Tag Archives: food

Salt and bread making

Salt is one of the four essential ingredients in making bread, along with flour, yeast and water. Nothing more is needed, although often a lot more is added.

Salt is listed in all the recipes. Only one bread I’ve ever read about is salt-free (a Tuscan specialty mentioned in William Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves).

We tend to assume salt is simply for flavour, but it is also part of our basic biology:

I find it easiest to think of salt as one half of the body’s water-regulation system, the other half being potassium. The membranes of every cell in the body allow water to flow through in direct proportion to how much sodium and potassium are present in the immediate area. Too much or too little sodium in the body affects everything from digestion to blood pressure to brain function.

Since proper sodium levels are so important, the body uses the kidneys to maintain a precise balance. The system is very efficient, which means that if you eat more sodium than the recommended daily allowance, you’ll simply excrete whatever you don’t need (within reason). That also means that we tend to crave more salt than we actually need to eat, which might explain its flavor-enhancing properties.

Salt, as the site above tells us, suppresses bitter flavours, which means some foods taste better salted (at least in my cultural background, which favours sweet and salty over sour and bitter). Because it suppresses bitter, which in turn suppresses  sweet and sour flavours, these flavours come across as stronger in the presence of salt.

Which suggests that a bread with a sweet factor – say raisins, coconut or cranberries – can have a higher salt content than a plain bread, because the salt will enhance the sweetness. So less sugar, more salt? (Okay, I don’t cook with processed sugar because I try to avoid it in my diet…)

Read this food science piece in Nature about salt, food and flavour. Very interesting.

Taste and flavour are not quite synonymous, as the National Institute of Health reminds us:

Taste and flavor are terms that are often confused. The word “taste” has two meanings, one technical and the other as commonly used in the English language, which encompasses the larger concept of flavor…

The sense of taste, one of the five major senses, is defined based on anatomy. In mammals, it is the sense subserved by taste receptor cells located primarily on taste buds in the oral cavity. These taste receptor cells are innervated by branches of the seventh, ninth, and tenth cranial nerves that synapse first in the brainstem prior to sending messages to other parts of the brain…

Virtually all foods and beverages impart sensations in addition to taste. For example, a complex food such as soup not only has taste properties (e.g., it is salty, sour, or sweet) but also has volatile compounds that give it its specific identity (e.g., pea soup compared to potato soup), and it may also have burning properties, such as those caused by hot peppers… In common parlance, the entire sensation elicited by this food is called its “taste.” However, most scientists would instead use the term “flavor” to refer to this total sensation, and that is how it will be used here. It should be noted that many also include the texture of a food as a component of flavor. Taste molecules such as salt can influence flavor in many ways, some of which are described below.

Of course, salt plays other roles in the baking, fermenting and gluten development stages. According to the Wild Yeast blog:

  • Salt affects dough texture, making it stronger and less sticky, as the commenter noticed.
  • Salt reduces oxidation of the dough during mixing. Oxidation causes the degradation of carotenoid pigments in the flour that contribute to flavor and crumb color.
  • Salt regulates yeast activity, causing fermentation to progress at a more consistent rate.
  • Salt affects shelf life. Because it attracts water, it can help keep bread from staling too quickly in a dry environment. However, in a humid environment, it can make the crust soggier.

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How hot is your oven?

Oven thermometerSeems like a silly question: the answer would be it’s as hot as I set it to be. Isn’t it? Well, no, it may actually be rather different from what you expect, based on my recent tests.

I was reading on several bread-baking forums about oven temperatures and the effects on baking. Specifically on the crust: higher temperatures (450F and up) lead to crunchy crusts as the sugars caramelize rapidly. Then there’s “non-enzymatic browning:” the Maillard reaction that happens at a range of temperatures:

The reactive carbonyl group of the sugar reacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acid, and forms a complex mixture of poorly characterized molecules responsible for a range of odors and flavors… In the process, hundreds of different flavor compounds are created. These compounds, in turn, break down to form yet more new flavor compounds, and so on. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavor compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction. It is these same compounds flavor scientists have used over the years to make reaction flavors.

