Doing it by the numbers

Bakers' percentageThe first thing I learned – well, not the first but up there, for sure – is that volume measurements are for amateurs. Being an amateur (and expecting to be there for some time yet), I took it on the chin when asking typical neophyte questions about recipes and ingredients.

Might as well have hung a sign around my posts shouting “newbie!” Well, they were gentle with me, but strict. Tough love among bakers.

Good bakers use weights, not volume, they told me in no uncertain terms. No more cups of flour: grams of flour, instead. Good thing I bought a kitchen scale a while back.

Pro bakers throw percentages into the mix and talk offhand about hydration levels and quote recipes like 60-2 bread, or 80-2-2.5. Ouch. That sound is my head exploding.

This makes baking like an exercise in advanced math, you know that class that caused your head to ache in high school? Yeah, like that. Not convinced? Watch this video (I have, a few times):

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YTIrgv4JCI]

Got that? Good, there’ll be a test later… (here’s some more study material and part two is here…). And that’s what the real bakers use.

But, you argue, my mother (or father) always used volume and her (his) bread always turned out okay. Well, it’s still okay to use them, but it’s a by-guess-and-by-golly method and you can never be quite sure what you baked with that recipe last time will turn out the same the next.

Like imperial measurements lack the crispness of metric, volume lacks the precision of weight. The pros use weight. And percentages. And if I want to talk with the big kids, I need to be able to speak their language. My baker’s textbook is, by the way, on a UPS truck as I write this.

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Road Trip to K2

K2 MillNo, not to the mountain. To the mill. The flour mill in Beeton, a little more than an hour’s drive southeast of me. We took a little road trip today in my never-ending quest for baking ingredients. Susan came along, showing remarkable tolerance for my obsession.

K2 is a modest, old-fashioned place that grinds flour – the only mill still operating in the county, as far as I have been able to tell. And one of the rare artisanal mills at all in Ontario.

And of course it sells its products, as well as some other items like maple syrup, hemp products, local photographer’s cards and some gift items.

K2 also hosts a bread market and is open Mon. – Fri. 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., and Sundays 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. The mill’s Blogspot site says it sells millet, oats, barley, spelt, buckwheat, durham, corn, Red Fife and “Osprey” (A local, hard spring wheat).  Plus some malted barley (I went in great hope to get the latter, since I want to work with diastatic malt in my breadmaking).

The New Tec Times tells us:

The building is old, dating back to the 1870s, and adds a rustic charm suitable for a business that sells its products on site.

The mill is a new business in town having started operations in December of 2012.

Proprietor Mark Hayhoe is a third generation miller…

“It’s a village mill. A lot of the people who supply grain here, live around here.” Mark explained. “It’s kind of de-industrialized milling. The style of milling we do is an older technology where you are basically milling it once.”

In addition to selling flour, bread, and other products to the public, they host a farmers market on the property every Saturday.

In an interview in Specialty Ontario, Hayhoe said:

k2M is artisanal due to it’s size and nature of milling. We are able to produce ultrafine whole grain flour in a single pass from grain that is grown local to the mill. The broad capability of milling many different grains, on their own or as an assemblage, is another unique feature of our mill… Cold milling is the process of milling grain in a minimalist manner (single grind) while keeping the temperature low to preserve life and vitality of the flour… Our grains are mainly sourced from local farms.

K2’s grains have also been used to produce Ontario’s first organic grain spirit:

Mark is able to mill the wheat while preserving the components of the whole grain.

It also has its own Facebook page.

The mill was out of malt, but the owner, Mark, went to the mill and brought out a small bag of malted barley grains, which he ground for me, no charge. It’s enough to get me started, next week.

The breads they offer are also made locally, at the 100 Acre Bakery. Although the temptation was to buy at least one of everything, I purchased only a single sourdough boule. Susan got a bag of cinnamon buns.  I might make a trip to the bakery next, to see if the owners will talk to me about sourdough.

I also got 10lbs of the Osprey and 10 lbs of the Red Fife flours. I should make a trip there one day when they’re milling the flour, so see it in action. When I run out of flour, or course… which may not happen for a few more weeks, what this new lot and some already on hand – about 35-40 lbs in the cupboards. Maybe I should start giving loaves away as gifts…
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These Poolish Things…

52 LoavesPoolish. Levain. Banneton. Autolyse. Retardation. Lactobaccilli. Bassinage. Windowpane test. Crumb. Batard. Barm. A new vocabulary is building in me, one that brings the lore of breadmaking, the etymology of the loaf to my conversation.*

It’s a necessary vocabulary, if one wants to fully understand the techniques and technology of baking bread. Knowing the names of things gives one power. It’s also a bit like being welcomed into a secret society where members whisper to one another in their codified language. Is there a secret handshake?

