As a lifelong foodie and pastry chef, I found it pretty strange when I realized a while back that the majority of my diet pretty much consisted of just one ingredient — albeit in various forms and combined with different things. Wheat somehow played a part in nearly every meal and snack I ate throughout my day.
With so many ingredients in the world, so many delicious and important — nutritionally-necessary, in fact — foods to choose from, why would anyone grant just one thing omnipresence throughout all of their meals? From toast in the morning to a cookie for a midmorning snack, to a sandwich for lunch, followed by pasta for dinner – seriously? The more I analyzed my daily consumption of wheat, the more bored I became. Sure, we can vary the pattern with a bagel, or pizza, right? The dominance, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, of wheat in our world, however, I found really disturbing. It was time to shake things up.
Never one to go halfway on anything, I was all or nothing about wheat. I decided that I would live without wheat and so would my family and customers. I work as a pastry chef, and I started using all kinds of different grains, at first with varying degrees of success. I now bake with einkorn, buckwheat, almond flour, coconut flour, rye, teff, rice, corn and oat flours. I was so amazed, really proud, actually, that I was able to find so many delicious and satisfying ways of cooking and baking while steering clear of that wheat-shaped elephant in the room. Just like becoming vegetarian can open up a new world of beans, legumes, vegetables, spices and techniques that maybe you never bothered with before, so did baking without wheat open up new possibilities for me, far more exciting and infinitely more nutritious.
So now, after more than 10 years of baking and cooking essentially without wheat, banishing it from my kitchen and eating it only as an occasional treat, I find myself trying to look at the situation in a more nuanced way, creating a middle ground. Truth is, I love to cook and bake, but I really, really love to bake bread. Homemade bread is magical. Just the smell alone can cheer someone up, lure them from another part of the house with its irresistible, nutty and inviting scent. I put it up there with the smell of vanilla beans and of chocolate melting as among the most delightful and evocative smells in my world. The process of making good bread, really good-for-you bread – while fundamentally straightforward – requires a little more thought, a little more preparation, but it can ultimately be one of the most worthwhile and delicious ways to spend your time in the kitchen. I’d like to provide a little primer here, a little inspiration for you to find ways to mindfully incorporate wheat into your diet through baking a truly easy and more nutritious loaf.
While baking bread regularly may not become part of your routine, demystifying some of bread’s logic might help to make it more accessible and enjoyable. Like anything, with practice you will find how easy and not at all time-consuming it is to make a great loaf of bread. The first things you need are a starter and a heavy-lidded pot such as a Dutch oven. After that, seeking out some kind of local flour can make a huge difference in the nutritional quality as well as the flavor of your loaf (more on this in a bit). And finally, if the goal is for this bread to go against the grain (sorry!) and offer more than just comfort, but truly important nutrients, it would be ideal to get ahold of some whole grains that they often sell as a blend for bread-baking, or just a mix of nuts/seeds to add to the dough as well, adding dietary fiber, protein, and healthy fat to feed your body what it needs to function properly.
START WITH THE STARTER
First, let’s look into the question of the starter. While you can certainly reach for some powdered instant yeast to make a perfectly satisfying loaf, I encourage you to get your hands on some sourdough starter. This actually isn’t too difficult these days. In my experience, bakers are the most lovely and generous of people (you can quote me here when you ask someone to give you some of their starter; even a bakery will usually be happy to). Every time you “feed” or refresh your sourdough starter, you have “discard” – extra starter that needs to be thrown away or given to someone. It’s actually a built-in part of the process to keep passing starter along! So don’t be shy, reach out to a baker for a little blob of starter. Offer them a cookie in exchange, all will be well! If you are shy, however, you can always order some powdered starter from a baking catalog such as King Arthur Flour’s. “Why do I need to get sourdough?” you implore me. “I don’t want to have to babysit the starter forever in my fridge and stress out about killing it. Like I don’t have enough to worry about in my life?? And I don’t even like the flavor of sourdough bread; I don’t get what all of the fuss is about!” I hear you, I really do. But just give me a moment to clarify a few things about yeast and why we want to start our new bread-baking habit with the very best option in terms of flavor and nutrition.
