making his lunches, which more or less amounted to setting a tupperware of leftovers on the counter next to his backpack in the morning. That worked for awhile, but we often don’t have leftovers and also they require him to take a trip to the microwave which requires an interruption in his studying. I would get livid when those tupperwares came back to the kitchen still full of food now unsafe to eat. Livid, I tell you.

Eventually my mind made the traverse to sandwiches. I know, I know– they are as normal a food as you can imagine right? Why would it take me so long to consider them? Normal as they are, sandwiches have some inherent DIY problems. First and foremost, homemade whole wheat bread doesn’t stay soft more than a day, after that it really needs to be toasted to be good, and even then it’s often too thick and strong for a proper sandwich. And what of lunch meat? Inethically raised meat, innoculated with known toxins, sold for just under a fortune, all for something that tastes so foul? Why? But having been raised in America, I couldn’t really think past lunch meat for a sandwich.

So, it took me a while.

The first fix was the bread. After years of trying to make one loaf do double duty, I finally gave in to making two distinct kinds of bread. I like really dark nubby stuff for my morning toast– thick, dense, wheaty. The kind of bread that sticks to your ribs. Completely inappropriate for sandwiches. I am slowly refining my sprouted wheat bread for the morning toast purpose.

Meanwhile, my cherry-popper bread recipe makes a lovely light, spongy bread that squishes just right. I use about 1/3 white bread flour, often add leftover cooked oatmeal and can never bring myself to add the butter, but otherwise I almost follow the recipe.

The second fix is dumping lunch meat altogether. I get bone-in, skin-on pastured chicken breasts (in my opinionated opinion skinless, boneless chicken is  waste of money) season them and roast for 30 or 40 minutes at 350F. They slice best once they’ve completely chilled in the fridge. (Keep the skin, bones and pan juice for stock!) I was worried that the smaller pieces of this home roasted meat would fall out of the sandwich, but it works fine and tastes so good!

The last fix is the freezer. Because now that you have this good homemade bread that’s only going to get staler, and this good freshly roasted chicken that isn’t laced with preservatives and therefore only lasts a few days in the fridge, you’ve gotta make good on it. Also, who wants to drag out all the sandwich stuff every single morning? I know making food ahead and putting it in the freezer is a totally Betty Crocker thing to do, but get over it! Those 1950s housewives were not stupid, as much as we have tried to frame them so. A freezer is a beautiful thing to waste.

A Few More Tips:

  • If you plan carefully, you can roast the chicken at the same time the bread is baking.
  • Don’t cut the bread until it’s completely cooled, preferably the day after baking so you can get good even slices (ditto on the chicken). Use a serrated bread knife and a light hand so you don’t smash the bread. Make the slices thinner than you might think.
  • Be generous with the mayo. Good advice for life in general.
  • Don’t put any veggies on, they don’t freeze well. You can add sprouts or lettuce when you pull the sandwich out of the freezer every morning, just gently pry the pieces apart and stuff the greens in. They do get a little frostbit, but still add some crunch and freshness. Cheese freezes just fine.
  • I use those filmsy little sandwich baggies that just fold over. If they can be kept track of, they can be washed and re-used. I’m looking for some square tupperware sized for homemade bread.
  • Stack them carefully in the freezer so that they don’t get squashed.
  • A sandwich pulled out of the freezer in the morning and kept at room temperature is just about perfectly thawed by lunchtime, without any worry of food spoilage! Bonus!

Perfect Whole Grain Biscuits

I love biscuits. Who doesn’t? So buttery, soft and feathery on the inside, crisp and flaky on the outside. Scrumptious. I don’t like jam or even honey on my biscuits, I like them that much. Just the pure flavors of flour, butter and heaven.

Biscuits have the magical ability to make any plain old boring meal instantly divine. Soup. Ho hum. And biscuits? Oh my! Fried eggs. Again. And biscuits? Alright! But if that’s not enough, try this: scrounge your fridge for some leftovers that everyone’s tired of. Just about anything can work. Scoop it out into a pie dish and cover with a thin layer of biscuit dough. Bake until everyone piles into the kitchen, nose first. Mmmm, what that? No one really cares what’s underneath when there’s pot pie on the table.

And how about this. Add 2 Tablespoons of sugar and these biscuits become ‘shortcake.’ Not that nasty angel food business they put next to the strawberries at the grocery store, but real shortcake. Layered with strawberries and cream, this has got to be one of my 5 favorite foods ever.

The basic recipe is nothing new, this is just my whole wheat version of the very same Joy of Cooking recipe my mom always made. What makes these perfect is the method. The entirety of success is how you incorporate the butter.

I like flaky biscuits. I’ve heard there are folks who like fluffy biscuits, and that’s fine. To each their own, but this recipe is not for you. To make flakes of biscuit, you need to have flakes of butter, which is to say thin sheets of cohesive butter in the dough. To make thin sheets of butter without the butter absorbing into the dough, you need to keep your dough cold. The colder the better. In Alaska I used to get away without this step, but here where our house is a perpetual 81 F (cooled to 81!) I have taken to using the freezer to cool the half pinched butter chunks before further working. Makes all the difference.

Calamity’s Perfect Whole Grain Biscuits, if I do say so myself

1 1/3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2/3 cups white bread flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt (depending on how salty you like food)
5-6 Tablespoons cold butter **see note below
1/2 + cup whole milk

Put the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly. Take your butter out of the fridge and cut it into 1/2 inch cubes. Toss cubes into the flour and, working quickly with your fingertips, squinch the chunks up into the flour, so that each cube is a flatfish, flour-covered chunk. Put the bowl into the freezer for about ten minutes while you clear a space on the counter to roll out the dough and deal with any kiddy troubles. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

When you’re ready, take the bowl out and continue the squinching business until most of the butter pieces are like big flakes of paint. There will be lots of smaller pieces too, and that’s okay, but you don’t want to work it so much that it looks like “meal” as I’ve often read in cookbooks. At least, not if you want flaky biscuits.

Now pour in the 1/2 cup of cold milk. Using a rubber spatula, carefully fold the milk into the butter flakes until it starts to look like a dough. You might need a few more tablespoons of milk, but add them one at a time. Too much liquid will make the biscuits gummy. You want just enough milk to make a workable dough, I find it often looks right but when I stick my finger in it feels wet and sticky, and conversely when it is right it looks too dry. Squeeze a bit in your fingers to check.

Don’t stir too much, but do make sure most of the flour has been incorporated. Then dump the lot out onto a lightly floured countertop. Pat into a round, gathering all the crumbs up on top. Using a sharp knife, cut the round into quarters, then stack one on top of the other. Pat the stack into a semi-cohesive mound, then roll out to 3/4 inch thick (about finger width) adding another sprinkling of flour as necessary. Watch for sneaky baby fingers.