It also helps broach that disconnect between our modern selves and what we eat. Knowing the process, knowing the steps and the names, is like pulling aside the curtain to see the man who is the reality of Oz.

I don’t know the secret language of, say, asparagus, or broccoli, pasta or tea – although I consume them all in quantity. I don’t know the processes that turn peanuts into peanut butter, ginger into marmalade or milk into yogurt. (I may venture into pastas, once I get a pasta maker… and I am pulled by the gravity of tea to learn more…)

They, in my state of ignorant bliss, simply are. Like most foodstuffs, they appear on supermarket shelves, cut, cleaned, packaged and ready to be purchased. There is no hint of earth about them, no stench of manure, no crunch of dry hay beneath my feet as I stalk the aisles. No field workers, not tractors, no sprayers, plows and hoes impede my supermarket visits.

How they get to that status is magical, at least to my understanding.** It’s like religion: it involves the intervention of some supernatural entity to get them to readiness. And like religion, when you gain the gnosis of how it all works, you don’t always become an unbeliever. You may, as with breads, become a more fervent adherent, a true believer.

But I’m learning the lingo.

I had thought, after my previous bread post, to create a separate blog about my as-yet amateurish breadmaking efforts (loaves 10 and 11 are in the process of being devoured), and the quest for the perfect loaf.

That was until William Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves, fell into my hands last week. Then I realized someone had done it before, and better than I could hope to. It’s subtitled: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. Now my intent seems presumptuous. Doesn’t mean I won’t still do it, just that I’ve been humbled in my intentions by a better writer’s effort.

I really like his book. I can relate to many of his issues and concerns. I read the first ten chapters in one bedtime sitting.

Along his journey, Alexander throws in some science, some philosophy, some travel notes and insights into his personal and family life while he obsesses on replicating a bread he tasted once in France:

“The bread clinging to the crust was every bit as good. It wasn’t white, wasn’t whole wheat; it was something in between, and had a rustic quality to it — a coarse texture that, while managing to be light and airy with plenty of holes, also had real substance and a satisfying resistance to the bite. This bread didn’t ball up in your mouth like white bread and, like the crust, it was yeasty, just slightly sweet, and exhaled (yes, the bread exhaled) an incredible perfume that, cartoon-like, wafted up from the table, did a curl, and, it seemed, levitated me from the table. I was seduced, body and soul, my senses overloaded.”

Large loaf, Nov 14Damn. It seemed like such a good idea (although given my own talent, it might be more like 101 loaves, or even 1,001 before I get to that level).

And that’s just what I’m after: to make bread, rustic bread, like that our friend Bill brings up to us from a Guelph baker when he visits. A combination of taste and texture that will haunt my every loaf until I get it right myself.

But let’s move on. Alexander is clearly better at baking, has more money and dedication than I, so I will learn at his metaphorical feet.***

I want to learn how to make breads with a starter.

That can be a biga, poolish, levain or sourdough. All related, but not the same. Poolish and biga are sponges: pre-ferments.  Usually made of simply water, flour and yeast. But it’s not quite that simple. Care and feeding is necessary. Am I baking bread or adopting a new pet? Given the personal attention some bakers pay to the fermenting starter, I wonder.

Wikipedia gives us a confused but entertaining etymology of the word poolish:

The common, but undocumented, origin given for the term poolish is that it was first used by Polish bakers around 1840, hence its name, and as a method was brought to France in the beginning of the 1920s. “Poolish” however is an old English version of “Polish”, whereas the term seems to be most used in France (where “polonais” is the word for “Polish”). Some nineteenth-century sources use the homophone “pouliche”, a French word that typically means a female foal. With either spelling, the term only appears in French sources towards the last part of the nineteenth century. There is not currently any credible explanation for the origin of the term.

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Gluten, Sourdough, Fads and Ailments

Gluten breakdownGluten, that everyday protein found in many grains, has become the health-fad followers’ most recent evil spectre, and many (one in three, stats show) have jumped onto the anti-gluten bandwagon, generally with a simplistic message: “gluten bad.”

Like most diet fads, I expect it will likely fall off centre stage when the next Big Thing To Rise Against comes along. But meanwhile, until the next fad raises its head, gluten gets sensationalized, demonized and generally misunderstood.

Headlines like this abound (it was matched by a CBC Radio story on Ontario Morning Tuesday, Nov. 12):

Sourdough breadmaking cuts gluten content in baked goods
Celiacs and gluten avoiders have a new way to enjoy a slice of bread

That’s from a misleading and potentially dangerous CBC story about sourdough bread. It’s dangerous because there are people who suffer severe reaction from gluten intake (celiac disease or CD), and others who have non-celiac intolerance (sensitivities) to gluten (not, as some sites say, an allergy) and they might be misled to think sourdough bread is now safe.

