Making Bread & Embracing Gluten
I love making bread.
I savor the sensory experience of the whole process: transforming a mass of dough into a smooth pliable ball by kneading it with my hands and then watching it rise, its sweet yeasty aroma wafting through my kitchen. I love the way a boule baking in the oven fills the air in my tiny apartment with its intoxicating nuttiness. I revel in the contrast between textures while breaking through the blistered, crackling crust and tearing off a piece of a still warm loaf to reveal the soft chewy interior. I zealously slather it with a schmear of tangy cultured butter, and watch its liquid gold slowly melt into the crumb.
Not even for an instant do I interrupt my communion with the Blessed Sacrament to fret for the gluten I am about to receive.
Yet no other nutrient seems to be quite so demonized at the moment as gluten is. This is certainly not the first time that we have seen popular culture target a particular nutrient as the cause or cure of all of our diet woes. First we renounced the evils of fat in the 90’s, and carbs in the 2000’s, until we sang the praises of soy and flax seeds as the cure to our ailments, and now gluten is our newest enemy.
These diet fads have created multibillion-dollar industries pushing highly processed, additive-laden foods down the throats of consumers clamoring for foods free from the sin of the moment. They have also encouraged us to cultivate a great sense of guilt surrounding the foods we eat.
So how do we make sense of so much information and misinformation?
Obviously, if you have an allergy to something, you should avoid it. If you are among the approximately 1% of the world’s population with celiac disease, gluten is not your friend.
For the rest of us? The answer does not lie in a bag or a box on the shelves of your grocery store; it is in your own flour coated hands in your kitchen.
Learn simple methods for how to cook and eat real food grown by hardworking farmers who respect the Earth.
Learn how to do it within your budget.
Exercise reasonable portion control.
Slow down when you eat, welcome the experience of the table, and use all of your senses.
Make a personal investment into what you consume. Recreate your grandmother’s recipes; create your own culinary legacy.
Make mistakes, and experiment. You will not always be perfect, but that’s fine.
ABOVE ALL ELSE, PLEASE, PLEASE ENJOY YOUR FOOD.
For those of us in the 99% who can eat gluten, fill your home with the aroma of fresh baked bread, and don’t hesitate to slather it with some good butter. See below for more information on how to make delicious bread at home.
Here is a basic bread recipe that should provide a simple starting point for anyone wishing to make fresh bread in his or her home kitchen. When it comes to making bread, I follow a golden ratio of sorts: 2:1. That’s two parts flour to one part water. If you can remember this, you’ll really never need a recipe to make bread. I like to use half unbleached white flour and half whole wheat flour for my bread at home. All whole wheat tends to make a very dense dry loaf, and all white flour doesn’t feel substantial enough for me.
For the flour, check out your local farmer’s market and look for heirloom or at least organically grown wheat varieties. I bought a 5lb bag of whole wheat flour grown in Portland, Maine for $6.50 at my local farmer’s market, a great price for locally grown organic flour.
I bake my bread on a pizza stone in my oven. It gives me that beautiful crisp exterior I look for in great bread. They can cost around $30-50 new, but I see them all the time at thrift shops for under $5. If you don’t want to buy a baking stone, you can also buy terra cotta tiles at a hardware store for cheap and line your oven rack with them. You’ll probably want about 6-9 depending on how big your oven is. You can also bake your bread directly in a cast iron skillet or heavy bottomed Dutch oven. The key is to have a dense baking surface that retains a lot of heat and distributes it evenly, and to preheat it (stone, tiles, pot, etc) in the oven while the bread is rising.
When I bake bread, I make a starter first, by premixing ½ teaspoon of yeast with a couple of tablespoons of flour and ½ cup of water. I let that sit for a few hours before I make my dough. Creating the starter and letting the bread rise slowly allows the complex nutty flavors to develop in the dough. It also means I don’t have to spend time kneading my dough, and I can make it the night before and let it rise in the refrigerator. Then, when I get home from work I take it out let it come to room temperature for an hour, shape it, let it rise again, and bake it.
This may sound like a lot of time to make bread, but in reality, I am only actively mixing or shaping the bread for a total of maybe five minutes. You do need to plan ahead a little bit, but the great thing is, you don’t need to be afraid about leaving the bread too long in the refrigerator. I’ve made this process into a bit of a ritual, and always seem to have a ball of dough fermenting in my refrigerator, on the counter, or one baking in the oven.
Slow Fermented Bread
For the starter:
3 tbsp unbleached white flour (or any flour will do)
3 tbsp sucanat (unrefined cane sugar)
½ tsp dry active yeast
½ cup warm water
1. Mix together the flour, sucanat, and yeast in a small bowl, then slowly stir in the water until combined.
2. Let sit for 2-3 hours at room temperature. It should have bubbles in it, otherwise your yeast might not be active
For the dough:
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
3 tbsp sucanat
1 tsp of salt
½ cup warm water
flour and cornmeal for dusting
1. In a large bowl, combine the two types of flour, sucanat, and salt.
2. With the handle end of a wooden spoon, stir in the water and starter. Stir until a cohesive mass has formed.
3. Turn out onto a floured surface, such as a cutting board, and knead for one minute or until the dough seems cohesive. Dust the dough with a bit more extra flour if it is too sticky.
4. Return dough to the mixing bowl, and let rise for about 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size (may be more or less depending on the temperature of your kitchen).
5. Punch down the dough, cover the bowl and set in the refrigerator for 12-18 hours.
6. Remove bowl from the refrigerator, punch down the dough again, and set at room temperature for about one hour to let the dough come to room temperature.
8. On a floured cutting board, shape the dough into desired shape. For a round shape, simply tuck the dough underneath itself while turning it. For a stick shape, fold the dough into a rectangular shape, and roll it with your hands a few times on the floured surface.
9. Dust your cutting board with a bit more flour or cornmeal so that the dough does not stick while it’s rising.
10. Leave the shaped dough to rise until it has doubled in size. I suggest putting it on the counter by the stove, or even on top of the stove.
11. Once the loaf has risen, take a serrated knife and cut one or two marks about 2-4 inches long and ½ inch deep across the surface.
12. Gently slide the loaf onto the baking surface by shaking it back and forth. If you had enough flour/cornmeal on the board it should not stick. If it does stick, simply use a spatula to guide it off. Don’t worry if you mess up the shape a little bit at first when doing this. You’ll have great tasting bread either way, and you’ll get the hang of it with practice.
13. Bake for 15-25 minutes or until the crust looks deep golden to dark brown.
14. Let sit for 15 minutes, then tear off a piece and enjoy!
A Note on Steam for Achieving Good Crust:
Professional bread ovens inject steam during the first few minutes of baking, and this helps to create the crisp blistery crust that I look for in great bread. To recreate that steam effect at home, I will place an old sheet pan on the bottom rack of my oven or even directly onto the floor of the oven at the same time I add my baking surface and preheat the oven. Immediately after I put the bread into the oven to bake, I’ll pour 1-2 cups of water onto the baking sheet at the bottom. Make sure the pan you use on the bottom isn’t one of your good baking pans, because it can get kind of blackened during the process.
When I was in baking class at culinary school, I remember my teacher telling us that some bakers will also spritz the sides of their oven with a spray bottle when adding the bread. I have tried this, and it works pretty well too, but you really have to spritz the oven well to get a lot of steam, and you don’t want to stand there with the oven door open for too long or your temperature will drop too much. Also, never spray water directly onto the light bulb in your oven, it will shatter. I know this from experience.
And be careful not to burn yourself with the steam!
Happy Bread Baking!