I used canning jar rings to cut biscuits for the longest time, then finally last year bought myself a real biscuit cutter. It does make a difference, the sharp edge cuts instead of pinching the dough and makes for a higher rise. I can’t believe I waited through 15 years of biscuit making to spend that two dollars and ninety-five motherfucking cents. What a cheap skate. That said, until you’re a confirmed biscuit maker, jar rings or just an upturned glass work fine.

For the highest rise, push straight down (don’t twist) and make sure that your biscuits are cut all the way around, meaning don’t consider the edge of the dough to be the edge of your biscuits. This means you will only get four or five biscuits in the first cutting, but you can take all those leftover scraps, pile them up, pat out again and cut out one or two more biscuits. After that second cut though, I just pile the remaining scraps into one big chunky biscuit and call it good.

Place biscuits on an ungreased cookie sheet and pop right into the very hot oven. Don’t open the oven for ten minutes, then check and see how they look. You want them to get toasty brown on top, but not at the expense of getting dusty dry in the middle. If they’re still not brown after 15 minutes, take them out anyway (and bake at a hotter temp next time). Crack one open just to make sure it’s cooked through, then take those piping hot beauties straight to the table.

Lastly, two essential notes on whole grain baking in general:

  1. Pastry flour, pastry flour, pastry flour! Whole wheat pastry flour is milled from soft white wheat, and has much less strong wheaty flavor. Also it has less gluten. This is perfect for cakes and muffins, but after many years of making mealy whole wheat biscuits and pie crusts I finally realized that some gluten is important to get the flakiness I desired. I mix whole wheat pastry flour 2:1 or 3:1 with white bread flour to arrive at a homemade all-purpose with just the right amount of gluten for flaky baked goods. If you want to use 100% whole wheat pastry flour, try adding in a Tablespoon or two of pure gluten flour.
  2. Butter, butter, butter! There’s no overemphasizing this perfect ingredient. Chefs all agree butter is queen of the kitchen, but what I’ve slowly realized it how it is even more important for whole grain baking. It tames the sometimes sharp, slightly bitter flavor of whole grain flours, but just as importantly it helps to lighten otherwise heavy whole grain doughs. The original Joy recipe calls for just 4 Tablespoons of butter, but I’ve started using 5 Tablespoons in general and 6 for company. It’s worth it. If you’re worried about looking like Julia Child, just go take a long walk afterwards.

Bread Every Day, Part 2: Techniques

For many years I thought, with all kinds of cooking, that the ingredients determined the product. I’d measure carefully everything on the list, disregard the brief instructions and expect it to come out. Certainly quality is important– you can’t make good food out of bad ingredients, but the quantities involved in a recipe are often not so exacting as I had once thought (sometimes they are necessarily un-exacting) and particularly, what you do with those ingredients is not to be underestimated. A handful of items– flour, butter, eggs, sugar, yeast and baking soda– can yield pretty much every kind of baked good we know, depending on subtle variations to proportions and technique.

Bread is a rich ground for exploring these subtle differences. I’ve often fantasized about designing myself a “Bread Intensive” where I would start with the most bare bones of ingredients and techniques and every day build slowly outward, one loaf at a time, keenly observing the changes over the course of one or two hundred loaves. Doesn’t that just sound spellbinding? I think maybe I should go get a job at Cook’s Illustrated. Oh wait, I already have a job. And just like every other part of my job, instead of doing something with really intense focus all at once, to much laud and publicity, I get to do it ever so slowly, over the course of my lifetime, with no one paying any attention whatsoever. Hooray for housewifery!

If you are coming in on this post without having read Part 1, take warning: This is not a beginner recipe. If you are new to dough, check out my super simple, No Nonsense Every Day Whole Wheat Bread recipe. Reading what follows will confuse and intimidate you. Making bread is easy. Really. All this detail is just obsessive.

But for you semi-seasoned obsessors, back to our un-recipe. Here’s the quantities I described in yesterday’s post on ingredients:

  • 1 cup of warm water
  • 1/4 teaspoon – 1 Tablespoon of yeast
  • 2-3+ cups of flour
  • 1/4-1 teaspoon of salt
  • 0-2 Tablespoons of honey, brown sugar or molasses (not blackstrap, it’s too strong flavored)
  • 0-2 Tablespoons of butter or oil

[I should mention that I make my loaf based on two cups of water, double the above “recipe.” I like a slightly wetter dough in a large sized loaf pan, and also like to have a smidge of extra dough to fry up as Elephant Ears (just roll out thin, rise briefly, fry in a bit of butter then sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and you too can win major mom points). I based the above un-recipe on 1 cup of water because I think it’s a good starting place, and makes it easier to see the basic proportions involved. But after trying it once or twice, you will probably want to adjust the above 1 cup recipe depending on how much rise you get and what size your bread pans are. If you use a large proportion of white flour (which will make for a higher rise) and smaller sized bread pans, a dough based on 1 cup will probably be perfect. On the other hand a 100% whole wheat dough in a big pan will probably take a double recipe.]

One thing I forgot to mention in that last post was leftovers. Bread is a great medium for using up all kinds of leftovers. Rubbery oatmeal, soggy granola, rice, polenta, any kind of cooked grain or grain based thing really; little bits of mashed potatoes or even pureed cooked carrots, squash, beets, spinach; ends of sippy cups of milk (even if they smell a little ‘cowy’ it all works out in the wash), the yolk your daughter doesn’t like to eat out of her hard-boiled egg, yogurt that’s just started to mold (scrape the mold off first), chopped up half eaten apples… I could go on. The fridge is your oyster.

As I said yesterday, you can just mix all the ingredients together in any order and it will work. But standard procedure is to proof the yeast in the water first. Traditionally you would be actually proofing your yeast, to make sure it was active. The idea is to let is sit for five minutes, at which point it should have a “creamy” layer on top. Some recipes say “foamy” and for the longest time I morned my un-foaming yeast. To me “foam” is big, like suds on the dishwater. What in fact happens when you combine plain water and yeast is much more subtle, I’ve even had times where it didn’t seem to do much of anything but because I was confident in the freshness of the yeast I proceeded anyway, and lo and behold, it worked fine.

After proofing the yeast, you add the flour. You can do this several different ways. If you are going to be kneading by hand, I recommend adding about half the flour (including any white flour or gluten flour) until you get a thick batter consistency, then beat the shit out of it with a stout wooden spoon, for as long as your arm holds up. This really works the gluten. Add the salt, fat and sweetener, then start stirring in more flour 1/4 cup at a time until you can’t stir anymore. Pour it out onto a well floured countertop and do your best to knead the dough while adding a minimum of extra flour. A good bread dough should feel soft, like a fully expressed boob. (If it feels engorged you added too much flour. .)