People – thinking CBC a reliable, even credible source – might consume regular sourdough bread  – or at least bread labelled as “sourdough” – believing this article deems it safe, when it may in fact cause severe and painful reactions.*

The article says:

A handful of recent studies have some good news for those trying to reduce the amount of gluten they eat — old-fashioned sourdough baking techniques significantly cut gluten content in bread…

But the reporter fails to identify those studies, so readers need to research to find out what those studies actually say (and more importantly, what they don’t say). Nor does the writer say whether all sourdough methods work, or just some (Google sourdough starter and you’ll find hundreds of recipes, some including wild yeast, others with domestic yeast). The writer then adds:

A team of Italian scientists led by Luigi Greco at the University of Naples authored a 2010 study that showed significantly lower levels of gluten in sourdough made according to old methods.

Old methods? Like leaving the started in peasant’s thatch-roof, mud-walled hut shared with the family pig?

Well, unless I completely misread it, that study of 13 people didn’t say anything of the sort about “old methods” It showed reduced gluten in “fully hydrolyzed wheat flour” that had been treated in a sterile laboratory environment with a clinical mix of cultured bacteria commonly found in sourdough, as well as adding fungal enzymes:

Fermentation with selected lactobacilli added with fungal proteases, routinely used as an improver in bakery industries, decreased the concentration of gluten to below 10 ppm. Despite the markedly reduced concentration of gluten, the resulting spray-dried flour was still adequately workable. As shown in this and other studies, the hydrolyzed flour is suitable for making sweet baked goods and also bread and pasta if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…

A 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with CD.

Which is good news and encourages further research, but not a promise that all breads labelled “sourdough” will have that effect. Or that the baker’s sourdough starter will have the ingredients in the necessary quantities and balance of ingredients to sufficiently reduce the  gluten in the flour. Or that the length of fermentation will be sufficient to achieve those results. Or that the flours used in the bakery are the same as those used in the research (different flours have different gluten levels).

Notice that caveat for bakers: “…if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…” These test subjects were fed pastries, not breads or pasta.

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I’m struggling with this…

Recent bread loafMy recent passion for bread and baking has caused a bit of an internal upset. Not the baking thereof, but rather the writing about it. I’m doing a lot of that, recently. Writing (and, yes, baking too). And of course it comes with the attendant research into bread’s history, the combing through websites for recipes and book reviews, the hunt for equipment and the discussions about yeasts, pH balance, sourdough starters, Canadian versus American flours, protein contents, vintage and ancient grains… gawds, I’m having fun.

And it is, if you don’t mind some hyperbole, damn tasty fun.

It’s both culinary and hands-on science, with a bushel of history tossed into the mix. I haven’t had this much fun since I discovered the ukulele, back in 2008.

I suppose everyone needs new challenges, new horizons, new mountains to conquer. Bread – well, so far artisan, rustic bread – is my latest Everest.  Which is a bit synchronistic, because sourdough is often described as the “Everest of breads” and sourdough is one of my next projects. Enroute to that pinnacle, I have a lot to learn. But sourdough is on the horizon for this winter.

It’s a bit of a throwback for me because I was baking bread 25-30 years ago with all the earnestness of a wannabe chef. My notes from classes at the Toronto Academy of Culinary Arts date to the mid-1970s. I was making bread (albeit mostly in bread machines by 1988) into the late 1980s. I stopped after we moved here. Now I’ve started again.

BouleThanks to both a spate of new books on breadmaking and the internet, I can now re-indulge that interest and share the experiences of others, as well as their recipes. It’s an obsession, I admit, but a creative one.

I am pondering starting a whole new WordPress blog zone for my baking and research about bread. One amateur to another, it would be. Here’s me flailing around with recipe after recipe, tweaking, tinkering and photographing. And about the historical impact and implications of bread, as I have recently posted (on the impact of ergot and witchcraft via bread). My naked tweets would be – unlike Anthony Wiener’s – about my bread results.

Bread blogging is actually been and being done successfully on other sites such as The Fresh Loaf (highly recommended if you’re into bread baking, by the way). But I am reluctant to create my own blog zone on their site (if for nothing more than I want to be able to create recipes in my preferred format and style, which is possible through WP plug-ins). Besides, there have a lot more accomplished people there, and my efforts would seem presumptuous.

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Bread, Madness and Christianity

St. Anthony's FireThe witch craze of Europe is a popular, albeit often misrepresented, part of our collective history. Everyone knows witches were hunted, tortured and often killed – burned at the stake, a particularly repulsive method of murder. While not a uniquely Christian form of killing, it was practiced widely by Christians throughout history in every European nation, perfected in ritual by the Spanish Inquisition.

Hunting witches in the period between 1480 and 1750 (the so-called “classical period” of witch hunting) resulted in between 40,000 and 60,000 executions, although some authorities guess the total to be as high as 100,000.

