I failed the first time I tried to make bread. As a matter of fact, I failed the first 10 times I tried to make bread. I was in college and had decided to give breadmaking a try in the days before classes were widely available.
A fine gentleman named Frank Roubicek, who owned a health-food store on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, took me under his wing and tried to teach me the art. He sold me freshly milled flour and yeast, and gave me verbal instructions for making a simple loaf of whole wheat bread. Each time I came back to his shop, he’d look hopefully at my face for some sign of success. Nada. I’d buy more ingredients, go home and try again. And after about the eighth or ninth try, I gave up on baking bread for the next 20 years.
In retrospect, I’m guessing it had something to do with a combination of factors: rising temperature, inexperience in working with whole wheat, mixing troubles, whatever, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what was wrong or why my loaves made such terrific doorstops.
Eventually I got the hang of it. About 10 years ago, something inspired me to try again. (Was it the new, bread-crazed husband?) I found a patient and experienced teacher at the local adult-education center and under her tutelage, turned out my first, very beautiful loaf of real bread.
Since then, I’ve made white, wheat, rye, spelt, oat, potato and numerous-combinations-of the-above breads. I’ve tried additions of whole grains, cheeses, candied fruits and various sundry herbs. I even went so far as to spend a week at the Culinary Institute of America’s campus in Napa Valley, baking artisan breads with the pros. (You haven’t lived until you’ve spent a whole week, eight hours a day, in a room with a wall full of ovens set at 500 degrees and an ambient temperature of 100 degrees, dressed in baker’s whites!)
Milling the Grain
At some point, just baking the bread ceased to be enough. I think it was when I read Chef Paul Bertolli in the classic Chez Panisse Cooking (Random House, 1994) tout the joys of milling grain seconds before baking. I bought a small home-sized grain mill and began milling small quantities of organically grown wheat just before I baked. The warm, sweet smell of freshly milled wheat is a real sensory treat, and adds an indescribable, delicious something in terms of flavor, texture and aroma to breads. Most home mills allow you to choose the texture of your grind from coarse to fine. And contrary to what you might imagine, milling your own grain is not a pain. It is really pretty quick and simple. I usually mill just enough for a loaf or two, and perhaps a little extra for bran muffins or pancakes the next morning. I’ve gone right off the deep end, wouldn’t you agree? (Keep reading to learn more about milling grain at home.)
Herbs in Breads
Somewhere along the way, I also learned to love pairing herbs with different types of breads, and creating great herb-laden butters and spreads to slather on top of them. I first enjoyed a boule made with dried oregano, and I’ve since enjoyed loaves made with fresh oregano from my garden. I’ve savored an aromatic rosemary-and-olive oil loaf from my local artisan bakery. I’ve baked loaves filled with fresh Cleveland sage, named for nearby Cleveland National Forest, when it begins to grow in the springtime. And I’ve enjoyed multiple pizza doughs filled with oodles of fresh basil. One of my all-time favorite breakfast treats is a rich raisin, rosemary and walnut bread.
You can incorporate herbs into any basic bread recipe. My rule of thumb is: go out into the garden, pick some herbs, clean and pat them dry, chop them coarsely, and add them to the bread dough. In general, the only dried herb I use is oregano, but even that I prefer fresh from the garden. How much I add will depend upon how strongly flavored I want the bread to be and what kind of herb I have chosen.
I love a simple kalamata olive and garlic butter on the oregano bread. Mustard butter with garlic, chives, and society garlic blossoms adds a pungent and delicious note to the Cheddar Chive Biscuits. (See recipe on opposite page.) Very colorful. Very garlic. Butter laced with honey, lemon zest and rosemary blossoms makes a beautiful spread for the Raisin, Rosemary and Walnut Bread.
Breadmaking the old-fashioned way (by hand) was time-consuming, but for many, very therapeutic. However, with modern conveniences like the food processor and the bread machine, mixing up a good batch of bread dough should be but the work of a few minutes.
Goof-Proof Your Baking
Here are a few of the tips and facts I’ve discovered over the years about baking bread:
• When mixing bread dough in a food processor, be sure to mix only until the dough forms a smooth ball in the processor. Don’t overmix.
• Good yeast is very important to your success. If you buy yeast at the grocery or health-food store, make sure to choose a store that has a rapid turnover. If your yeast is out of date or inactive for some reason, your bread won’t rise.
• Most professional bakers use SAF instant yeast, which requires no proofing and can be added directly to your dry ingredients. It is made by Red Star Yeast, and can be purchased online or at specialty baking stores. Keep reading for the Red Star Yeast website and other resources, such as some of our favorite flours. Baking with 100 percent whole wheat flour can be challenging and produces a very dense loaf. If you’d like a lighter, fluffier loaf, use half unbleached white bread flour and half whole wheat flour.
• If you can’t find instant yeast, you can substitute one (1⁄4-ounce) envelope active dry yeast for instant yeast. Combine yeast with 1¼ cups warm water (100 degrees to 110 degrees) in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Then let it stand for 5 minutes.
• When mixing bread dough in a food processor (14 cups or larger is the best size for bread), be absolutely sure to use the dough blade. The standard steel cutting blade will tear the gluten strands and your bread will not rise properly. An average loaf of bread will usually contain 3 to 4 cups of flour.
• You have choices when it comes to letting the bread rise. You can do it the old-fashioned way by placing the ball of dough in a large, oiled bowl and covering it with a damp tea towel. Or you can place it inside a sturdy gallon plastic bag, press out the air, and seal the bag, leaving a small gap in the seal and letting it rise in the bag.
• Optimum temperature for allowing bread dough to rise is about 80 degrees. My oven has a low, 100-degree setting that I use for rising the dough when I’m in a hurry—otherwise, I’ll just rise the dough on top of the stove at standard kitchen temperature.
Milling Grain for Yourself
Sound way to geeky for you? It’s not. Milling grain at home is easy. All it requires is an initial investment in an electric home grain mill (about the price of a good food processor), some clean grain and ten or fifteen minutes extra of your time. I use the Blendtec Home Kitchen Mill (about $179), but there are a number of other good mills on the market. Many of these mills have been developed in Utah by Mormon engineers, masters at food technology and nutritional enhancements. The mill is just a square box that easily fits on the kitchen counter and will mill up to 20 cups of flour in just a few minutes. It is a bit noisy, but well worth it, since the end product smells sweet and adds an indescribable texture and aroma to your finished bread. (Think “grinding your own coffee beans versus store bought stuff that has been sitting on the shelf”.) I generally make bread for myself using 100 percent medium grind whole wheat flour milled just minutes before mixing and baking.
You should be able to buy hard red or white wheat berries (you want “hard” wheat, which has a higher protein content than “soft”, and is therefore more suitable for baking yeasted breads) in bulk at your local health food store, but you can also find it online (www.kingarthurflour.com or www.lehmans.com). I always buy organic, both because I value my own health and also because I want to encourage farmers to take care of their land and the life on it.
Get Milling and Baking
If you are looking for a grain mill, SAF instant yeast or wonderful flour, we suggest you start here:
• GrainMaker, www.grainmaker.com
• Bob’s Red Mill, www.bobsredmill.com
• Family Grain Mill, www.familygrainmill.com
• Hodgson Mill, www.hodgsonmill.com
• Red Star Yeast, www.redstaryeast.com
• King Arthur Flour, www.kingarthurflour.com
Lynn Alley is a food, wine and travel writer who lives in Southern California. She has written five cookbooks, including The Gourmet Slow Cooker (Ten Speed Press, 2003), and has a sixth, 50 Simple Soups for the Slow Cooker (Andrews McMeel, 2011), just out.