The Maillard reaction is what makes bread become toast. Caramelization is different, as Wikipedia also tells us:

Caramelization is an entirely different process from Maillard browning, though the results of the two processes are sometimes similar to the naked eye (and tastebuds). Caramelization may sometimes cause browning in the same foods in which the Maillard reaction occurs, but the two processes are distinct. They both are promoted by heating, but the Maillard reaction involves amino acids… whereas caramelization is simply the pyrolysis of certain sugars.

The following things are a result of the Maillard browning reaction:
Caramel made from milk and sugar, especially in candies: Milk is high in protein (amino acids), and browning of food involving this complex ingredient would most likely include Maillard reactions.
Chocolate and maple syrup
Lightly roasted peanuts

When cooking, the Maillard reaction can be achieved at lower temperatures (for example, when using the sous-vide method or when searing meats) by increasing the pH of the item being cooked. The most common method for accomplishing this is by using baking soda as a catalyst to facilitate the reaction.

Some complex chemistry going on there (which is one of the reasons bread making intrigues me: it’s science in the kitchen!).

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Art, Science & Baking

French loaf showing crumb
You gotta love breadmaking. It’s an opportunity to get the right and left hemispheres of the brain working together, not racing about in different directions like they do most times. The logical and the creative sides working in lockstep.

Bread making combines the logic of science with the freedom of expression in art. Well, that’s really true of all cooking, but it seems more evident in baking. You get your hands into the mix, with bread. It’s a visceral thing to do. Like pottery.

Breadmaking combines four sciences, too: physics, chemistry, biology and botany. They all come into play when baking. And, as I’ve said earlier, you also get a bit of animal husbandry in it – yeast is a domesticated animal you need to nourish, tend and encourage.

And then there’s the math: I’ve been working on my bakers’ percentages in the most recent recipes, trying to understand the various levels of hydration and relative amounts of ingredients.

Plus it takes creative skill: the ability to “read” the ingredients, the dough, the ambient room conditions for rising and fermenting.  You need to feel the dough, to test it, assess its condition by fell, sight and scent. Knowing how much salt is “just right.”

And, of course, it’s a distraction from the woes and cares of daily life, from the chitter chatter of politics and the media. Baking bread requires concentration, focus. It’s a very Buddhist thing to do. It clears the mind.

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Ah, Hubris…

Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: The brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth: No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. Hubris is worse.
Percy: What could be worse than hummus?
Annabeth: Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… Even the gods.
Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters

Two loavesYou think you know it all, and so you try to show off your talents. That’s when hubris makes you fall. So today, with company for the weekend, in between chess games, ukulele songs and great conversation, I produced the dough I’d been cold-fermenting in the fridge since Sunday.  Should be just about perfect. Time to show off my new breadmaking skills.

Oops.

Bread requires attention; patience, awareness. Like meditation, like writing.

It’s not something you should do while nattering, while showing one another Youtube videos, while trying to show another person a new song arrangement.

Whole wheatMind half on other things, I shaped the cold dough, put one mix in a ceramic pot, the other in a bread pan to warm up. Let them rise while I carried on. Clearly not quite long enough or warm enough. But I wasn’t really watching. Was the dough high enough? Awake enough? Our house is cool, so dough doesn’t rise very rapidly.

Should have warmed the pot first, but no… and forgot the lame; forgot to score the tops. Bakers shouldn’t be so distracted. Too many things to do, too many rituals to follow.

Then I baked them together at 450 for… ? Yipes. I forgot to record the time. Was it 30 minutes? 35? Best guess… look at the tops. Seem done…

Took the lid off the pot a little late, too. That might have kept the steam inside a little too long the kamut bread.

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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):

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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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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