While it’s politically correct these days to report they were all  killed at the hands of religious zealots, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. But that’s not the subject of this post.

What really interests me is the potential cause of this madness, not the religious response to it. Yes, I know the belief in witches has been around since biblical times, in many cultures, and people are still being killed today because of it, but Europe’s witch craze was something different; almost an industrial scale of madness and murder. Why so many?

The answer may lie in that staple of our foodstuffs: bread.

Okay, not all breads. Just breads made with rye flour, it seems (well, not 100%, but that’ comes a bit further down the post, No peeking!). Pumpernickel, a dense rye bread, may derive it’s name from the German for Devil’s Fart. Really. The stuff you learn online. Anyway, witches may be the result of food poisoning – not, as the church believed, the supernatural. Bad case of mistaken identity, that.

Dance of DeathRye grain (Secale cereale) is susceptible to ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus with a whole lot of chemicals in it that, when eaten, have some nasty side effects, from burning to madness to death. I mentioned this briefly in a recent blog post on the history of bread making. It’s a fascinating chapter in the history of bread (which itself is a fascinating chapter in the history of humanity).

The madness comes from the alkaloids in ergot that bear a resemblance to LSD as Wikipedia tells us:

The ergot sclerotium contains high concentrations (up to 2% of dry mass) of the alkaloid ergotamine, a complex molecule consisting of a tripeptide-derived cyclol-lactam ring connected via amide linkage to a lysergic acid (ergoline) moiety, and other alkaloids of the ergoline group that are biosynthesized by the fungus. Ergot alkaloids have a wide range of biological activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmission.
Ergot alkaloids can be classified into two classes:

  1. derivatives of 6,8-dimethylergoline and
  2. lysergic acid derivatives.

Ah, Timothy Leary, where were you when you were needed back in the 15th and 16th centuries? The madness and physical side effects of eating ergot is colloquially called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” We call it ergotism today:

In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony’s fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).

Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.

A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.

I suspect the effect would have been frightening, confusing and disorienting – combined with the physical pains, burning, convulsions, the gangrene and other effects. No one would connect the effects with rye until the late 17th century. But for more than a millennium, stories of outbreaks of madness and St. Anthony’s Fire would fill the chronicles.**

And it would often be blamed not on the bread, but on a supernatural cause: the devil, demons or witchcraft. Christianity was not particularly kind to people accused of consorting with the devil.

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What Bread Would Chaucer Have Eaten?

Starter mixI was mulling over the growth of the whole ‘artisan bread’  movement as I made another batch of dough last week to cold ferment in the fridge. As I lay in bed reading one night, I started to wonder what sort of bread Chaucer would have eaten. Or Shakespeare.

That led to: how was bread made 500 years ago? 1,000? What ingredients did they use? How did the technology and techniques develop? How was yeast’s work discovered and when? How authentic is today’s bread? Aside, that is, from the  refined flour, sugar, salt and highly domesticated yeast…

So I started to do a little online research. (Visual pun: That’s my latest starter on the left, with my latest effort, a modest pan bread made from a similar starter, a bit further below).

First stop: Gode Cookery, a website dedicated to historical – Medieval to Renaissance – cooking, recipes and food. It offers both pages on Chaucer’s food, but also numerous pages and recipes for bread and here.*

Lots of material for experimentation there, but not a lot of narrative history about how bread was developed and worked. Was it kneaded, or just allowed to rise naturally? Where did yeast come from? Flour? How were loaves shaped? Cooked?

A little note I found elsewhere says the English word “lord” comes from the old English “hlaford” (“loaf ward”) which means “keeper of the bread.” Zingerman’s notes:

Historically bread has played an important role in nearly every major European culture. In the Bible the word “bread” is synonymous with “nourishment.” The English word “lord” is derived from the old English “hlaford”, meaning “keeper of the bread.” The role of challah and matzoh in Judaism and the communion wafer in Christianity are, of course, well known. The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “companio”, meaning “one who shares bread.” And in our society, think about what the use of the slang terms “dough” and “bread” for money says about our 20th-century priorities.

Starter mixBack to Chaucer. Bread is mentioned several times in the Canterbury tales. In  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer wrote:

Her board was mostly garnished, white and black,
With milk and brown bread, whereof she’d no lack,
Broiled bacon and sometimes an egg or two,
For a small dairy business did she do.

Ah, but what kind of brown bread? Was this rye or a whole wheat? In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, he writes:

Let such be bread of purest white wheat-seed,
And let us wives be called but barley bread;
And yet with barley bread, if Mark you scan
Jesus Our Lord refreshed full many a man.

So clearly white and dark breads have different social connotations. Again, bread is mentioned in the General Prologue, in discussion of the Franklin:

He loved to dip his morning bread in wine.
A pleasing live was the custom he’d won,
For he was Epicurus’ very son,
That held opinion that plain and pure delight
Was true happiness, perfect and right.
A householder, and that a great, was he;
Saint Julian he was in his own country.
His bread, his ale were always good and fine;
No man had cellars better stocked with wine.

