This entry is part 47 of 119 in the series Comfort Foods
I have loved baking bread ever since high school when I picked up my copy of the red plaid covered Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. I started with their simple white bread and was thrilled with the loaves it yielded. Warm from the oven and with the kitchen smelling like my grandmother’s baking, I knew I was hooked. I couldn’t wait for it to cool before cutting off a large slice and slathering it with fresh butter. I don’t think there is anything better in this whole wide world!
Last week one of my readers wrote asking me if I had any clues I could give her on how to bake whole-wheat bread. She is a very accomplished baker who loves to make loaves of white, sourdough, French, Kaiser rolls, and pizza crust. However, anytime she attempts to make whole-wheat, she can use the loaves as doorstops. I was excited at the opportunity to research the phenomenon of wheat breads.
When I think of bread baking experts in this country, there are almost too many to count. I have been incredibly blessed to work with several of them and take classes from others. Each offers their unique perspectives on the intricacies of bread. There are wildly differing opinions and techniques, but each produces simply amazing bread. But when I think about why yeast, flour, and water interact to create a perfectly leavened dough, Shirley Corriher is my professor.
A graduate of Vanderbilt University with a degree in chemistry, she worked as a biochemist at their medical school. She took her skills in chemistry and turned them toward the kitchen to help all of us understand the reasons behind recipes. She is a James Beard Award winner, was voted the Best Cooking Teacher of the Year by Bon Appetit, and has won a plethora of other honors. On top of all that, she is one of the kindest, funniest people you will ever be lucky enough to meet. If she is coming to a cooking school near you, by all means make sure you take her class! And nobody who likes to cook should be without both of her incredible cookbooks, Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking, and Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking. If you have a question, she will have an answer and a recipe for you! Today’s recipe for her Land of Milk and Honey Whole Wheat Bread is sure to become one of your favorites.
Last year at the IACP annual conference in Portland, OR, I met the delightful Nancy Baggett. She is one of the most respected baking teachers in the country and is an award winning cookbook author. A regular contributor to Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and other periodicals, she is also a favorite of morning news programs. And who wouldn’t want to smell the aromas of her baking endeavors! In her latest book, Kneadlessly Simple, Nancy explores the controversial topic of breads that require little or no kneading. It was wonderful to see her present this technique to a large audience of professional bakers. She demonstrated while we tasted samples she had baked earlier in the morning. While a few of us were skeptical at first, we were won over the instant we tasted her breads. They were just as delicious and light as traditional breads, with a well developed crumb and perfect crust. I know you will enjoy making her All-Purpose Light Wheat Bread recipe.
Making whole-wheat is completely different from other types of breads. If you try to make bread using only whole-wheat flour, you are guaranteed to produce hockey pucks. Wheat flour must be blended with white flour to lighten it. There are two general types of wheat, soft and hard. Soft wheat, typically grown in the Midwest and South, is lower in protein. It is best used in recipes that contain chemical leaveners like baking powder and baking soda, such as biscuits, quick breads, and cakes. It is often packaged as pastry or cake flour. Hard wheat, sometimes called winter or red wheat, grows best in the cooler climates of our northern and western states and is much higher in protein. That protein is needed to support the rising dough and make the perfect loaf of bread.
The newest version of wheat flours, white whole wheat, is made from a lighter colored, more mildly flavored type of wheat. It is still whole wheat and behaves similarly. Because whole-wheat flour contains the wheat kernel and the sharp edges can cut the chains of gluten, adding some white flour increases the overall gluten content. For more detailed information on the various types of wheat, their protein percentages and a break down by brand see the charts at the bottom of this article.
One challenge to bread bakers is that what we call “all-purpose” flours have different protein percentages depending on where you live in the United States. If you live in the northern or western states, the AP flour is fairly high in protein and will make decent loaves of bread, but biscuits and cakes may be a bit tougher. You can substitute a little bread flour to boost the protein content or cake flour to cut it further. If you live in the South, AP flours tend to be lower in protein, making them perfect for pastries and tender biscuits. Add a little flour labeled “good for bread” or one that says it is made from hard wheat when you are making bread.