How wet you make your dough is a matter of taste, like everything else. A wetter dough will make a gluier texture. That makes it sound bad, but think of a good loaf of sourdough– in between the bubbles, the crumb is very moist and sticks to itself strongly. On a long rise white bread with light, irregular bubbles, that gluiness is perfect. But on a heavier, mostly wheat dough, I think it tastes… well, gluey. Like a glob of it turns to silly putty in my mouth. On the other hand too stiff a dough won’t rise well and will bake into a heavy, dry loaf. (It’s annoying to have to fix a too stiff dough, but you can fix it. Put it back in the bowl, chop it up as much as you can with a knife or stout mixing spoon. Pour a 1/4 cup of water over, chop again, then let it sit for ten minutes. Kneading that spooge back into the dough is messy business, but you can do it. Add more flour if necessary, but be careful this time! It’s better to fix a too stiff dough then end up with brick bread.)

The problem with a mostly whole wheat dough is that it’s very sticky and hard to knead by hand without adding too much flour. That’s one of the reasons a Kitchen Aid makes lighter whole wheat bread, because you can make a much softer dough.

The books always say to knead for ten minutes, but I don’t know who these people are that can knead bread for ten minutes. I consider myself reasonably strong for a woman of my age, and I’m whooped after 3 minutes. I can hold out for five, but it’s a gruel. That’s why I recommend beating the batter. If you can beat for 2 minutes and knead for 3, you’re doing great. Kneading is good for the structure of your bread, but ten minutes is certainly not necessary. I’ve made perfectly decent bread at times with hardly any kneading at all. Of course, the famous No-Knead method uses a very long rising time to work up the gluten. And that’s awesome if you are making white bread or if you like the sourer flavor on your wheat bread, which as I said, I do not. Everyone should experiment with that recipe though, it is fantastically easy.

There’s nothing quite like kneading bread by hand, once you get the hang of it. I find it incredibly primally satisfying. I kneaded by hand for the first 15 years of my bread career. I loved it. But if you have little ones underfoot (and if you can scrape together the dough for it) a Kitchen Aid is a worthy investment. I morned a bit when I got mine (a gift from the MIL) for the symbolism of my shift to a more modern, electrified life, but honestly I’m not sure I would have kept at my bread making once I had kids without that lovely machine.

If you have such a machine, it will do all the gluten working you could want, considerably more than you can get with hand-kneading, and therefore your dough will rise higher. This is quite significant because it means you can use a greater proportion of whole wheat flour and still get a light loaf. If you are trying to convert anyone from store-bought bread, this will be invaluable. I actually finally got to the point where my whole wheat bread was too light. I realized I don’t like it as light as it can get. I want my bread to be light enough that I can make a sandwich without it tasting like a bread sandwich, but substantial enough that I can eat it simply toasted with butter and feel like I’m getting some real food value (this is the eternal balancing point for every day homemade bread). It took me 15 years of baking and the acquisition of a Kitchen Aid to get to whole wheat bread that was too light, so you probably won’t have to worry about it. But do keep in mind that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Everyone has a different Sweet Spot. Consider whether you eat mostly sandwiches or toast and where you want to compromise.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We are at ‘add the flour.’

If you have a Kitchen Aid you can just dump everything else in on top of the proofed yeast and turn it on low speed. Start with about 2 and 1/4 cups of flour. If you skipped over the hand kneading section, go back and read about the wetness of the dough. I’m still trying to find the perfect balance. It seems like if the dough goes smoothly into a ball around the hook like it’s supposed to, it’s a bit more flour than I want to add. A shaggy dough that mostly stays together but sticks some to the bowl seems to be about right.

Knead on low for ten minutes. Set the timer because you can over-knead in a machine and the gluten will ‘break.’ It’s never happened to me, but I’ve read it’s possible. You don’t have to get your hands messy with a machine, but you do have to hover around while it’s working because, first you have to get the right amount of flour in there, then you have to make sure it’s kneading properly. It’s supposed to stick around the hook but also stick just enough to the sides of the bowl that the dough gets pulled and sort of folded as the hook rotates. Sometimes it gets stuck just on the hook, going round and round but not getting worked. This is really annoying to fix. You have to stand there and add more water a few drops at a time until it starts the folding action again. If you add more than a few drops of water at a time, the dough will just slide around and then you have to add a tablespoon of flour to get it to stick to the bowl again. If it’s just sticking to the bowl and not to the hook at all, you probably need a bit more flour. Add a tablespoon at a time, giving it a minute to incorporate after each addition.

Alright, now you have dough!

I always thought you were supposed to let the dough rise until the classic finger-poked-in-makes-hole-that-doesn’t-spring-back stage both for the first and second rise. Over time I realized I don’t like that stage for either rise. For the first rise, I like it to overrise. As in so full of air that when you look at it crooked it falls down in a heap. I used to think if it over-rose the gluten would break, but after accidentally over-rising many times and enjoying the results, I discovered that wasn’t true (or if is true than it’s not as big a deal as I had thought) I don’t know if it’s actually the over-rising (which is to say, rising so long that the dough falls) or just the longer rising time, but it allows the flavors to really develop and makes just a bit of that tangy bite that a longer rise artisan type bread has. This is yet another sweet spot for my taste that I am starting to tack down. I tried mixing my dough the night before, but it was too sour for my liking. Giving the first rise about 3 hours (at our 81 degree room temperature) seems to be The Spot. But again, this is just a matter of refining flavors based on personal taste.

I have to add a little side note here. I have a good friend who makes bread often and sometimes it simply does not rise. Same ingredients, same yeast, same house and baker as the day before when it rose beautifully, but for some completely mysterious reason, it just does not rise. I have asked her every possible question, and I can’t figure out what is happening. My only explanation is that their house is possessed. Does anyone have any other, more probably ideas for what could be happening?

Next comes shaping the loaf. You pour the dough out onto a lightly floured counter, pat out into a rectangle about as wide as your bread pan, then roll tightly into a log. There is a lot going on with shaping that I have yet to discover, let alone understand. Sometimes I just loosely form a log and really, it works out surprisingly fine. Shaping is more forgiving when you’re baking in a loaf pan. But to get an even textured bread, good for sandwiches, your best bet is a tight roll-up.

I occasionally get a wide, flat air pocket in the finished loaf, right under the surface of the top crust. I’ve never figured out what causes this. Is it my shaping? Does it happen in the oven? Too hot too fast causing a separation, like pita bread? What the heck? As with everything else in this DIY life, it seems the more I know, the more I don’t know.

But, back to your loaf. I used to just thinly oil my bread pans, and that works fine, but then I discovered that a generous smear of butter makes a delightfully crunchy crust. Well worth the penny.

Now, on to the second rise. Why does bread need to rise twice anyway? I think it has to do with the yeast having time to develop, and the gluten as well, not to mention those good mysterious bread flavors. I once tried a recipe off of a King Arthur whole wheat flour bag where you mix a very wet dough and then pour it right into the loaf pan. It didn’t come out good at all. Sort of mushy and gluey at the same time with a flat taste. But, it was a wet dough with a quick rise. I don’t think that’s a good combo for whole wheat doughs, myself. Maybe if you added just the right amount of yeast, so that it took the just the right amount of time to rise…?

