I’ve loved eating bread for as long as I can remember.
Recently, I’ve started baking my own bread. I took a bread-baking class last summer (Bread baking 101), but never had the courage to try it at home. This spring, I was inspired to finally have at it on my own after attending a 100% extraction whole-wheat bread baking class. What the heck does that mean? Don’t worry, we’ll get to it.
Bread is a seemingly magical food. Take some simple ingredients and turn them into something completely different. So let’s dive in as I explain how to take the things from this picture:
And turn them into the thing in this picture:
Basic bread is made up of 4 things: flour, water, salt, and air. Yes, there are other things to add if you want, but this is the basic recipe and this is what I’m talking about today.
We’ll spend the most time on flour.
Flour can be complicated, but it’s also the most interesting ingredient in bread because it provides the most options. You’ll recall from when I wrote about baking bran muffins that the part of wheat we harvest, the seed, is called the kernel. The kernel is made up of three parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The white flour I baked with for much of my life is made from the endosperm (which is mostly carbohydrates). The bran and the germ are the nutritious parts of the kernel.
Got that? Three parts of the kernel. White flour is made of the least healthy part.
You can bake bread with a mixture of these three parts of the kernel and you don’t even have to use wheat kernels. You can you use spelt, rye, millet, amaranth and so on. But let’s say you do want to use wheat (a common choice).
Now you have to decide how refined your flour will be.
This matters because of gluten. GLUTEN! Currently vilified in popular American culture (which I believe is ridiculous), this is the key protein that gives bread its ability to rise. Gluten makes protein chains which make dough stretchy and sticky and give the bread structure when it is baked. The type of flour you use greatly affects these gluten chains.
The bran and germ of a wheat kernel are sharp and pointy, so they cause many more cuts in the gluten chains, breaking up the structure. White flour (the endosperm) is not nearly as sharp, so it doesn’t cut up the gluten as much and that allows for an easier rising process. You can absolutely still make nicely risen bread from the whole kernel (sharp germ and all), but it might be a little bit trickier.
If you’re looking to make a bread which includes all the parts of the kernel (which you very well might want to because it’s got better nutritional content), you get to make another choice. Do you want to use all of it? Or would you like to sift out the biggest pieces after they’re milled so they cut the gluten up just a little bit less? If you want to use it all, this is called 100% extraction whole wheat flour. If you’re looking to use a flour that has been sifted somewhat, you may find yourself buying an 80% extraction flour. The 100% extraction is the most nutritious.
How does this translate into the final product? These are all things that will change the flavor and density of your bread. If you use 100% extraction, you’re not baking something that looks like Wonderbread. You’re baking something that’s hearty and dense, with a deeper flavor.
I’m biased, but I think that's the way to go to make delicious, substantial bread.
Water is pretty straightforward. Or is it? Some people suggest using filtered water based on where you live and what minerals are in your water supply. I haven’t tried this; I’ve just been using tap water.
Kosher salt works well as its grains are larger than average table salt grains. You can also use sea salt. What are the differences? That’s a deep dive for another day!
Air is mixed into the other ingredients through the bread-making process. You don’t need any special air for this. The stuff you’re breathing right now will do fine. : )
BONUS INGREDIENT: sourdough starter!
It was sounding pretty easy wasn’t it?
It turns out, there’s a little more to it, because if you mix up some flour, water, and salt, and stir it to get some air in there, then you bake it. It won’t be bread. (Matzah, anyone?)
You need something else to make it rise. Here is the true magic of bread: the tiny microbes that turn that flour and water into something that can rise---AKA: YEAST.
If you’ve made bread before, you might have used a packet of dried yeast. Interesting stuff, you had to mix it with a bit of water, wait about 10 minutes, and watch for bubbles to know you hadn’t killed it by leaving it stuck behind the tea bags in your cabinet for years.
But you can make yeast on your own. You don’t need to buy it. It’s a culture of microorganisms that’s all around and once you’ve got it in a jar, it’s called a sourdough starter and it's made of "wild yeast."
To whip up your own batch, you need the basic ingredients we already talked about, plus about a week. You’ll take some flour and water, mix them together, and leave the mixture out on the counter. After a few days, it’ll start getting weird, and maybe stinky. But the bacteria in the air will start eating the sugar in the flour and fermenting it, releasing carbon dioxide. After a week, you’ll have your own petri dish of sourdough starter. You’re ready! Now you can add that to the flour and water you’ll use when you’re ready to make bread and the tiny yeast organisms will get to work.
You can save the starter on your counter or in your fridge and feed it to keep it going for every loaf of bread you bake. To keep it strong, scoop out about half of it and replace it with new flour and water in a 1:1 ratio. Do this daily if it’s on the counter or weekly if it’s in the fridge.
Any bread made with this starter can be called a sourdough bread.
RATIOS FOR BAKING:
There are a million basic sourdough bread recipes on the internet and in cookbooks. Check out a few here, here, and here. The key is the ratio between your flour and your water. You can make a wetter dough (something like 80%) or a drier dough (something like 65%). To get the percentage, figure out how much flour you’ll use and multiple by your percentage to determine the amount of water needed. If you’re using a sharper flour (something with more of the wheat kernel in it), you might need a more hydrated dough.
If this sounds like too much math for you, just stick to a recipe at first and you'll be fine!
Because the makeup of bread is so simple, technique and process counts for a lot in determining the finished product. You’ll be mixing, observing, kneading, resting, scoring, and baking. This is more of an art than a science.
The process can take from a few hours to multiple days, depending on your procedures and your setting. Most people agree on a few basics:
- Mix up the flour, water, and salt.
- Wait a bit.
- Add the sourdough starter.
- Wait some more.
- Knead the dough.
- Wait some more.
- Knead it again.
- Wait some more.
- Shape it into whatever lovely-looking shape you want to eat later.
- Wait some more.
- Score the top (which means: cut some slits in it so it won’t explode as it rises).
- Wait some more.
Bread baking is an exercise in patience!
Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to it; it forces me to do something with which I am uncomfortable. I'm also fascinated by how much variation there is. Because there are so many options within the 14 steps above, bread making becomes an art. If you get the right ingredients and follow the right steps, you’ll get bread of some sort. Then the fun begins.
I’ve been taking notes and pictures because each time I’ve made bread at home, I’ve tweaked my methods a bit. It’s all in search of my favorite loaf, but the journey is really the joy here.
I am by no means an expert. In fact, I’m still a bread-baking newbie. So if you have suggestions for me, I would love to hear them.
Now that we’ve unraveled the mysteries of bread, give it a try! And don’t worry, even if it’s not pretty, it’ll probably still smell and taste delicious.
Got questions? Let me know!