On top of that, the big producers of AP flour lose a lot of the natural nutrition of the wheat in their milling process. While they can add some of this back, there is still the issue of their lack of organic practices. In most cases, yeast just seems to react better to organic flour. It rises faster and higher. Any homemade bread will be healthier for your family, contain far fewer chemicals, and taste infinitely more delicious. Organic ingredients cost more, but when you weigh the cost against the flavor and health benefits, I personally think the difference in price is worth it.
One baker wrote, “Diastatic barley malt powder or malted barley flour is frequently added to flour destined for making bread. It contains enzymes that convert starches to sugar and is reported to improve yeast activity, bread texture, and storing qualities. It is used in very small quantities. Add 1/2 tsp per loaf when using flour where it is not listed as an ingredient. King Arthur AP and Bread flour list it. Whole wheat and White whole wheat do not.” I like the slightly sweet flavor it adds to baked goods.
The next primary ingredient in bread making is yeast. There are several types and brands in the stores and their differences are more profound than I had realized. One of the reasons for letting bread dough rise is to develop flavor. A longer proofing time helps you get a deeper, more complex flavor. One thing that really surprised me was that “instant” yeast basically needs the same amount of time to rise as regular active yeast. Instead of proofing it in warm water, you add it to the dry ingredients. Because the granules are much smaller it doesn’t need to be proofed. You will see a relatively fast first rise, but that’s just because it activates more quickly. It still needs the same amount of proofing time to fully rise and develop flavor.
Professional bakers often use instant yeast because it stands up to the lengthy rise times sometimes required in a bakery. In general, the longer the rise time, the better the flavor. When a recipe calls for a preferred type of yeast, you absolutely need to use it. The baker developed the recipe specifically to take advantage of its characteristics. When it just calls for “yeast” you should use Active Dry yeast.Instant yeast is actually stronger than active dry yeast. If you want to substitute it and your recipe calls for 1 packet (2-1/4 tsp) active dry yeast, use 1-3/4 tsp of instant yeast.
In normal recipes, whole-wheat dough requires a tremendous amount of kneading to fully activate the gluten. In some recipes it can take up to 30 minutes. Just imagine, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers used to make all their bread by hand. They mixed it in a bowl with a wooden spoon and then kneaded it all until it felt right. There is a suppleness to perfectly kneaded bread that is unmistakable. But these days we have equipment to make it easier. Unless you want one heck of a workout, use a heavy-duty stand mixer. I love my KitchenAid because it is an absolute workhorse and can take the punishment of kneading bread dough.
I could go on for days on this topic, but I think I’ll stop here for today. My advice to you is to roll up your sleeves and dive into bread baking with abandon. Yes you will have failures, but along the way you will learn a lot – about bread and about yourself! There are many life lessons in bread baking, not the least is that patience will be rewarded with a delectable loaf of the best bread!
In addition to Bakewise and Kneadlessly Simple, here are a few of my other favorite cookbooks with a focus on bread baking:
Artisan Bread at Home by The Culinary Institute of America
Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day by Peter Reinhart
Secrets of a Jewish Baker by George Greenstein
Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson
The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook from King Arthur Flour
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart
The Village Baker by Joe Ortiz
All-Purpose Light Wheat Bread
From Nancy Baggett’s “Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads”
Yield: 1 large loaf, 12 to 15 slices
A large, versatile no-fuss loaf, this has a firm, springy interior, crusty exterior, and wonderfully light, pleasing wheat taste and aroma. It’s a fine all-around bread, suitable for eating “as is,” for toasting, and for making sandwiches. For a slightly “wheatier” and more nutritious bread, see the variation.
- 3 cups (15 oz) unbleached all-purpose white flour, plus more as needed
- 1 cup (5 oz) whole-wheat flour, plus 1 tbsp for garnishing top of loaf
- 3 tbsp granulated sugar
- Generous 1-3/4 tsp table salt
- 3/4 tsp instant, fast-rising, or bread machine yeast
- 3 tbsp corn oil, plus extra for coating dough top and baking pan
- 2 cups plus 1 tbsp ice water, plus more if needed