Bread also appears in other tales; brief mentions, not as a centrepiece, and seldom described with any more detail. Food and drink were literary props for Chaucer, but – according to Food in the Arts – weren’t all that important to him:

Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don’t give the modern culinary historian much to work on.

Gode Cookery tells us bread was one of the :

 …most common and vital foodstuffs of the Middle Ages, it was, and has always been a daily staple of life. Essential to Medieval society, a rise in the cost of wheat or a scarcity of bread usually marked the beginning of a time of famine or economic calamity. Figures indicate that in England, the average lowly household allowed everyone about 2 to 3 pounds of wheat bread a day, while in France wheat records show that each citizen had enough wheat for about a 2-pound loaf each day. Clearly, bread was the basis of the Medieval diet. References to many varieties of bread appear throughout Chaucer’s writings.

Two to three pounds of bread a day? Of course, the loaves were smaller, and denser, not like the commercial sponge bread we have today.  Still…  This site suggests peasants ate as much as two loaves of bread every day: 2,200 to 3,000 calories in bread alone:

A prosperous English peasant in the 14th century would probably consume 2 – 3 pounds of bread, 8 ounces of meat or fish or other protein and 2 -3 pints of ale per day. The bread was usually mean of rye, oats, or barley. Meat was expensive and usually only available on special occasions. Often eggs, butter, or cheese were substituted for meat. Vegetables such as onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, turnips, parsnips, peas and beans were staples. Fruits were available in season.

Rye could also be problematic: it is susceptible to a fungus called ergot, which can drive people mad, or even kill them. It might make them appears as ‘witches,’ too (many of the famous witch hunts happened after an outbreak of ergot poisoning, it seems):

Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system.

Note to self: check rye flour before using. People already think I’m crazy. No need to confirm it for them.

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Bread Tales, Continued

Artisan BreadThis week I started a small batch of dough to bake later in the week, or on the weekend while I figure out a few details on my baking odyssey (and do some online research on a number of related issues). Probably just a small loaf  this time, and I’ll likely do it in a pan. I plan to start a larger batch of dough, Sunday with the goal of a longer-term cold fermentation. And possibly a sourdough starter.

The last loaf I made, a mere three days ago, is almost gone.  Funny how homemade bread gets eaten so quickly.

I baked it in the inside ceramic bowl from a crock pot (result pictured below). The loaf was big and tasty, good consistency for sandwiches and toast, with a great crust. But not perfect.

The bottom 1/4 inch was not as fully cooked as the rest – not doughy or raw, just a trifle under-cooked compared to the top. After a day in the fridge, it was barely noticeable.

I had also mixed a little margarine into the dough before the rising. Not really sure what difference that makes, so I left it out for the subsequent batch.

I think I should have divided the dough into two parts rather than try for one big loaf. I’ll know better next time.

In the interim, I’ve been busy reading Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, trying to figure out what I’m doing to bread that isn’t what they do. The pictures in the book make my mouth water, but the results confound my abilities.

Basically I want simple, chewy, tasty loaves. I have the style exactly in mind – our friend Bill brings us “rustic” loaves from a Guelph baker that match my ideal bread. I’ve not found anything locally – even at the farmers’ market – that matches them.

I just haven’t managed to replicate it myself. Not that my efforts have been bad, just not what I have in my mind as my ideal loaf.

I have the crust and the taste working for me (although the crust is chewy, it’s not quite as crunchy – perhaps I need more steam during the baking), but the inside – the “crumb”  – isn’t what I want. It’s good bread, very edible, but has a texture more like commercial sourdough bread than the artisan breads I’m aiming for. Still, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve managed after two decades or more of not baking. Besides, I’m having fun and learning a lot.

Back to the book. One reviewer wrote:

The basic idea behind these books is to be able to have wonderful, bakery quality bread in your own home and on demand. You whip up a “master batch” of dough that has enough water in it so the molecules in the bread can do their thing and you don’t have to knead the bread. This master batch stays in your refrigerator, covered loosely, for up to two weeks. When you want a fresh loaf, you just cut a piece of the dough from the master batch, form the loaf, let it rise on the counter and bake. Easy peasy. I can tell you, I was skeptical.

Well, turns out, these books are everything they claim to be. Sort of little bread miracle guide books.

If you don’t know this book, it’s the most-talked-about bread book on all the baking/cooking sites and blogs. Mine arrived two days ago, so I’m not too far into it and still working on recipe numero uno and the basics they discuss up front. It starts with simple recipes, and progresses. With some luck, I’ll be able to bake in parallel with their recipes.

