Monday, September 8, 2008

Our Daily Bread

It's been a long and beautiful summer. I spent it in three different kitchens, the last of which is just starting to feel like home. I took my sourdough starter with me on each move, along with my trusty mill and grains.

After many months’ experimentation, I thought I had nearly perfected my standby bread recipe (shown above). I normally made at least one batch a week to stay in practice, with more or less consistent results. No two batches ever come out exactly alike, since my sourdough culture is a living thing that reacts differently to ambient heat, humidity, and how frequently it’s fed. Like many people, it gets sourer the longer it goes without eating.

Then, after our first move, I ran out of my favorite wheat - hard white. No problem. I bought some spelt and plugged it into the usual formula and behold - soup! My first batch of spelt buns, made with the exact same weights of flour, water and starter as always, could not even hold a shape. I tried the same with durum wheat, which was a little firmer, but still not as shapeable as my last batch of hard white. No matter what kind of wheat I use, nor how blobby the dough, the taste is always phenomenal.

This is a very versatile and forgiving recipe. I tend to prefer a wetter dough because it makes an airier, bubblier bread that’s fun to tear apart. I almost always make mini rolls instead of loaves so that I can pop them one at a time from the freezer to my lunchbag.

I can personally vouch that my previously-frozen rolls, whether thawed at room temperature or toasted, taste just like fresh-baked. I have often wondered about the nutritional aspect of previously frozen bread versus stale unfrozen bread. At what point in time do nutrients lost at room temperature surpass those lost by freezing, if ever? I would expect frozen bread to lose a lot of nutrients initially, when those cell walls burst, and then more slowly due to the stability of the frozen environment. I can be fairly certain that since baked bread has such a low moisture content and retains its texture after thawing, it does not lose as many nutrients to freezing as, say, a vegetable, which becomes a limp and sodden shadow of its fresh self. Then again, it probably had fewer to start out with, but I think it’s safe to say that freezing does less damage to a roll than to green beans.

Invisible nutrients aside, I can answer to the sensory factors. Within three days of baking, unfrozen bread has significantly deteriorated in flavor and texture and is all but inedible by the end of a week. My previously-frozen rolls smell, feel and taste just like fresh-baked, even after sitting in the freezer for a month. It's a wonderful treat to open my lunch drawer at random during the day and get a waft of that homemade sourdough.

Here goes. This is adapted from Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads book, which revolutionized the way I approach bread. While I've simply reproduced a recipe here, Peter Reinhart spends three chapters explaining the chemistry of all this before getting to the formulas. And it really does make whole wheat taste amazing. I heartily recommend it.

Biga (yeasted pre-dough)
8 oz. 100% hydration starter, fed yesterday
4 oz. hard white wheat, freshly ground
2 oz. filtered water

Combine all in a medium glass bowl. Cover and refrigerate 8 to 72 hours.

Soaker (yeastless pre-dough)
8 oz. wheat, freshly ground
6 oz. filtered water
½ tsp. sea salt

Combine in a small glass bowl. Cover and leave at room temperature up to 24 hours; refrigerate up to 72 hours if schedule demands.

The next day, combine:

Both pre-doughs
1 oz. honey
1 oz. oil
½ tsp. salt (lately I have been leaving this out by mistake and find that the bread tastes just fine without it - your call)

Knead all of the above ingredients together until they form a smooth, elastic dough that pulls away from your hands. Put the dough into a clean, oiled bowl; cover and let rise at room tepmerature for two hours. When the dough is done rising, it should be roughly doubled in size and will not bounce back when poked. Turn the dough onto an oiled work surface and slice it cleanly into sixteen wedges if you wish to make dinner rolls. Don’t tear the dough or you’ll lose precious air bubbles.

I always shape my dough into spirals that pull apart easily. Starting with the broad end of a wedge in one hand and the narrow end in the other, twist the dough like a rope. With the broad end at the center, wrap the twisted dough rope around and around, finally folding the narrow end underneath. Place each roll on a baking sheet lined with parchment, cover with plastic wrap and let them rise for another hour.

During the second rise, preheat the oven to 400 F. At the end of an hour, remove the plastic wrap from the rolls, turn the oven down to 350 F, and place the rolls in the oven for thirty minutes. Rotate the trays after fifteen minutes if your oven has hot spots.

The variations are endless. When you use different wheats – hard white, hard red, spelt, triticale, durum - you may have to adjust the water content. Your bread will still rise if you substitute up to a quarter of the flour with gluten-free alternatives like buckwheat, oat groats, quinoa, t’eff or rice. Yum. Try different oils – coconut oil, homemade mayonnaise, egg yolks, melted butter, olive oil. I wouldn't go with fancy flavored oils in the dough, since they'd lose their flavor during baking and taste so much better for dipping anyway. Different sweeteners – honey, molasses, dark muscovado, maple syrup, maple sugar. Add herbs, spices or crushed garlic. As for me, I prefer bread to be plainer, a canvas for delicious accompaniments, equally conducive to savory and sweet applications.


Lisa said...

Nice post! There is a lot of good information here and I really like the way you shape your rolls. Thanks for sharing!

Julie said...

on day one, what is the starter that you use to start the biga? thanks!

Deborah said...

I got my starter culture from Carl Griffith's website for free (the cost of a self-addressed stamped envelope) and have been feeding it with equal weights flour and water for over a year. It depends on what kind of wheat I have on hand, but hard white is my favorite. I always keep it at 100% hydration.

Julie said...

Deborah, thank you for telling me about where to get the sourdough starter. Mine just came yesterday. I have the sheet on how to activate the dry starter, but need someone to give me a tutorial in keeping the starter healthy and happy. If you have the time, I would greatly appreciate this. I have the hard white wheat too.

Anonymous said...

Can you double this recipe? Is that something you've tried. I would like to make a bunch of bread at once instead of just one loaf at a time.

Deborah said...

Anonymous: Absolutely! I've doubled, tripled, even quintupled this recipe before with great results.
Julie: I learned most everything I know about sourdough starters from the Sourdough Home page: - it's a great resource that got me started. In my experience, I generally just feed the starter with equal weights flour and water, then let it double in size at least once before using it. If it's been in the refrigerator for more than three days, it's good to feed it at least four hours before using it. If it looks sick, I feed it twice a day until it's healthy again.
I'll keep an eye out for tutorials on keeping starters happy - and might write one of my own one day.