Sourdough starter is truly just a mix of flour, water and the wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria that are floating around us in the air, on our skin, on the flour itself. It does, indeed, just look like a thick pancake batter and after it gets some fresh “food” — more flour and water — it will bubble up as those yeasts and bacteria go to work eating the simple carbohydrates in the flour and start to reproduce, creating more bacteria, acids and a fun by-product, gas, until they have finished everything available in the mixture. The starter then needs to either be fed again, or it can be placed in the fridge, where the cold temperature will slow down the process and it will patiently wait until the next time you get the urge to bake again. You then remove the starter from the fridge, follow the instructions to give it a fresh feed, and thus reactivate it so that you will have a happy, bubbly mixture when it comes time to make your bread. Not such a big deal, time-wise, no? And the payoff is tremendous. While instant yeast does a consistent job of leavening, or raising, your dough, sourdough starter will raise the dough but also do much, much more. The lactobacilli – the acidic bacteria that are fermenting the bread dough – predigest the simple carbohydrates in the flour, lowering the glycemic index of the bread. They also predigest different components of the grains, including the gluten, making the bread more digestible, and the nutrients more available for our bodies to absorb. Not only is sourdough bread less inflammatory, it’s more delicious! The amino acids and enzymes in the sourdough add complexity and brightness to the flavor of the bread. I call it a major win-win.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT FLOUR
Now that we have some starter, some good flour is needed (mind the pun again). Why should you bother seeking out special flour for your bread? A huge question for perhaps another discussion, but let’s just briefly think about that typical bag of flour that you buy in the supermarket. You can make delicious stuff with it, for sure, but is it actually the flour which is making your baked goods delicious? No, not in the least. Modern wheat flour is designed to be highly-productive, disease-resistant, shelf-stable. Do any of these characteristics have anything to do with taste or nutrition? It’s a legitimate question and maybe something that we’ve taken for granted. My hope, however, is for your homemade bread to go beyond what you can buy at the store, and to do this you need flour that has been grown and harvested for health, flavor and nutrition. Try something from a local farm where they’re not planting hundreds of thousands of acres of grain, shipping and storing it for indefinite amounts of time. A local flour will be more recently milled, as well. Think of the difference between a cup of coffee made with freshly-ground beans and one made with pre-ground ones. Fresh milling is where the flavor is at, for sure! And there is even more to consider when choosing your local flour than just the fresher milling and shorter storage-time. You’ll be supporting farms that are concerned with the health and diversity of both the soil and our diets. Just as 20 years ago most of our tomatoes were standard, red globes – unlike the plethora of colors and flavors we get to enjoy thanks to farmers bringing back heirloom varieties — so are there many different, original strains of wheat, each with its own flavor and nutrition profiles. Mix it up, play with different flours, and you’ll discover that wheat actually does have flavor too.
Should you only use whole-grain flour in this ideal loaf of bread? Well, that’s another tricky question. Yes, the flavor and nutrition in wheat primarily come from the exterior of the grain, the bran and the germ, which is all sifted out when they make white flour. However, these particles of bran and germ do tend to get in the way of the gluten/protein strands as they form during fermentation (remember the gassy by-product referenced above?) The bubbles that are created are held in place as they expand by the gluten, or protein, which exists naturally in wheat and a few other grains. It’s what allows the bread to have an airiness and a chew to it. When flour makes contact with water, the gluten in the wheat is activated and it starts to form strands of protein which will give the texture to the bread. If there are particles of grain present, the strands will be shorter. This is why most truly whole-grain bread is heavier, due to the smaller air pockets in the rising dough. Not totally a horrible thing, for sure, especially when the trade-off results in delicious, healthy bread, but maybe not your ideal. This is why many whole-grain breads do contain some white flour in the mix. By lightening up the dough you get the benefit of the whole grains, as well as the elasticity and lightness from the starchy bread flour. Tangentially, it is also a good idea to “mix in” any extra whole grains or seeds after the dough has begun to develop, for this same reason. By letting the gluten activate first, those add-ins won’t affect the texture of the final loaf, possibly weighing it down.