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The New Art of the Old: Baking Artisan Bread

bread rising Oct 14So far, my re-entry into the world of baking bread has gone fairly well. I started rather hesitantly, unsure of the results, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the flavour, texture and quality so far. Yesterday I baked my latest loaf, as well as started a larger batch for baking in a few days.

I have not ventured into any of the challenging or regional breads, but will do so once I am confident in making this simple artisan-style bread.

I began with a simple recipe and technique from the Bread Experience blog.  I had scoured the web for recipes and found way too many to absorb. As a novice, I wanted something quick and easy, but also small. I anticipated tossing my first efforts into the compost, so I didn’t want to waste ingredients. The recipe here came with illustrations and a well-written description that made it look like a good place to start.

Bread baked Oct 14The recipe is adapted from the book that seems to have revolutionized home baking: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I haven’t read it, but almost every bread baking site and blog I visit refers to it in glowing terms. I have in my basket on Amazon. I didn’t want to invest into books yet until I had some feel for the basics.

The blog lists four simple, natural ingredients:

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1/2 tablespoon Kosher salt
  • 1 – 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water

You should also have either cornmeal or parchment paper to keep the bread from sticking to whatever surface you bake on. I chose the Robin Hood all-purpose flour marked “best for bread” on the package. I used the basic dry Fleishmann yeast, poured into the mix right from the package, as the recipe suggests. And also parchment paper.

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Bread the Old-Fashioned Way

Bread step 1...For all the reading, the reviewing and the researching for the best bread maker these past few days, it’s somewhat ironic that instead I turned back to the old-fashioned method and made a couple of loaves by hand, this morning.

Not perfect – I haven’t made bread these past twenty-odd years, and have forgotten the techniques and the tricks I knew back then. More time was needed for the rising, but I grew impatient, and unsure about the timing. Into the oven too soon.

But they are tasty nonetheless. Chewy, rich and delicious, especially warm. And reasonably light, but with a wonderfully leathery crust.

The smell of baking bread wafting up the stairs was enough to get Susan out of bed to come and enjoy a buttered slice with her morning tea. Dogs gathered around, sniffing for crumbs. It seemed like a moment out of some other, homier, domestic world. We talked about her aunt, who baked bread every day, in her small rural English village.

We have a different culture here in Canada (and the USA): convenience. Bakeries have for decades been almost a curiosity, an affectation, or an ethnic thing. They weren’t common in the suburbs, with its population of supermarkets and strip malls.

That may be changing – even big supermarket chains now offer in-store baked bread, buns, muffins, etc. But for the most part, they aren’t as good, at least in my experience, as those small bakery products.

Better, of course, that the majority of pre-packaged, sliced breads we casually buy: the loaves of replicated perfection and uniformity we put in the grocery cart week after week. Not always the healthiest choice, of course, but even these have getting better:

As recently as 15 years ago, 80 percent of bread sold in the U.S. was white bread.(1) Today, it’s a much different story. We’re buying more whole grain bread and less white, and in 2010, for the first time, sales of whole wheat bread surpassed that of white bread—$2.6 billion compared with $2.5 billion.(2) Thanks to education, availability, and improved labeling (like stamps and logos indicating healthier products), whole grains have become a top priority with consumers.

Bread step 2...Don’t be fooled: many in-store breads aren’t really artisan. They come frozen, pre-mixed and read to shove into the oven. Like a fast food oputlet, where the “fresh” food arrives frozen and pre-cooked, merely heated in store.

Well, the bread dough still needs to be cooked, but the recipes are fixed, immutable and almost as perfect as the packaged stuff. The employees don’t do much more than feed the oven, then stuff the results into the appropriate bags.

However, I like it better than 95% of all packaged breads (Rudolph’s and Dimpflmeier’s breads are an exception…), but I don’t have the same attachment to these pseudo-artisan breads as I do those from a real bakery. They seem less authentic, but so do most big-store items.*

To be fair, some of the breads offered in stores are brought in from real bakeries (usually outside the region), places like Ace Bakeries. And some of these are great products, worth the $3-$4-$5-and-up a loaf. Some are pale imitations, overpriced and mediocre. It’s hit-and-miss (and I’ve tried many).

I’m of an age when I can remember the breadman and the milkman delivering door-to-door. That’s long gone. I don’t remember the breads, but I remember the milk bottles, with their funny necks that held the cream when it rose, so it could be poured off. The Fifties. So long ago. Back then, spongy, tasteless white bread was the pinnacle of modernity. Crusts were tossed into the trash. The miracles of science translated into the domestic life.

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The Smallest Helper

Yeast - Saccharomyces cerevisiaeWhile I was pondering the nature of flour in my cogitations about bread machines (I’m still debating which model, by the way – suggestions welcome, but local stores have few options), I turned my grey matter to the business of yeast. Yeast is, of course, important in bread making because it makes bread rise.

Why? You ask. Well, dear reader, the answer is simple but not pretty: farts.

