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  • Writer's pictureMaria

breaking bread

Walking into a house scented with the aroma of baking bread may be one of the most welcoming experiences ever. Inhaling the fragrance of a yeasty, browning loaf feels like a motherly hug. It's an aroma so potent it's been known to sell homes to jaded shoppers. The smell of fresh baked bread has even prompted hungry lovers to pop the question. Talk about aromatherapy!

whole wheat bread - made from floor sweepings?

I've been making my own bread for several years now, and I never tire of that great smell. I began baking when I decided to switch from white bread to whole wheat. Whole grain bread is much better for a body in so many ways: it is metabolized more slowly, eliminating glucose spiking and keeping energy even. It even has more protein, vitamins, micronutrients, and lots of fiber. So many virtues!

But finding delicious whole wheat bread was a different story. A trip down the supermarket aisle was disappointing. The “whole wheat” breads were anything but—most with just a smidge of whole wheat flour masquerading as healthy, simply marshmallowy industrial loaves with loads of chemicals. Bread in the deli section was a bit better, but those that were high in whole wheat seemed as dry and scratchy as floor sweepings. Plus, they cost up to $5 a loaf. I wondered if I could do better myself.

from hippie bread to savory loaf

In my college days, every week I made two loaves of heavy, heavy, hippie bread, which I lived on. It was just awful in retrospect, but I did survive. However, I had heard that there was a “new” way to make great bread at home and it sounded promising. Jim Lahey, from the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City, had developed a recipe based on ancient practices. His basic loaf has just four ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. And although it takes quite a while from start to finish, there is very little work time involved—no kneading!—and no fancy tools or appliances, other than a bowl, napkin, covered pot and oven. The extra-long first rise allows the gluten to unfold and stretch at leisure, and the yeast develops amazing depth of flavor. From the very first try, I was making beautiful, whole wheat loaves, crusty on the outside, marvelously chewy on the inside, aromatic as heaven.

magic bread critters

How can just a few basic ingredients make such a complex, sublime foodstuff? The science and art of bread baking are truly amazing. Unique among grains, wheat boasts a high percentage of the protein gluten, a complex of molecules. When flour is mixed with water the molecules unfold into stretchy strings that bond to each other, giving bread dough its characteristic stretchy, bouncy quality.

Flour mixed with water is also an ideal habitat for yeast, a living organism that creates the bubbles that make bread light. Yeast cells apparently float around everywhere just looking for some bread dough to eat—set out a jar of flour and water and in a couple of days it will be happily bubbling and aromatic from millions of yeasty beasties feeding and farting.

Starch, another element of wheat, finishes the process. Starch cells absorb water, swell, and, when baked, solidify foamy dough. Baking also creates two dramatically different taste experiences—the chewy, moist interior of the loaf, and the crunchy, flavorful, dark brown exterior—a miraculous combination of maximum cracusus!

daily bread

Although the basic ingredient list is short, and the process of mixing, rising and baking is simple, bread baking has infinite variations and subtleties. There are endless recipes and discussion threads online about the nuances of form, function and finesse. These can result in some sublime loaves, but my goal is to bake good healthy bread that doesn't take too much time, attention or money. The flour is the most important ingredient - flour from Bob's Red Mill or King Arthur are good and widely available (and both are employee-owned companies). It's worth it to see if you can find local flour - freshness makes a difference in flavor. In the Hudson Valley, Wild Hive makes a high-extraction whole wheat flour that's so light I can make a divine 100% whole wheat loaf from locally grown grain that supports a regional farm enterprise.

no-knead whole grain bread

(adapted and simplified from My Bread, by Jim Lahey)

6 cups or 800 grams whole wheat flour

1 tbs. kosher salt

1 tsp. yeast

2-2/3 cups or 600 grams of water

additional flour and some cornmeal for dusting (or only flour)

In a big bowl mix together the dry ingredients, then mix in water. The dough will be somewhat wet and sticky. Cover the bowl with a lid and let sit at room temperature for 12 to 18 hours until bubbly and more than double in size. (I usually make mine after dinner and then bake it the next morning.) Cut the stretchy dough in half. Turn one loaf out onto a counter dusted generously with flour. Flour your hands and lift the edges of the dough up and inward until you have a nice round shape. Take a clean cloth napkin or towel, sprinkle it generously with corn meal, place your loaf on it and fold napkin edges over to cover it. Repeat with the second loaf and leave to rise at room temperature for an hour or two, until doubled in size.

Meanwhile, put two 4 ½ to 5 ½ quart pots with lids (any oven-safe pot: ceramic, iron, metal, terracotta) on a lower shelf position and preheat your oven to 475 degrees (450 fan bake). When the dough is ready, remove the pots from the oven. Pick each loaf up with your hand under the cloth, gently invert into each pot. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lids and continue baking until the crust is a deep brown, another 15 to 30 minutes. When you thump the bottom, the loaf will sound kind of hollow. Tip the loaves from the pots and let cool completely before slicing—this may be the hardest part!

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