Anyway I really don’t find it that inconvenient to do the double rise. As I said earlier, the first rise is very flexible. Whenever I get around to it, I punch the dough down and form the loaves. Opposite to that first rise, I finally discovered that I like the dough only about 2/3s risen when I put it into the (pre-heated) oven. This has been a recent revelation that came on the heels of finally getting so much rise out of my whole wheat dough that it was too pillowy for my taste. As I said earlier, I like some substance to my bread. I don’t want it to be heavy, but I don’t like it floating off my plate either. In general you are advised to put a loaf into the oven when it is just shy of fully risen (don’t wait for fully risen or the loaf could fall in the oven), but if this produces a bread that is too light for you, experiment with putting it into the oven earlier in the rising process.

On to baking! Finally! Are you still with me? Wake up!

We live in New Orleans. It gets hot in April and doesn’t cool off until November. And I do mean hot. For the worst three months of it, we have daytime highs of 90-100 degrees, and nighttime ‘lows’ of 75-85 Don’t forget the humidity! Whee!

I’ve done a lot of experimenting with beating the heat in the kitchen. Read up on last summer’s posts if you’re interested. I tried baking bread on the barbecue grill. It worked pretty well (absolutely stellar for flatbread) but the amount of propane used seemed just plain wrong. Those things are not built to be efficient. I tried using my flash countertop multi-cooker, Trixie. That worked decently, though the bread came out very moist, a bit too moist. And with no crust particularly to speak of. For Christmas I asked for a toaster oven. A good one, a big one, that would fit a loaf of bread. I was thinking ahead. So lately I have been baking a single loaf at a time, in my toaster oven which I have set out on the porch. It didn’t turn out to be the highest quality machine (what is anymore?) but it does fit a nice tall loaf of bread, as well as anything else I might want to bake. I’m quite happy about the situation.

I bake my bread at a good round 350 degrees Farenheit. I know those artisan loaves benefit from a super blast of heat, the No-Knead recipe bakes at 450. But although I like some crust, I’m not looking to teeth my babies on it. In fact, kids don’t tend to like much crust at all. I feel like 350 makes a nice compromise. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to bake through. I have often over-baked bread, which makes it a bit dry, and I have occasionally under-baked which makes a sad, doughy center that cannot be put back to rights in the oven (cut the cooked parts off and eat, or allow to go stale and make this breakfast cereal. Then buck up and try again). They always say to take the loaf out, turn it upside down and thump on the bottom with your knuckles, if it sounds hollow it’s done. I am here to say, it’s not quite so easy learning exactly what “hollow” bread sounds like, those few doughy under-baked loaves in my past sure sounded “hollow” to me. If you’re oven is true the loaves should be nicely browned when they’re done. If you have thermometer and the inclination, whole wheat bread is done at about 205 F. Otherwise, go with the thumping and hope for the best. Air on the over-done side if you feel unsure. A bit dry is better than raw dough.

Always remove bread from the loaf pans immediately and cool on a rack. Don’t slice right away, no matter how much you want to, it will smash the loaf down irreparably. And never put the bread into a plastic bag until you are 100% sure it has cooled completely.

‘Bout time to look for a publisher I guess. This double post instructive has gotten completely out of control. Once I get going, I just can’t stop myself.

If you are still reading, kudos to you my friend. And if this has been useful to you at all, please do comment. I am suddenly feeling like I just wasted a week of writing…

Bread Every Day, Part 1: Ingredients

I started making bread when I was 14. I know. I was a weird kid. I also wore peasant dresses and a hooded brown woolen cloak to school. I read wild plant books with the fervor usually reserved for Teen magazine and sometimes I even washed my peasant dresses by hand in the bathtub.

The bread making was the first real action I took toward a lifestyle which I spent whole school days fantasizing about. And once I started eating that rich, nubby homemade wheat bread on a regular basis, I was hooked. I have made almost all my own bread since then. After turning 34 in May I realized that my homemade bread years add up to a full 20. Wow. Happy 20th Bread Anniversary to me, or– us– I guess. Me and my bread.

Some things are just a little better homemade, but freshly baked homemade bread is truly not comparable to the stuff at the store. It’s pennies on the dollar for cost, miles more nutritious, and tastes divine. You win points all around. I really recommend it as a starting place for virgin DIYers. The return on your investment is very high. And let me just tell you now if you don’t already know, pulling a loaf of freshly made bread out of the oven is hot. And I don’t mean potholders.

I wrote a Bread Evangelizing post some long time back, to convert anyone on the fence about trying it. In that post I gave the recipe that I started with some 20 years ago, which I still know by heart even though I never follow it anymore. It’s a great beginner recipe, very easy and always worked for me. I recommend following a recipe for at least your first few months, till you get the hang of it. For some reason bread making puts people off, and it’s best to minimize failure till you feel absolutely confident. I also don’t recommend reading up about the complexities of bread until you understand viscerally how simple it is. (That means now. If you are a new bread baker, just stop right here. Go read that Evangelizing post, follow the recipe for a few months, then come back and read this bunch of drivel.)

I followed that first recipe for years. Then I started reading some bread books and slowly realized just how much play there was. Now, I never follow a recipe for our every day bread. Once you understand the basics, you won’t need a recipe either. Every loaf will be different, and (almost) every loaf will be good.

Bread at it’s most basic is flour, water and yeast. The flour needs to be mostly from wheat, because wheat has gluten. Gluten is what holds it all together. Yeasts are living organisms, they eat the sugars from the flour and fart out millions of bubbles which become trapped by the strands of gluten and raise the loaf. The water activates the yeast and makes everything possible, along with viewers like you.

At it’s purest, you can simply mix warm water, wheat flour and a pinch of yeast into a thick sludge, dump it into a greased loaf pan, let it rise and bake it. That is bread.

But, we like to complicate things. We’re human. It’s a vice. We favor certain textures and flavors. We like our bread to hold together when we slice it. We like it to taste tangy and fresh, and to feel soft but chewy in our mouths when we narsh it. We don’t like it to be pasty or gluey or hard or dry.

To further complicate things, each of us has been taught to cultivate our own individual preferences. Myself, I like a hint of sweetness, but hate the cake-like quality of store-bought bread. I like it to be soft enough for a sandwich, but still have a toothsome substance, nubby texture and a moderately crusty crust. If it’s white bread, then I love it sourdough. But if it’s wheat (and that’s almost all I ever make) then I like just a shadow of beery-ness with the lovely dark wholesome flavor of the wheat itself front and center. I want to feel like my bread could be a meal if need be, adorned only with a sheen of butter. But I don’t like brick bread. I don’t like it to be heavy, sour or otherwise intimidating.

