I have been on a break from writing for the past couple of days while I investigated a bread-baking method that turned out to be my second breakthrough in bread. I have found the answer to whole-wheat or whole-grain bread.
It began when I went shopping at Sprouts in Tucson last week and found the latest issue of Mother Earth News, which of course is available everywhere just now. The cover features a photo of a gorgeous loaf of bread, and I picked it up. You don't normally expect an exhaustive study of whole-grain baking in Mother Earth, but there it was.
I have been running my Big Six bread recipe since I started writing this column, and if you want to make a go-to daily bread that everyone will like, you can't do any better. However, it is not a recipe for whole-grain or whole-wheat bread, and those who want to make such a bread may have been experiencing the same problems that have plagued me since I began baking seriously.
So I was deeply interested in the article and the recipe that accompanied it. Basically it gives a recipe for whole-grain bread that uses the sponge method, which I am already familiar with. But making a sponge doesn't really make a big difference in making white bread; I have not made it part of my routine for that reason.
On the other hand, if you make whole-grain bread the way I used to, you substitute the whole-grain flour for the white flour and try to compensate somehow for the lack of gluten that makes bread rise. I have tried introducing various proportions of white flour, or bread flour, into the recipes without success. For years now, my whole-wheat bread has looked and acted more like a quick bread than a yeast bread.
But look at the photo that accompanies this article. It looks good enough to be the illustration for the Mother Earth article, but in fact it was the bread that I baked yesterday. I used a method that calls for a sponge and a soaker. These are time-honored terms in bread baking, and I am going to explore this method thoroughly today and tomorrow and bring you the recipe that will give you the bread that you have been looking for if you want a whole-wheat loaf.
There are three kinds of flour based on wheat that you can choose between to make bread: white flour (all-purpose or bread flour), whole-wheat flour and white whole-wheat flour, which is a relatively late arrival to bread baking. But I find it a crucial ingredient in accomplishing the kind of loaf that you see above. Tomorrow I am going to include the photo of the Mother Earth bread, which was created by Tabitha Alterman for the article. You will see that she sprinkled the top crust with oatmeal, which is something you also see in the Oroweat whole-wheat bread that is sold in supermarkets.
That is exactly what I was looking for: a high, light yeast-like loaf that does not look like it has hardly risen at all due to the lack of gluten to trap gas bubbles. I have found it, but the caveat is that you start making this bread the night before.
The reason that this article is going to stretch into a few parts is that I began by using part-white all-purpose flour and part whole-wheat flour. That is what produced the loaf you see above. This is how you do it.
WHOLE GRAIN BREAD
Mother Earth News
1-1/4 cups sifted organic whole-wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon granular yeast
3/4 cup cool water
1 cup all-purpose organic flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 Tablespoon baker's organic powdered milk
2/3 cup cool water
2 Tablespoons organic orange juice
Ingredients, Final Dough:
All of the Sponge recipe
All of the Soaker recipe
1 teaspoon salt
1 standard packet of granular yeast
1 Tablespoon organic olive or other neutral oil (I used olive oil)
2 Tablespoons honey
Extra flour and water for adjustments
THE DAY BEFORE BAKING: Make the sponge. Mix all the sponge ingredients to form a ball of dough and knead it for about 2 minutes, let it rest for 10 minutes while you make the Soaker, and then knead it again for about 1 minute. Cover it in an airtight container and refrigerate it for at least 6 hours or overnight.
Make the soaker: Mix all the soaker ingredients together to form a loose, sticky ball. Cover and leave it at room temperature until you are ready to bake.
THE DAY OF BAKING: At least an hour before you are ready to bake, remove the sponge from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature. Do the same for the soaker if you have refrigerated it.
Place the soaker in a mixing bowl fitted with dough hook(s). Cut the sponge into about a dozen pieces and sprinkle them over the soaker.
Turn the mixer to Speed 1 and begin combining the sponge and the soaker. Add the rest of the ingredients, ending with the honey and oil and finally mix for about 2 minutes after the dough is complete.
Let the dough rest for 10 minutes and then knead it until it forms an elastic lump, adding more flour or water if necessary, small quantities at a time.
Form the dough into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl to rise until it is almost doubled in size but now quite, about 45 minutes.
When the dough has risen, deflate it and form it into a loaf. Place the loaf into a bread pan and allow it to rise again until it is about 1-1/2 times its size (not double). The idea is to have the loaf finish rising in the oven.
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Just before inserting the dough in the oven, slash the top with a very sharp knife either down the center or 2-3 times diagonally. This allows the gases to escape from the loaf in an organized manner.
Once the loaf is in the oven, turn the temperature down immediately to 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Open the oven door and rotate the loaf and bake another 20-25 minutes, until the bread has browned. Remove the bread from the oven and turn it out of the pan to a wire rack to cool.
I realize that these instructions are detailed--the recipe occupies an entire page of the magazine--but actually you are just going to make and refrigerate the sponge, leave it, make the soaker, cover it and leave it, and that's it for the day.
The next day you put it all together, let it rise twice and you are right there where you would be if you were making conventional bread. But I am convinced that this is the way to get the kind of loaf that you contemplate in the supermarket and wonder why you can't make whole-wheat bread like that (like me).
I am going to do this again, though: I am going to use white whole-wheat flour for the sponge, whole-wheat flour for the soaker and white whole-wheat for the final-loaf stage, and see how my 100% whole-wheat bread comes out. For that, though, I will run out of space, so this is it for now. Experienced bakers can take the recipe above and run with it anyway.