Making whole wheat bread that you love is often touted as one of the great culinary feats of the world in cookbooks. Whole wheat by itself, you see, makes a dense, heavy loaf that no true aficionado would tolerate if it weren't necessary.
Owners of European-style bakeries make country-style and rustic loaves with just enough bran or whole wheat flour so you can see charming flecks of bran in your thick, crusty slice, but not enough to really qualify as whole wheat bread. Those who embark on a purer tack create bread that can only be truly enjoyed in Birkenstocks and tie-died shirts.
What gives? Why is it such a challenge to the home baker to make a delicious, light loaf of whole wheat bread?
Maybe because we revere the job of making bread too much these days. We're just too afraid to try.
Bread is one of those foods that people have been making for a very, very long time. We haven't been able to goof it up so badly that it's disappeared off the face of the earth. But, like our own mothers, we don't have a lot of practice doing it since bread became so easy and cheap to come by at the grocery store.
Worse than that, really good bread (not that fluffy, balloon stuff we grew up on) is very easy to come by if you are willing to shell out $3 or $4 a loaf. But baking bread just isn't that hard, and making a good whole wheat bread is a wonderful way to give your family the nutrition they deserve without sacrificing taste, texture or self-respect.
The search for the perfect recipe
I began making bread years ago because I wanted to make a loaf or two of breads I thought were interesting. Then I decided I wanted to make our everyday bread, but it had to be better than the very good bread I was buying at a local bakery. Also it couldn't be too involved. I did have a life, after all.
I tried lots of breads, with lots of various ingredients: whole wheat flour, white bread flour, wheat bran, oat bran, rolled oats, wheat germ, barley malt, honey, molasses, brown sugar, oil, butter, milk, 3-grain cereal, 7-grain cereal and 9-grain cereal. None of them used only whole wheat flour.
Some of them were good, not great, and some of them weren't worth the effort at all. None of them was great after a few days. On top of making a great bread, I needed it to stay great for most of a week, as our family was small and we didn't make enough sandwiches to use it up before that.
I continued my search, but you know how these things are, you just have to stumble across answers sometimes. And so I did. In a vegetarian cookbook I own I tried one of three or four bread recipes they had been stuck in there between the soups and pasta dishes. And to my utter surprise it was fabulous, it was the one, the very bread, I had been striving to make. It was delicious, had a nice tight texture, and even better, was so light, I wondered if was as nutritious as I knew it really was!
All about wheat: Protein is the name of the game
The most important ingredient in bread is the flour. It makes a difference what kind of flour you use and companies that grind and package wheat flour rarely help you understand that difference so you can make the best choice possible.
Let me explain the basics of flour. Generally speaking, wheat comes in two basic varieties, hard and soft (I see you scratching your head over this--don't worry, it's not that complicated). The hard wheat grows best in colder climates, like the northern and western part of the US, and soft wheat grows best in warmer climates like the midwest and south. Hard wheat is higher in protein and soft wheat is lower.
To make bread you want wheat high in protein. Lower protein wheat is best for recipes that use chemical leaveners (oops, big word: baking powder and baking soda) instead of yeast. Things like biscuits, quick breads, cookies and cakes become very tender when soft wheat flour (called pastry flour) is used. This is not a quality that makes good bread, however. For that you need more protein. (For a very detailed discussion on protein in wheat flour see King Arthur Flour's website.)
When a package of flour says "Best for Bread" the implication is the wheat inside is mostly hard wheat. This would be higher in protein and produce lofty, well structured bread. But what about all-purpose flour? What's that made of? Good question.
That flour can be a variety of things depending on which company is making it. Some are just hard flour, some are a combination and, in the case of flours produced in the south some are all soft wheat.
If you live in the northern or western states, your all-purpose flour will actually be fairly high in protein and do just fine for bread, as well as most anything else you want to make. Thus, if you want to by-pass the whole problem, just buy all-purpose flour.
If you live in the south, though, your all-purpose flour will tend to be lower in protein and therefore not great for bread (though you can make killer biscuits with it). In that case, you need to look for a bag of flour that specifically says to use for bread, or indicates it is made with hard wheat.
Another category to confuse you is the regular processed flours like Pillsbury and Gold Medal versus organic and stone ground flours. I'll make this simple. Pillsbury and Gold Medal are fine. Stone ground and organic flours are better.
Why? Because the well-known brands have killed off nutrition in their flours in processing (some of which they add back in later), plus there's the pesticide issue. Stone grinding does not cause the same loss of nutrition and organic relieves you of the concern over pesticides. In addition, I have found the yeast reacts better with organic flour. The dough rises faster and bigger. But these flours also cost more. You decide.