I’ve loved my homemade bread all along– like pizza and sex, it’s all good. But I feel like, 20 years in, I am just starting to get a handle on what creates my perfect loaf.

my perfect slice

There’s plenty of great written works on artisan white breads. The gourmet world is afloat with them. My earmarked favorite is The Village Baker. And of course, you don’t have to look far to find a recipe for that revolution in bread making, the No-Knead Method (Erica at NW Edibles just posted her spin). But these artisan breads are usually mostly white flour. Even the “whole wheat” recipes are 1/2 to 2/3 white flour. Sadly, the world of truly whole wheat bread is remarkably barren.

I do recommend starting with a half and half ratio, to get the feel of bread making. In fact if your family is used to white bread, start there. If it’s homemade, it will be healthier. In addition to the lack of preservatives, I guess my dad instilled upon me his grandmother’s belief that homemade trumps “nutritious” as defined by science. I believe that little molecules of love transfer from your heart to your food as you cook for your family, and that this spirit ingredient sustains on a physical level.

That said, I myself find half-wheat breads an unsatisfying compromise. I love good homemade white bread, but on an everyday basis I want to eat whole grains, and if I’m going to have whole wheat bread I want it to taste fully of it’s namesake. I made 100% whole wheat bread for years, and love the strong flavor, but in recent years I’ve started using something like 6/7ths whole wheat flour.  It has taken me a lot of loaves of bread (and the acquisition of Kitchen Aid mixer) to get all the texture I want out of a mostly whole wheat dough. And to furthermore discover what it is that makes the flavor sometimes so much more delicious than other times. It’s a lifelong learning process. Bread is not magic, but like all living things, endlessly mysterious.

Once you have gotten comfortable with a basic recipe you can start unravelling the mystery and working toward your own ‘perfect loaf.’ To that end, and in celebration of my 20 year Bread Anniversary, I thought I’d offer some basic proportions and principles for the exploration of bread.

Let’s start with a dough based on 1 cup of water. This makes a small sized single loaf.

For years I thought the temperature of the water was critical, but that’s not true at all. Any temperature that feels even slightly warm, but not so hot that you can’t hold your hand under is fine. Yeasts are living organisms, just like us right? They like pretty much the same temperatures. If the water is dead cold, the yeast might actually not activate. If it’s burning hot, it could kill them. But anything in between is just a matter of the how quickly the yeast will do it’s work.

Slower or longer rising times all make a loaf of bread. They just give that loaf different flavors. The long rise times have become very popular, making a european style bread with complex flavor and a large holey crumb. I love those sour flavors on white bread, but I finally admitted to myself I’m not so fond of them on wheat bread. Shorter rising time makes a sweeter, yeasty flavor, which I personally prefer in my every day whole wheat bread.

So, the temperature of the water (and the flour and the room) will affect how long your dough takes to rise. I use water that would make a good bath for little people. Measure out 1 cup into a large mixing bowl.

Next the yeast. Here is my biggest tip for new bread makers. DO NOT USE OLD YEAST. Yeast is a living organism, I will say it as many times as I need to. It can be dried and will survive in dry form for a surprisingly long time, all things considered. But not indefinitely. If you have a jar in your cupboard from the last tenants, here’s what you should do with it. Throw it in the garbage. Do not sabotage your budding passion for baking by using old yeast. An opened jar should not be counted on to last more than a few months. You can buy a little more time by storing yeast in the freezer.

Now that we have that cleared up, how much yeast? Like every other part of this bread endeavor, it is simply not so critical as I was first led to believe. To your 1 cup of warm water you can add anywhere from 1/4 teaspoon (or even less) to 1 whole Tablespoon of yeast. Even more than the water temperature, the quantity of yeast will affect how long your loaf takes to rise, and also therefore the flavor.

The handy thing about getting to know bread on an intimate level is that you can adjust your recipe for the confines of your day’s schedule. Add more or less yeast depending on when you want to get on with the loaf shaping. Our schedule is usually to take an outing in the morning. I like to mix up the dough during the insanity of getting two kids ready to get out the door (I have a Kitchen Aid, remember? It’s relatively easy) and then I shape my loaves during the lull of nap time. When the hungries of early afternoon arrive, I am pulling fresh bread out of the oven and I look like Mom of the Year.

If that schedule sound good to you, add 1 teaspoon of yeast. I actually use 1/2 teaspoon, but I think a full teaspoon of yeast per cup of water is a good jumping off point.

In the first unorthodox No-Nonsense Recipe I posted, you mix the yeast with the flour then stir the water in. That works, I actually never had a problem with that method. But more standard is to “proof” the yeast in the warm water to jumpstart it, then add the flour and knead.

So, flour. Wheat comes in a dazzling variety. (Keep in mind that white flour is wheat flour, as in– from wheat berries. When I mean whole wheat, I will say it as so.) There are red, white, and semolina or durum varieties; furthermore they can be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ depending I think on the season they grew in. The ‘hard’ wheats have a higher gluten content and will make a more cohesive bread that rises considerably higher (‘bread flour’ is made from hard wheat). Then there is the grade to which the grain is ground. Almost all whole wheat sold in the US is pretty fine, but in Britain the standard whole wheat flour (called brown flour) is relatively coarse. I am still enchanted by the memory of homemade ‘brown bread’ there. I once found some ‘graham flour’ here that resembled it, but otherwise until I get my own grinder I will have to make do with the smoother texture of standard US whole wheat.

My flour of choice for everyday bread is hard red whole wheat. Fortunately, most ambiguously labeled ‘whole wheat’ flours are red wheat, though their gluten content is variable. White wheat has a milder flavor, whole wheat pastry flour is very finely ground soft white wheat, very appropriate for cakes and muffins but not so much for bread. Hard white wheat is a bit difficult to find, but some people prefer it for bread making. I haven’t done much with semolina (or durum) flour, but I believe it has the highest gluten content of all.

Are you feeling brain twisted? Don’t sweat it too much. You can try any of these flours. If it’s wheat it will make bread. But once you have gotten comfortable with the process discovering the devil in the details is part of the fun, right?

Feel free to experiment with other flours as well. Just keep your proportions to at least 3/4 flour derived from wheat, so that you have enough gluten. If you have ‘gluten flour,’ you can add a Tablespoon per loaf with your other flours to help things along. (Rye has some gluten, not as much as wheat, but easily enough to do a half and half loaf.)

But how much flour altogether? That is the question of the day. In fact it changes with the humidity of your kitchen and the particular bag of flour. If you’ve been making bread for awhile you may have noticed that the same quantity of flour sometimes makes a softer or harder dough. I used to think it was all in my mind, then I finally found out that the absorption of different flours is quite variable. You want to start with a lesser amount, and work up. For that 1 cup of water, add 2 cups of flour, then keep adding more 1/4 cup at a time. You might need as much as one more cup of flour, but I really recommend you keep your dough as soft as you can handle. The softer a dough, the more it will rise. A very hard dough will sometimes hardly rise at all. The importance cannot be underestimated. But there is a fine line between ‘soft’ and ‘sticky,’ especially with whole wheat doughs which tend to stick anyway. I think this is the main reason my Kitchen Aid doughs rise better, you just cannot knead a very soft whole wheat dough by hand.