Yep. Yeast flatulence makes bread rise. Yeast out-gases carbon dioxide after it eats. The gas gets trapped in the gooey dough and, since it can’t escape, the dough expands. Food writer Linda Stradley puts it more genteelly:

The main purpose of yeast is to serve as a catalyst in the process of fermentation, which is essential in the making of bread. The purpose of any leavener is to produce the gas that makes bread rise. Yeast does this by feeding on the sugars in flour, and expelling carbon dioxide in the process.  As the yeast feeds on the sugar, it produces carbon dioxide. With no place to go but up, this gas slowly fills the balloon. A very similar process happens as bread rises. Carbon dioxide from yeast fills thousands of balloon-like bubbles in the dough. Once the bread has baked, this is what gives the loaf its airy texture.

You’d think something as simple as a single-celled plant would be pretty easy, but it’s a rich topic with a lot of considerations, opinions and options.

Not all yeasts are the same, although all have characteristics in common. Yeast is one of many species of a mono-cellular plant – a eukaryote – which Wikipedia somewhat stuffily describes as:

Yeasts are eukaryotic microorganisms classified in the kingdom Fungi, with 1,500 species currently described (estimated to be 1% of all fungal species).  Yeasts are unicellular, although some species with yeast forms may become multicellular through the formation of strings of connected budding cells known as pseudohyphae, or false hyphae, as seen in most molds.
Yeast size can vary greatly depending on the species, typically measuring 3–4 µm in diameter, although some yeasts can reach over 40 µm. Most yeasts reproduce asexually by mitosis, and many do so by an asymmetric division process called budding.
By fermentation, the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae converts carbohydrates to carbon dioxide and alcohols – for thousands of years the carbon dioxide has been used in baking and the alcohol in alcoholic beverages. It is also a centrally important model organism in modern cell biology research, and is one of the most thoroughly researched eukaryotic microorganisms. Researchers have used it to gather information about the biology of the eukaryotic cell and ultimately human biology.
Other species of yeasts, such as Candida albicans, are opportunistic pathogens and can cause infections in humans. Yeasts have recently been used to generate electricity in microbial fuel cells, and produce ethanol for the biofuel industry.
Yeasts do not form a single taxonomic or phylogenetic grouping. The term “yeast” is often taken as a synonym for Saccharomyces cerevisiae, but the phylogenetic diversity of yeasts is shown by their placement in two separate phyla: the Ascomycota and the Basidiomycota. The budding yeasts (“true yeasts”) are classified in the order Saccharomycetales.

Got that? Good yeasts, bad yeasts and not all are helpful. In fact, many are downright harmful. Right now, you’re covered in yeast. It’s on your skin, growing merrily in your navel and every crevice and fold. It’s in the air you breathe. On your pets and children. Much of it is benign, but some is troublesome and can cause food to spoil. Hint: wash your hands before handling foods.

Airborne yeast is what makes sourdough breads work (the wild yeast settles on the starter and colonizes it, reproducing merrily). Sourdoughs are always regional, even local breads because they depend on the yeasts in the air in the room where the starter is laid out. You can buy sourdough starters with embedded yeasts, but  first try making your own. Instructions are on many sites.

PoolishAnd then there’s the poolish – a pre-fermented mix (I used to prepare something like this when I made my own bread, 20+ years ago):

A pre-ferment is a fermentation starter used in bread making, and is referred to as an indirect[1][2] method. It may also be called mother dough.
A pre-ferment and a longer fermentation in the bread-making process have several benefits: there is more time for yeast, enzyme and, if sourdough, bacterial actions on the starch and proteins in the dough; this in turn improves the keeping time of the baked bread, and it creates greater complexities of flavor. Though pre-ferments have declined in popularity as direct additions of yeast in bread recipes have streamlined the process on a commercial level, pre-ferments of various forms are widely used in artisanal bread recipes and formulas.

For us the main type of yeast we want to discuss here is the minuscule powerhouse, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It’s the mainstay of both baking and brewing. But in each it has a different role to play. You might note the Latin connection through the Spanish word for beer – cerveza.

What’s really remarkable is that humans have put these little plants to work for our benefit. Without domesticating yeast, we would have no bread, no beer, no wine, no tequila. Unthinkable! yet they toil at our pleasure for not cost, just the food they eat.

Yeast is our oldest domesticated organism, going back at least 8,000 years in our service. And more recently it has served us well in the lab when trying to work through human genetic issues:

…yeast and humans share about 40 % of highly conserved gene products. Human genes (cDNA), once transferred into yeast, can fully replace the functions of their counterparts.

Several facts underline the importance of yeast research: (i) within the last fifty years, seven Nobel Prize winners (at minimum) have worked with this system; (ii) the yeast genome harbors hundreds of genes that are highly related to ‘disease genes’ in humans: in many cases, the human genes were detected only by comparisons with the yeast genome; and (iii) yeast is successfully used in the research of neurodegenerative diseases, even though yeast has no nervous system whatsoever.