Gluten for pun-ishment (sorry)
One of the reasons so many recipes for whole wheat bread actually contain white flour is to add gluten. Ah, new term.
Gluten is the characteristic in flour that creates good bread. It is the strands of protein that are created when the dough is kneaded. You want these tight and springy. Since whole wheat flour contains all parts of the wheat kernel, cup for cup it has less protein than white flour (which has had part of the kernel removed). Adding white bread flour helps improve the balance.
There's a better way to do this, though, that doesn't involve using white flour. Add vital wheat gluten instead. As the name suggests, it's just the gluten, so you add much less of it than if you add white flour--only a couple tablespoons per cup of whole wheat flour. Vital wheat gluten can be found in the health food section of the grocery store or in health food stores.
You may balk at the price; just remember you only use a little of it in a recipe. Look in the bulk food section and buy just as much as you need for a recipe. If you find the addition works well for you, you can always buy more later.
All about yeast
Once you decide what flour you will use, the next choice is yeast. Now there are many kinds of yeast on the market. The only one you might want to pass on is the quick-rise yeast. The only time you would bother with this one is if you absolutely can't wait for the standard rise times. Otherwise you will give up too much in flavor.
You see, one purpose of rising (or proofing) bread dough is to develop flavor. If you cut that too short, you just don't get great flavor. In the recipe I am providing here the yeast used is active dry yeast, this is the regular yeast you can buy in little packets or in those brown glass jars at the grocery store. It's the one that requires you to pour it into some water to "proof" before you mix your dough.
In fact, you need to do this primarily to activate the yeast. If you didn't there is a chance not all the yeast would get wet enough in your dough to begin working. Also, it lets you know if your yeast is fresh enough to use. Yeast has a shelf life and can be too old to use after a while. But you can easily tell if your yeast is viable by looking at the use-by date on the package. Also, store yeast in the refrigerator or freezer.
Another widely available yeast is called "instant" yeast. You will frequently find it in the grocery store as bread machine yeast. You can use this same yeast in bread made by hand. It will behave somewhat differently than active dry yeast but still do a fine job. This yeast does not need to be proofed before hand with liquid as the granules are quite a bit smaller than active dry yeast. You add it with your dry ingredients and then mix with the liquids.
Though you may find your dough rising rather quickly at first, don't be fooled into thinking that instant yeast is the same as quick rise yeast. Instant yeast may take off faster than active dry yeast, but it takes the same amount of time, ultimately, to reach the end.
Many professional bread bakers use instant yeast. They are often looking for a yeast that will hold up under the lengthy rise times they impose on them. In fact, one rule you may want to follow is the longer the rise time, the better the flavor.
Ounce for ounce, instant yeast is stronger than active dry yeast, so you use less. You can use either yeast in any bread recipe as long as you account for the difference in amounts. If a recipe calls for 1 packet of active dry yeast (which is about 2 1/4 teaspoons) then use 1 3/4 teaspoons of instant yeast.
After flour and yeast, the next most important ingredient is water. I use it out of the tap. If you wouldn't drink your tap water, then don't make bread with it.
For this recipe I do use warm water. Some cookbooks insist you take the water's temperature and heat your water to between 105 degrees and 115 degrees. In fact, if you get your water hotter than this you will kill the yeast. This is an optimum temperature.
Some refer to "wrist temperature" which is a temperature you can barely feel if you sprinkled it on your wrists (you know, the old fashioned way to test a baby's bottle). If you want precision, get out your thermometer; otherwise heat your water (and/or milk) until it feels warm but not hot. Don't worry, this can be flexible.
The remaining ingredients flavor the bread, like salt and sweeteners. Oil or butter is used to enrich a loaf of bread. For fun you can also add wheat berries (well soaked), or nuts (walnuts have a natural affinity for whole wheat), or seeds. You need some of these things in an American-style loaf because it doesn't rise long enough to produce the kind of flavor European-style breads have. French and Italian-style breads tend to have few ingredients but can take days to produce. This recipe can be started in the morning and come out of the oven after lunch.
Below is the recipe we will be making in the next installment of this series on baking whole wheat bread. It involves making a sponge before putting the dough together.
Yikes! What's a sponge? Don't be bothered by the term, it actually is very easy and adds a lot to a loaf of bread (remember that longer rise time thing). In the next installment I will walk you through the process of making this loaf of whole wheat bread, one of my favorite things to do! So, let's get started.