(Fear not, you can still make a damn fine loaf of bread by hand, I did it for my first 16 years of bread making! But more on that in the next post…)

Now that we’ve covered the essential ingredients, on to the generally expecteds.

Salt is not strictly necessary to bread, but if you ever make a loaf without it, you will morn the loss. It just tastes… flat. I do like considerably less salt than is usual. For the 1 cup of water in our exploratory un-recipe, I add a mere 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Standard is double that or more. Salt supposedly keeps the yeast in check, which is considered good, but also limits the development of gluten, which is bad. I personally have not noticed the difference when I add more or less, or when I forget it altogether, other than the obvious difference in taste.

Some kind of sweetener is pretty standard in whole wheat loaves. In addition to the bit of sweetness, honey and molasses are both hydrophillic, which means they attract moisture, keeping your loaf softer longer. This is important with wheat bread, which goes dry faster than white. I usually add in a glug of honey or a Tablespoon of brown or whole sugar.

Fat is always good, right? My beginner recipe has almost 2 Tablespoons of butter per cup of water. This is very good. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to make myself put butter into my bread. Not sure why. I no longer feel any compunction spreading it onto a finished slice…. But somehow, putting butter into the dough seems excessive. Though if I’m feeling expansive I sometimes glug in some olive oil. Like sugar, fat will help keep your finished loaf fresh longer.

You can also add anything else that strikes your fancy, in small quantities; nuts, raisins, seeds, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, herbs, cheese, pureed spinach… The options are limited only by your imagination, as they say.

It seems wrong to go on for so long about about something I am trying to say is really simple. But that’s why beginners should start with the other recipe. All this rhapsodizing is for those of you who’ve mastered the basics and are hungry for more.

It seems like a lot of things in life are extraordinarily simple and bogglingly complex at the same time. Gardening can be broken into a lifetime of scientific details, attempting to master the myriad variables. Or you can simply drop some seeds in the ground and pour water over. Human nutrition can apparently require comprehensive volumes of research, or just eat your vegetables and get lots of excersize.

If you like the boggling, check out the continuation of the saga, Bread Every Day, Part Two: Techniques.

**For a great bread making resource, check out The Bread Experience‘s list of whole grain breads. They have some fantastic recipes to widen your repetoire. She also keeps a great blog, and hosts the monthly Bake Your Own Bread Round Up that I’ve got up there in my sidebar.

CJ’s Punk Housewife Tip #1: Homemade Grape Nuts

Am I a punk?

Hell no, not by any punk standard anyway. No tattoos, no piercings, I change my clothes almost every week, and I live in a house with just one family. My life looks purty damn square to the punk eye.

But, by housewife standards, I like to think I can edge into the punk category. Which is a relief to my mind.

I’ve been meaning to start a series of Punk Housewife Tips, and my most recent, most brilliant discovery yet simply begged me to finally get to it! Enter Tip #1: Turning stale homemade wheat bread into breakfast cereal!

Not sure what finally knocked it through my thick head, but at some point I realized that Grape Nuts (much loved by My Man, but rarely purchased ‘cuz I’m a DIYer doncha know, and we eat homemade granola round here) are just toasted wheat bread crumbs. It started as a suspicion that seemed to simple to be true. But then my suspicion turned into a hunch, and then my hunch turned into an experiment, and my experiment was a success!

I don’t know about you, but we actually don’t eat that much bread around here. Typical scenario: I make 2 loaves. We finish off half of the first loaf while it’s still hot, the other half over the next day or two. The second loaf, at three days old is starting to sound less desirable (homemade whole wheat doesn’t stand the test of time very well). We eat a slice here and there and a week later there’s 3/4 of a loaf going moldy. Sure I make french toast, bread pudding, stuffing, bread crumbs for gratins, breading, meatballs, etc, etc. But a good use for stale whole wheat bread is never amiss.

I’m still monkeying with the recipe, but here’s the basics:

Homemade Grape Nits

(that’s what we always called ’em)

Take your half-eaten stale loaf of homemade whole wheat bread, cut the mold off around the corners, and crumble it with your hands into a big bowl. If it’s a regular recipe whole wheat and truly stale, it should crumble easily. (If it’s a long rise type recipe, with a gluey-er structure, you might have to throw the slices into a food processor). Crumble the pieces very small, grape nut sized. For every 2 cups of crumbs mix in a spare 1 Tablespoon oil and 1 Tablespoon honey. This makes an authentically not sweet cereal. If you want it to be sweet, add another Tablespoon honey or sugar (I think the caramelly flavor of Rapadura sugar would be perfect, it sure makes good tasting granola). Stir thoroughly to ensure every crumb is moistened. Spread the Nits evenly onto a greased cookie sheet, not too thick in the event you are doing a large batch. Bake at 275 F for 20-60 minutes, however long it takes to turn a medium brown all over. If the edges are browning too fast, stir them toward the middle and spread the blondies to the edge.

The browning is important, don’t skimp. It took me years of granola making to discover just how important it is. Toasted grains have an entirely different flavor– richer, nuttier, caramelly, complex, more. When you throw sugar or honey into the mix, you’re making a little actual caramel, which also enhances the crunch. But do be careful, it goes from brown to black kind of fast, so watch closely toward the end.

When nicely browned turn the oven off, but leave the pan in to continue drying out. Allow to cool completely to room temperature, pour into a large jar or bag and keep well sealed so that the Nits stay crunchy.

Bonus Tip!!! Cut an old (clean) milk jug like so for a DIY granola/grape nit funnel! Otherwise your kitchen floor will feel like a pebbly beach. Trust me.

Like the real thing, you can’t just pour the milk on and eat straight away or you’ll get a headache. You have to give the milk a few minutes to begin absorbing, but not too long, lest it become sodden. There’s a magical sweet spot there.

Now if I were a real punk, I wouldn’t have a food processor, and the oven in our anarchy squat house wouldn’t work because the gas was turned off. I would feed my leftover bread to my housemate’s stray looking pit bull instead. But that would all be a moot point since I’d be eating dumpstered fruit loops for breakfast anyway.

Hello Bright, Shiny World: A Recipe for Sprouted Wheat Bread

After six days of cold/flu-family-fun, the damn thing finally spit me out. Last night I was able to muster a small dent in the madness that is our house right now. ie: I cleaned the kitchen to a fine sparkle.


And what did I do first thing this morning with my bright, shiny, new self, in my bright, shiny, new kitchen?