Modern, commercially available yeasts are like laboratory rats: created to serve a purpose and not natural:

Few people realize that the yeast in grocery stores is not a naturally-occurring substance. Laboratory created in 1984, the yeast sold today is so foreign to our digestive systems that some people develop allergies to the yeast itself. This quick-rising yeast appears increasingly connected to the nutritional and digestive disorders that plague so many today, including Celiac’s disease, gluten-intolerance, acid-reflux disease, wheat allergies and even diabetes. Both modern science and traditional wisdom tell us that natural yeast has health benefits that simply cannot be matched by modern yeast.

Without some technical, scientific research to back that up, it’s hard to digest those claims. And I have yet to find authentication of the 1984 date. It’s a complex history:

It appears that bread making dates back at least 6000 years, but use of leavening, which required the development of suitable cereal grains with easily removable hulls, gluten, and the introduction of yeast cells, did not appear until around 500 BC. With the development of agriculture, it was probably found that addition of some of the fermenting wine to dough resulted in a lighter, more pleasant bread. Alternatively, insects may have landed on the dough and inoculated it with yeast.

Yeast has a really fascinating history in human company. Science Daily reports it was a stowaway on European ships travelling to North America 500 years ago:

In the 15th century, when Europeans first began moving people and goods across the Atlantic, a microscopic stowaway somehow made its way to the caves and monasteries of Bavaria.
The stowaway, a yeast that may have been transported from a distant shore on a piece of wood or in the stomach of a fruit fly, was destined for great things. In the dank caves and monastery cellars where 15th century brewmeisters stored their product, the newly arrived yeast fused with a distant relative, the domesticated yeast used for millennia to make leavened bread and ferment wine and ale. The resulting hybrid — representing a marriage of species as evolutionarily separated as humans and chickens — would give us lager, the clear, cold-fermented beer first brewed by 15th century Bavarians and that today is among the most popular — if not the most popular — alcoholic beverage in the world.

And while scientists and brewers have long known that the yeast that gives beer the capacity to ferment at cold temperatures was a hybrid, only one player was known: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast used to make leavened bread and ferment wine and ale. Its partner, which conferred on beer the ability to ferment in the cold, remained a puzzle, as scientists were unable to find it among the 1,000 or so species of yeast known to science.
Now, an international team of researchers believes it has identified the wild yeast that, in the age of sail, apparently traveled more than 7,000 miles to those Bavarian caves to make a fortuitous microbial match that today underpins the $250 billion a year lager beer industry.

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Something so basic, yet so different stands between us

My kinda bread!You’d think it should be this easy: just take a bread machine, throw in all the ingredients listed in the recipe, push a button, wait, remove loaf and eat. Yum.

Nah, of course not. Never is. And there are reasons for this, I’ve been learning.

I have an old bread machine – must be 20 years old or near as dammit – and my results were always mixed, using the recipes in the manual. I constantly tinkered with them. The best loaves were qualified successes. I ate them, Susan balked. The worst were, well, inedible, even for a guy who puts hot sauce on peanut butter.

The machine’s been in the basement fort so long now I’m not sure it still works. Even if it does, it’s a vertical pan and I never liked the crust that produced or the round loaves (when it worked, that is). But I recalled that device last week, with some – possibly misplaced – nostalgia.

Some economic considerations first. I pay $2-$4 for most breads I buy. Some elite types are $5-$7. The small loaves at the $2-$3 range generally last a week, the larger may last two. Depends on what we have for weekend lunch – soup, sandwiches or beans-on-toast. But that’s an average of $2-$3.50 a week on bread. Not a lot of money (Susan has her own bread, but that’s a different tale…).

So a bread maker costs (he checks his notes…) roughly between $100 and $300, depending on whether I want the family sedan or the Rolls Royce model. To justify that cost, the bread I make has to cost less than what I buy. So if I can make a one-week loaf for $1 (most recipes suggest somewhere between 50¢ and $1 per loaf depending on what you add to the mix), it will take me two to six years to amortize the cost. Ouch. But at half that cost, I can justify an inexpensive machine in about a year.

Okay, I can live with that. Just need to convince Susan (this is where the bottle of nice old-vine Zinfandel we’d been saving comes into play…)

Time, I thought, for another one. Bread machine. Not bottle of wine. Or wife.

Last time I bought one, I went into stores, spoke to staff, and essentially chose one at random (as random as my then-threadbare chequebook would allow). This time I have the internet to help me choose. Just read a gazillion reviews, find a model sold in Canada (and, I hope, locally), buy and bake. Fire up the browser and start surfing…

Nah. Not that easy. Nothing ever is.

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