A 'BREAD OVEN' IN YOUR OVEN
There is one last thing you should consider before making your own sourdough bread at home: what you’re going to bake it in. A cast iron Dutch oven or other heavy, covered metal pan is your ideal “bread-oven-in-your-oven” for a few reasons. A commercial bread oven is designed to maintain an optimal level of consistent, high heat to allow for the best “oven spring,” that last burst of fermentation from the yeast as it comes into contact with the heat of the oven and rapidly expands before it dies from the high temperature. The commercial oven also has a steam application which gives the expanding dough the right amount of moisture to allow the crust to caramelize (just like your seared piece of meat does at high heat), and simultaneously seal in the humidity needed to cook the interior of the bread, creating that moist, chewy crumb. A heavy pot such as a Dutch oven can do both of these things for your homemade bread. Baking in a preheated Dutch oven is the simplest way to seal in the steam and get the intense heat needed for a fabulous, crusty and satisfying loaf.
Some sourdough starter, some good flour and grains or seeds, and a Dutch oven — these basically are all that is necessary to bake some lovely bread at home and create a tradition of wholesome, real food to lift your health and spirit at the same time. Now when I think about the wheat in my diet it is an entirely different experience to my previous, wheat-centric self. It is a conscious decision, not a mindless grabbing of whatever is at hand. During the pandemic, there were shortages of flour and yeast as folks took advantage of the time at home to be present to attend to bread at its various stages. But really, I think it was something more than that. Since we now know that we don’t really need to be constantly monitoring our sourdough or our bread dough — and the timing in the following recipe can largely be manipulated to accommodate your schedule — I believe that it was more a hunger for comfort, for connection, and for tending to something nourishing and real which fueled the pandemic’s sourdough baking craze. It makes perfect sense, and it is achievable under any circumstances, not only extreme conditions of stress and isolation. I’d love for you to discover in 2023 your inner bread baker, and spread the joy while you encourage a healthy, holistic approach to grains in your kitchen.
BASIC SOURDOUGH BREAD
(Adapted from the wonderful book, "Breadsong" by Kitty and Al Tait, a true homage to the healing powers of bread baking.)
For feeding the starter 5-8 hours before:
3/4 cup (90 grams) flour
1/4 cup (60 grams) warm water
For the bread:
1 3/4 cups (420 grams) warm water
1/2 cup (120 grams) sourdough starter
1 2/3 cups (200 grams) bread flour
2 1/3 cups (300 grams) whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (12 grams) kosher or sea salt
3/4 cup mixed whole grains for bread or seeds/nut mix
5-8 hours before you want to mix your loaf, pull out your starter from the fridge and transfer 1/4 cup (60 grams) to a bowl. Discard the rest (or share with a friend or make Sourdough Discard Chocolate Chip Cookies, my latest obsession). Add the flour and water to the starter and mix together. Cover and leave out 5-8 hours to jump-start the fermentation.
After the starter has reactivated, mix the dough: Add the water and flours to your starter. Mix in the salt. Combine with a spatula, your hand, or a dough scraper just until everything is combined. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, a loose lid, a plate, or a damp towel, and set aside for 15-30 minutes. After this rest, you will give your dough its first “turn.” Since sourdough bread dough is quite sticky and will undergo a long, slow fermentation, there is no need to knead this dough. Instead, you will ideally do a series of three turns, one every 15-30 minutes after mixing together the dough initially.
