Oatmeal struan

Oatmeal Struan

Flour, water, yeast, and salt. At first glance, bread doesn’t have much going for it. Four little ingredients, two of which are at best temperamental, and at worst, capable of rendering breakfast as tasteless as a brick-shaped cardboard cutout. But oh, if you learn how to coax the best out of this little quartet, you may find that nothing else is quite as satisfying as a freshly-baked loaf of bread…

Of course, the learning process isn’t exactly instantaneous. Nor is it easy to describe once making your favorite loaf becomes routine, as I recently realized when a friend asked me what all these steps were for. What’s the point of throwing around terms like soaker, biga, and all the rest, without even bothering to explain what they are exactly, and why anyone should bother with them in the first place?

And so, this is the first of several posts that will be aimed at trying to answer those very questions. For the first post, I’m going to start with a struan formula from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads book, with gives me a perfect opportunity to discuss soakers, starters, and the inherent challenges involved in baking with whole grains. It’s a hearty, wholesome, and fairly simple recipe, and I think it’s a pretty good place to start if you’re just starting to play with whole grains.

Oatmeal Struan

Makes 1 loaf.

Biga and soaker

Soaker (bowl to the left)

Soakers are used quite often with whole grain bread recipes, with good reason. Whole grains usually have a tough outer shell, which is not very easy to penetrate. Soakers, which are usually made of some combination of grains and liquid, give the coarse grains a chance to soften (which wouldn’t happen if you used a shorter process). At the same time, the act of hydrating the grains tends to set off a whole chain of enzyme-induced chemical reactions. The details are unimportant, but these reactions, which tend to break down more complex molecules into simpler structures, play an important role in developing the delicious flavor you taste when you bite into a loaf of bread.

  • 7 T. (2 oz.) whole wheat flour. I used whole wheat durum flour, which has a higher protein content than regular whole wheat, and tends to soak up a lot more water as a result.
  • 1-1/3 c. (6 oz.) rolled oats.
  • 1/2 t. salt.
  • 3/4 c. (6 oz.) milk, buttermilk, yogurt, soy milk, or rice milk. I used buttermilk, because I like the tangy aftertaste, and increased the proportion of buttermilk in my bread a little bit (to ~7/8 c.) in order to account for the higher protein durum flour. If your flour has more than ~12% protein content, you might want to do the same.
Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl until well-combined. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 12-24 hours (along with the biga — see recipe below).
Biga (bowl to the right)
Biga is an Italian-style wet, commercial yeast starter. Its main goal is to trigger some of the enzyme-induced reactions responsible for transforming tasteless starch into delicious sugar before you mix up the final dough, so your bread will actually develop the golden crust and complex flavor you’re interested in attaining without too much of a fuss. The key is to use a very small amount of yeast, so you don’t have an over-leavened and unkneadable mess on your hands the next day. Bigas aren’t the only way to accomplish this step; some bakers use wild yeast (sourdough) starters to accomplish a similar task, while others will use a piece of bread dough from another day’s baking. I’ll try to tackle a few other methods in future posts.
  • 1-3/4 c. (8 oz.) whole wheat flour.
  • 1/4 t. (0.03 oz.) instant yeast.
  • 3/4 c. (6 oz.) filtered water. Filtered water is best because chlorine will not make your yeast happy, and unhappy yeast makes for flat bread.

Mix all biga ingredients together in a bowl. Use your hands right from the start… Go on, get in there. Knead the biga in the bowl for a couple of minutes, to make sure all the ingredients are well combined and the water is evenly distributed throughout the mixture. Your goal is to hydrate the flour, so the yeast and the water can work together to trigger the starch-to-sugar conversion you’re looking for. Cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for 12-24 hours.

Final dough

Finally, we’re actually going to finish off the dough and bake a loaf. Hopefully, the steps above took more time to read about than to actually do, so you’re not too disgruntled yet. The next steps are almost as easy, though you will need to have a three-hour stretch of time where you can be near your kitchen. It won’t all be active time, I promise.

  • Soaker.
  • Biga.
  • Whole wheat flour (to dust tabletop).
  • 5/8 t. salt.
  • 2-1/4 t. instant yeast. You can use active dry, as well — just make sure you increase the amount to 2-3/4 t.)
  • 3 T. agave nectar or honey.
  • 1 T. vegetable oil.
Cut the biga and soaker into 12 chunks each, using a pastry scraper or knife. Sprinkle flour over the pieces, to keep them separated, and then throw them into a big bowl. Combine all other ingredients (except extra flour), and mix them all together. Don’t be afraid to use your hands — half the fun of baking bread is getting a bit dirty. Knead with wet hands for a couple of minutes, or until the dough is evenly combined, soft, and a bit sticky, and then take the dough out and place on a floured surface.
Let rest for a minute or so more, and then knead the dough for 3-4 minutes by hand. If the dough sticks to the work surface, add a bit more flour (about 1 T. at a time). When the dough is soft, smooth, and a little bit sticky to the touch, shape it into a ball and place it in a lightly oiled bowl. Toss the dough to coat with oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it rise for 45-60 minutes, until the ball is ~1-1/2 times its original size.
Once it’s done rising, take the dough out of the bowl and shape (gently!) as you please. You can turn this into a sandwich loaf or simply stretch it a bit, as I did. Place your final product on a parchment paper if you haven’t chosen to bake it in a pan. If you like, you can sprinkle some rolled oats on top, as well; just press them into the surface. Cover with a towel, and let rise for another 45-60 minutes, until it’s ~1-1/2 times its original size. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. If you use baking tiles, put them in the oven from the start, so they’re nice and hot when the bread goes in.
Once the bread has risen, slide into the oven on top of a sheet pan or baking tile. Pour 1/2 c. water onto the floor of your oven, so you create steam, and shut the oven door. Bake for 20 minutes, turn the loaf, and bake for ~20 minutes more, until the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when you thump it on the bottom.
Let cool on a wire rack for at least 1 hour before serving (if you can wait that long).
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10 Comments

