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.
Makes 1 loaf.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.