For the first turn, imagine the ball of dough in front of you (you can leave it in the bowl for the turns) as the face of a clock. Pull with either a damp hand or a dough scraper starting at 12 o’clock, stretch the handful of dough out and then fold it back onto itself into the center of the clock. Repeat, moving around the whole circle of dough once; this takes about 5-6 folds usually. The whole turn process should take less than a minute. Lightly cover the dough and leave to rest until it’s convenient for you to do the second turn (ideally 15 minutes at the least, but I’ve been known to rush the process if I’ve got to go somewhere and guess what? My bread was still perfectly fine!). For the third turn, this is when I sprinkle my add-ins onto the dough and fold them in. After the third turn you have a choice: Depending on your schedule, you can either place the covered bowl in the refrigerator for 8-16 hours (overnight) for the first fermentation, or you can leave it out for 3-5 hours to rest on the counter and do the first fermentation outside of the fridge. Once the first fermentation is complete (this is when either that long stay in the fridge is finished, or when your dampened finger, poked into the dough, makes an indentation that stays, rather than springing back out, showing you that the dough has fully expanded and has no remaining elasticity), you will prepare a mold to shape the bread into. This is usually for me a bowl that is slightly bigger than the ball of dough, lined with a cloth napkin or dishtowel (not a terrycloth one, to avoid the dough sticking to it). I sprinkle the napkin very generously with rice flour, oats, or cornmeal, something to keep it from sticking to the napkin during this second rise. Place the dough on a floured board or countertop and stretch the top of the ball of dough as you did for the turns earlier, this time aiming to make a smooth top to the bread and bringing all of the folded edges together at the bottom. Flip the dough over so your hands are cradling the smooth top of the bread and roll it to tighten the ball and sort of drag it around the board to seal all of those ends together. Plop the dough smooth-side down into your prepared napkin/bowl. If your first rise was out of the fridge, now you are going to place the bowl of shaped dough in the fridge overnight to bake the next day. If the first rise was overnight, now the shaped dough can rise on the counter (always covered; you need to keep any moisture on the dough. If it dries out, it will impede the rising). Check it regularly with the damp finger “poke test.” When the hole made by your finger-poke stays and the dough doesn’t spring back and fill in the hole, it’s ready to bake. At least 30 minutes before you’re ready to bake, turn on your oven to 450F and place the Dutch oven inside to heat up, as well.
The most courageous moment of this whole process is now: flipping your risen ball of dough out of the bowl as you grip the napkin so it doesn’t go into the screaming-hot Dutch oven with the dough. Care, attention, focus, hot pads; all are required for this moment, as well as a sharp knife to make a few slashes across the top before you place the lid tightly on top and pop it into the oven. Set your timer for 20 minutes and wait for the first half of the baking to allow the sealed-in steam to do its magic.
After 20 minutes, it’s time to open the oven, take the lid off the pot and admire the oven spring you achieved. Put the super-hot lid aside and set the timer for the last 20 minutes of the baking. Prepare a cooling rack, as you need to get the baked loaf out of the Dutch oven to cool. Leaving it in will cause it to sweat, ruining the crust we’ve been working to achieve. I use tongs to get the loaf out, but you’ll find the safest way that works.
Remove the pan from the oven and take the temperature of the bread with a kitchen thermometer. Cooked bread reads a minimum of 190F. (I don’t believe in knocking on the bottom of the loaf to see if it sounds “hollow” as I was taught by many recipes, nor do I believe in underbaking the bread after all of this waiting and patience! Everyone’s oven is different and you’re going to find the timing and temperature that work for you, but in any case, you need to take the temperature if you want to be sure that it’s cooked.)
Now for the hardest part: Resist the temptation to cut into the bread while it’s hot. The cooling process is actually a part of the cooking process as the residual steam in the bread finishes gelatinizing the starches, making the bread firm and ultimately more digestible. After 45 minutes it should be good to cut into this delicious, gorgeous loaf of bread and enjoy the magic of everyday fermentation and transformation in your own kitchen.