Why, I made sprouted wheat bread of course! What would you do?

This isn’t exactly something that goes along with the theme of every day nitty gritty cooking implicit in my supposed week-long Calamity in the Kitchen idea, but hey– it’s what I’m doing right now, it’s more fun than talking about leftovers and I already had a bunch of photos waiting to post.

Have you ever had Ezekiel bread? To know it is to have an opinion about it, and my opinion has always been favorable, with a catch. [For those of you who don’t know it, it’s made from spouted grain. Most health food stores carry it, and even many regular grocery stores. But it’s kept in the freezer. Because like any real bread, it gets stale.] Whenever I have had to buy store bread for any length of time, I buy Ezekiel bread. That gummysweet Orowheat stuff just kills my desire for bread altogether.

I love the wholesome, full flavor of the Ezekiel bread. I love the way it makes my body feel like, yes, I did just consume real food. Unfortunately, I can’t argue with the naysayers– Ezekiel bread is always dry. You pretty much can’t eat it without toasting it. But it’s beauty is it’s flaw, because of course real bread needs to be eaten within a few days of being baked, and that simply does not fit into the factory/nationwide supply scheme, freezer section notwithstanding.

And so, I have long dreamed of making my own sprouted wheat bread, and eating it fresh. Wow. Wouldn’t that be the bomb? When I finally bit the bullet and got a food processor last winter, sprouted wheat bread was among my reasons.

Since then, I have experimented several times. It is a bit more work than regular bread, and I still have some problems to solve. But it holds promise to be my dream wheat bread– rich, nubby, full.

A huge advantage of sprouting the grain is that you can essentially grind your own wheat, fresh, without buying a grain grinder. The food processor doesn’t give you a fine textured bread like flour does. But if you, like me, have always remembered back to the “brown flour” they made bread out of on that one farm in Ireland that didn’t look like flour at all, but more the texture of stone ground cornmeal and baked into a coarse, nubby, all-wheat tasting loaf, you’ll love it.

Look at the texture on that! Don't you just want to grab a stick of butter and call it dinner?

All the recipes I looked at said the tricky part was sprouting the exact right amount, because too much makes a dense sticky loaf. I popped my sprouted-bread cherry on the first go. The recipes said anywhere from 1/8 inch of white rootlet to “no longer than the grain itself.” I erred on the safe side, which even still happened quite quick. About 36 hours.

Still much too much. ‘As long as the grain,’ my ass. That first loaf was not really edible. I mean, I like dense chewy bread, but I don’t want to keep any lethal weapons in my kitchens. Over the next few loaves, I worked it back to just soaking the grain overnight. Now I had a bread that was pretty reasonable. And even easier than a full sprouting routine.

Don’t get me wrong, this ain’t no sandwich bread. And I kinda like it like that. I aim to make it a bit lighter, my recipe is far from perfected, but I do like a substantial bread. Something you can toast, add butter and call breakfast. Without hunger cramps at 10:30. Something that feels like a meal.

In case you care to play along with my experimentation, here’s a very thorough tutorial. She shows you how to use either the food processor or the meat grinder on your Kitchenaid. For a more funky hippie-light explanation, check out this recipe for Essene flat bread.

If you’re too shy to go all the way, fear not! I had great luck with adding the ground up sprouted berries in small quantities to regular bread dough. Like 1 cup sprouted wheat substituted for 1 cup of the flour in my No-Nonsense Everyday Whole Wheat Bread (decrease the water in the recipe by maybe 1/4 cup). You can sprout a bunch, keep it in the freezer, then add a little to each batch of bread. Add a little more every time, and see how it goes. In addition to the incredible healthfulness of sprouts, it just makes a great texture and flavor.

Note: I am really hardly sprouting the grain. Like I said, I had better luck with the ones I just soaked overnight. But, considering the heat here, the soaking/sprouting process might go drastically different wherever you are. Here’s the deal. The flavor gets sweeter as they start to push their white “tails” out. But so does the stickiness. So, shorter sprouts are more reliable. There’s no reason you can’t use plain old soaked wheat berries. But if any sign at all of a tail has appeared, I think they’re ready.

wheat berries soaked overnight, barely starting to sprout, ready for bread making!

If you’re just adding the sprouted grain into a regular dough, it’s not near so critical. But be warned, when those tails do start to grow, they grow fast! You can stall ’em out at any time by putting them in the fridge.

Good luck!

Slow Cooker Leftover Granola Bread

I don’t know about the rest of you homemade-granola-makers-with-kids, but we end up with a fair quantity of leftover, soggy granola. Never all at the same time, mind you. A bit here, and a bit there. But it adds up.

Where it adds up at our house is in a pint jar in my freezer.

The idea of re-purposing the stuff came to me last fall and is one of those small life changes inspired by Riana. ‘That stuff is still perfectly good, albeit soggy.’ I said to myself one day. ‘I worked hard for that granola. There’s quality foodstuffs in there. Not to mention the milk.’ When I had collected a jar full, I used it in some bread.

The first few loaves were just regular bread. The granola wasn’t enough to make it seem sweet, there was only an occasional raisin. But after a few loaves I figured why not capitalize on the granola?

So I started adding in extra raisins and nuts to make a delicious morning bread, perfect for those of us who can’t handle granola for breakfast (which is to say– me. Ironic isn’t it that the granola maker doesn’t eat it? Don’t know why, I wish I could feel good eating granola in the morning. It’s so quick and easy, and I never feel like cooking. But it makes my tummy feel bad. Partly the milk and partly the undercooked grains I think.)

Yesterday, I tried “baking” my first granola bread in Trixie. And it came out stellar! Best bread yet in the multi-cooker. I don’t know if that’s because of the way I baked it, or the fact that I added 2 eggs maybe? Who knows.

Since I used the slow cooker function, any of y’all with one of those could do this recipe. Although, since Trix has a “brown” setting, I started it out on that for 10 minutes, and got a delightfully brown crust. When the bread was mostly set, I flipped it over to brown the top, so the whole loaf had a nice crust. Not bakery quality, mind you, but something to work yer teeth on.

Anyway, you know I’m not much of a recipe cook, but here’s approximately what I put in my bread yesterday.

Leftover Granola Bread

  • 2 cups soggy leftover granola
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 Tablespoon yeast
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup sucanat
  • 1 cup white bread flour
  • 3 cups whole wheat
  • 1/4 cup gluten flour
  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1 cup dried currants, raisins or any kind of dried fruit (I recently discovered the dried currants at Whole Foods. They’re not organic, but they’re only $2.99/lb! That’s a steal! I like them even better than raisins, which I’ve always found too sweet really…)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • drizzle of molasses
  • good glug of oil
  • splash of vanilla

Add more flour as necessary, I think I used another 1/2 cup of wheat, or was it one and a half...? I usually make fairly soft doughs, but since I figured this slow cooker loaf didn’t need any extra help in the ‘moist’ department, I made it a bit on the stiff side. This did make it a slow riser, so next time I think I’ll use a full tablespoon of yeast.