Filed under baking, baking tips, bread, oatmeal

10 responses to “Oatmeal struan

  1. ok i made this last night. i definitely like the idea of starting it the day before and then only having to let the bread rise twice before baking. i thought 3 tbsp honey was too sweet, i think i’d do 1 1/2 tbps honey and 1 1/2 tbsp oil in the future. it came out slightly dense, like all my breads, but i see from the photo that yours looks similar. i wish i could figure out how to get a better rise, in general when baking bread. any suggestions on that?

  2. liz

    Glad you tried it! You could probably leave the oil out entirely, if you wanted to cut down on the sugar; it’s not really necessary to be quite that careful with the liquid proportions, because you naturally adjust for that anyway when you knead the dough on a floured surface. I liked the sweetness, since we were eating it for breakfast all week, but that’s the good thing about making your own bread — you can make it exactly as you like it!

    To answer your question, if you’re baking a whole wheat loaf, then you’re going to have a denser bread regardless. As I understand it, the bran left in the whole wheat flour actually severs some of the gluten you work so hard to create, so the lovely open hole structure it sounds like you’re looking for is pretty much impossible to obtain. If you want lighter, less dense bread, you need to use a high proportion (maybe 3/4?) of all-purpose flour, or high extraction flour, if you can find it. In general, though, in any bread you’re working on, a higher water to flour ratio in your starter or biga will give you a more open hole structure, and beyond the initial kneading, you want to avoid handling the bread as much as possible, especially when shaping it. This is why I tend to make a lot of boules or peasant-style loaves; the bread is mostly shaped at the first rise, and I just have to smooth it out a little bit and place it (gently!) on some parchment paper.

    I have not yet gotten around to it, because work has been busy, but I have a couple of foolproof partially white flour breads that we make on a regular basis that have a nice open crumb (and are easy as anything). I’ll post on them pretty soon.

  3. thanks for all this advice! it’s interesting, the book i have on whole grain bread baking (The Laurel Kitchen’s Guide to Whole Grain Bread Baking or something like that) involves a lot of handling in the shaping, so maybe that’s part of the problem. every book has its own theory on how to make bread. 🙂 i’m going to check out peter reinhardt’s from the library though, and try adding in all-purpose flour. the fun thing about bread is that every week i need to make a new loaf so there’s always opportunity for experimenting.

  4. liz

    No problem! It’s fun stuff to think about. Because of your comment, I’m thinking of doing a more detailed comparison of flour types, with some discussion of their gluten content, how they’re best handled, etc. It’s tough when you’re first starting out with a new flour, and a new type of bread — every book I’ve come across has a different approach to handling the dough through the first and second rise. I didn’t really learn how to approach it properly until I took a bread making class that my university’s farm offered (which was awesome, and made me want a wood-fired oven in my back yard, if I ever have one). They made us go through all the steps bakeries usually go through, which aren’t really practical for the home baker (various turns, etc) but it taught me how the dough should feel at each step, and how much I could handle it before the texture changed. One of the cool things about Peter Reinhart’s delayed fermentation technique is that it helps replicate what you get with all those bakery steps, without all the work, which is why I’m seemingly so obsessed with him. 🙂

    Anyway, Peter Reinhart’s whole grain book has “transitional” recipes for all the types of bread he discusses, which include some proportion of all purpose flour. If you can find a copy of his book at the library, you might try one of those and see how they turn out. If not, let me know, and I can send you the equivalent recipe for one or two of the loaves I’ve posted on.

    You can also try and find some high extraction flour. I’ve only seen a place in Kansas that you can order from directly, and I feel kind of weird about ordering flour from so far away when King Arthur is really just a two hour drive away, but if you have a local bakery that uses it, you might see if they’d be willing to sell you a few pounds of it. It has the health benefits of whole wheat flour, because the wheat germ is left in, but has some of the structural benefits of white flour, because all but ~10% of the bran is removed. I haven’t played with it myself, and would be curious to see how it performs!

  5. justfoodnow

    A recipe to die for!!!!! It’s glorious to come across a site where food is treated with such respect. It’s weekend now and I will try – will get back with any problems.

  6. I’ve been making this regularly now…delish!

  7. Pingback: Baking bread | threeForks

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  9. Hi! I’ve been reading your web site for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Atascocita Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the good work!

  10. Jen

    Have you tried to make this bread gluten free? I would love to find a gluten free Struan bread recipe!

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