Note: This made a very large loaf! Since Trixie’s got, as I said before, “back” she was capable of… “accommodating” …such…. “proportions.” As you all well know, size does matter, so those of you with the standard sized crock pots had probably better cut this recipe in half.

Proceed as usual with mixing the dough. Set in your well greased insert/pot for the second rising, then “bake” on high. I’m guessing on that last part. Trix doesn’t have a high and low (another unfortunate feature I forgot to mention) and the single “slow cook” function must be low, because it takes a loooong time to cook stuff. So, as I mentioned before, I started it out on brown for 10 minutes, then turned it down to slow cook. For oh… about an hour and a half? I think. ish. When the loaf was somewhat set on top, but still not truly done, I flipped it over and “brown”ed the other side for another 10. Then I turned the cooker off, but left the bread in for another half hour. Got that?

I forgot to mention that I used a silicone mat under the loaf, to make getting it out really easy. It worked great. I got a set of four different silicone baking things at a garage sale for $5. I cut a round the size of Trixie’s bottom out of the cake “pan,” and it’s perfect.

You can also just bake things in a souffle dish or anything else that will fit in your cooker (oven proof of course). My first loaf I did in a stainless steel bowl, set in a couple inches of water. But that sure wasn’t gonna get me any kind of crust, and seemed like an unnecessary extra dish. If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s an extra dish! Even now that I have a new fangled washer machine thingy.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but I’m pretty happy with this bread all things considered. It’s really hitting the spot for breakfast lately, slathered with butter. I usually need something more substantial than toast for breakfast, but now that it’s Hot here again, toast feels about right. Especially when it has plenty of yummy nuts and dried currants in it!

Bread Evangelizing

fresh baked bread

I was on my way to the Whole Wallet, errr, Foods the other day to stock up on ingredients for another baking day, when I ran into one of the meetup mamas. As soon as I said “baking day” she got a gleam in her eye and said, “Do you bake your own bread?” When I said yes, she practically jumped up and down, saying, “Will you teach me? Maybe we could do a meetup..?” So that’s the plan, for this next Monday. Six mamas will come over with kiddos in tow and hopefully things will be un-chaotic enough that they can actually learn a thing or two.

I love the idea, anyway. Mamas getting together and pooling knowledge and skills. My dream is that it will work beautifully and turn into a regular thing. I feel that I have a fair number of skills to share, and I would love the opportunity to learn some new ones.

Bread is a great place to start. I’m somewhat of an evangelist when it comes to homemade bread. Here’s the invite I sent out for the group:

“Learn to Make Your Own Wholesome Homemade Bread!

-It’s easy, less than 30 minutes of work for 2 loaves of bread. No fancy equipment.
-It’s cheap! Make delicious, FRESH whole wheat bread for about $1/loaf!
-It’s healthy. Not so much sugar and sodium as store bought, and no preservatives!
-Entice your husband, wife, or other significant back into the honeymoon phase with the smell of baking bread (or woo random strangers off the street!)
-It’s de-fabu-licious!

Finally, when the kiddos just want bread and butter for dinner, you won’t feel quite so guilty…”

If you want to join the fun, here’s my first bread recipe, which made me a convert so long ago. I still know it by heart, even though I haven’t used it in years. This is an ultra basic no-frills technique that bread purist will scoff at, but it’s easy! and delicious!  Especially good to give a beginner the success they need to inspire further bread pursuits! After you’ve gotten more comfortable with the whole process you can start fiddling with it. I’ll make a “fiddling with it” post someday soon.

Calamity Jane’s No-Nonsense Everyday Whole Wheat Bread

This recipe makes 2 loaves.

  • 3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3 cups white flour (preferably bread flour, but all-purpose will work fine)
  • 3 T gluten flour (this is optional, I only recently started adding gluten flour. It makes your bread more cohesive and chewy)
  • 2 Tablespoons yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 stick butter, melted (you can use oil, works fine, and you don’t have to dirty an extra dish for melting…)
  • 2 1/2 cups warm not hot! water

Measure all the dry ingredients into a big bowl, stir it up good, then measure the wet stuff right onto the top. With a stout wooden spoon, stir it up until it becomes too hard to stir, then dump the lot out onto a floured countertop. Let the kids go feral and the phone ring off the hook while you get yer hands in there and work all that messy looking stuff into a nice cohesive dough, adding more flour as necessary to make it workable and keep the sticking to a minimum. Add just a little at a time to avoid adding too much, you want the dough soft (this is actually one of the only tricky parts, too stiff a dough will make a thick hard loaf, but since different flours in different climates absorb different amounts of water, I can’t tell you exactly how much flour you’ll need. Probably at least another cup, maybe 2, possibly more. Just keep chanting ‘soft dough, soft dough’ and bare in mind that it will be annoyingly sticky, that’s normal, wheat dough is always sticky.)

Ideally you would knead the dough for ten minutes, but you’ll be tired after five, and really, five is fine. Even three will work. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic, and let rise for about an hour. Checking whether dough is fully risen is the other tricky part, and another thing I can’t give you any exact directions for because it will take dramatically longer or shorter depending on how warm it is, how wet your dough was, etc. The idea is to poke your finger in to it, if it springs back it’s not ready. When it’s ready, the dough will just hold the indented shape of your finger. The first few times, check your dough frequently so you can see what it looks like when it’s not done, half done, 3/4 done, and done. If you wait too long after it’s done, it will fall. Fortunately, this first rising is not important to get perfect, it’s your practice round.

Anyway, whenever you’ve determined it’s done rising, dump it out onto your counter again, cut it into two pieces, and with each piece press into a rough rectangle and roll tightly into a log, the length of your bread pan. It would have been handy to grease up your bread pans before you got your hands doughy. Set the logs into those greased pans, cover with plastic and let rise again.

They won’t take as long to rise the second time, maybe 40 minutes. Keep checking them. After about 20 minutes you’ll want to start your oven at 350 so it’s good and hot by the time the bread’s risen.

Bake for about 50 minutes, till the top is nicely browned and the loaf sounds hollow when you thump on the bottom.

Cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before you try cutting into it. Enjoy piping hot with organic butter!

*** Post Script: When we made this recipe for the meetup it was great, but I’m used to a much wheatier loaf, and found it kind of boring. Starting with half and half white to wheat is good to get your bearings, I really recommend it. Then, if you like denser, darker, wheatier bread start using 1 cup more of wheat flour (and 1 cup less white) each time till you arrive at your perfect loaf. I made 100% whole wheat for years. Lately I’ve been doing about 80% wheat.

Also, I ought to mention that trying to teach/learn anything with 5 toddlers squealing and writhing at our feet was fairly hopeless. I like to think they at least left with a new motivation….