“How does a vile-looking, smelly goop make something so beautiful and delicious as a loaf of bread? Explaining this process is as difficult as explaining the essence of life.”
—Nancy Silverton, Breads from La Brea Bakery: Recipes for Connoisseurs
Imagine your floured-dusted hands spiraling a lump of dough in slow circles on a worktable. You cup it as if it were a newborn baby’s behind and rotate it gently, around and around, until the rosemary-flecked hill is as smooth as skin and as warm as a sleepy cheek. Then you lift the lump to reveal the “navel” on its underside, a dimple that signals your loaf is properly shaped. Next you nestle the dough in a cornmeal-dusted bowl and shift your attention to the next lump, patting and swirling in the same gentle rhythm.
Shaping the dough is only one step in the dance of home-baking bread that’s naturally leavened. There’s feeding the starter once a day or once a week, depending on whether you refrigerate it. It takes less time than brushing your teeth, but it has to be done. There’s mixing—the marvelously messy part, when your hands crust over with a drying paste and you feel like the Creature from the Dough Lagoon. There’s kneading, when you massage the glutens, coaxing and pounding them until they are strong enough to stretch and hold the gases that the dough exhales. There’s rising, when you go and do something else—chase children, walk dogs, earn a living.
And finally, there’s baking, then taking out the hot brown loaves as the smell of living bread envelops you. It isn’t a difficult thing, this dance. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time. It takes a bit of practice to know the right amount of kneading, and it takes patient attention, the kind that living things always demand. But the loaves that it makes are outstanding: crusty, fragrant, incorruptibly individual. With a slice in your hand and butter dripping down your fingers, you can no longer imagine eating any other kind of bread.
Baker Erin Oliver brings seventy-five such loaves into the world every week at Sunrise Farm and CSA Garden, a membership farm near Masonville, Colorado. She scoffs at the notion that naturally-leavened bread is something only experienced bakers should attempt. Oliver has been a once-a-week baker for only a year, after a few informal lessons from Joe Babiarz, a farm member who happens to be a professional baker.
“Joe always says to me, ‘it’s not rocket science, we’re not building pianos here,”’ Oliver explains. The recipe Babiarz handed down to her makes sixteen one-and-a-quarter pound loaves and uses inexact measurements: roughly nine pounds of flour and four handfuls of starter. Everyone’s hands are different, of course. “But I learned from watching Joe just about how much four of his handfuls is,” Oliver says. Babiarz emphasizes using measurements that work for you, and having patience with your own learning process. Notice changes in the bread’s environment, he urges. On a humid day or in a humid climate, dough needs more flour. On a dry hot day, spritz it liberally with water during shaping. “Every time it’s different,” Oliver says. “That’s what keeps it interesting.”
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to have a masonry oven like the one at Sunrise. These weighty structures, used for centuries as bread ovens, hold the heat of a wood fire for a long time and release it very slowly. The firebrick floors become about 100 degrees hotter than the surrounding air, which can be easily humidified for the initial baking phase. A very hot, moist oven to start the baking and a slightly cooler, dry one to finish it gives bread great crust. Oliver says that in Sunrise Farm’s oven, constructed by farm volunteers and master oven builder Alan Scott, “the bread always comes out really, really nice no matter what I do.” On the other hand, she never quite knows how hot the oven is. Temperature gauges can be notoriously inaccurate. “Little old Italian ladies used to throw a pinch of polenta into the oven and count how many seconds it took to burn,” she says. “I just stick my hand in.”
There are some tricks for simulating a brick bread oven when all you’ve got is the oven range that came with your house. Scott’s favorite is La Cloche, a round, unglazed stoneware pan with an inverted bowl and a handle; bake your round loaf in one of these, he says, and you’ll closely simulate the crust you’d get in a masonry oven. Other bakers use baking stones or tiles and spritz their ovens with spray misters. One baker with a sourdough website, Darryl Greenwood, pokes tiny holes in the cups of a muffin pan, fills them with boiling water, and sets it on the bottom rack about 10 minutes prior to baking. Oliver’s technique is used by most masonry-oven bakers: drape a damp towel across the oven’s door.
About half an hour later, she lifts out a bread peel full of dill, bleu cheese swirl loaves—brown, crusted with oozing cheese, and incredibly fragrant. Most bread books urge bakers to allow just-baked loaves to rest for 10 to 20 minutes after taking them out of the oven, to let the insides finish cooking, to allow some final chemical reactions to take place, to give the bread its best possible sour, nutty, hearty flavor. But the books also say to follow your own instincts. Oliver gets the knife.
Susan Clotfelter is the author of The Herb Tea Book (Interweave Press, 1998) and the editor of High and Mighty: The Flood of 1993 (Andrews & McMeel, 1993). When she’s not thinking about food or dogs, she edits herb books for Interweave Press.
“Eat fresh bread. If the rest of the bread is to be eaten that day or the next, leave it out—turned up on its cut surface—or put it in a paper bag to allow it to breathe, while the crust stays dry.” —Alan Scott and Daniel Wing on how to eat bread
Bread that won’t be eaten within thirty-six hours should be cooled to 90° or below, then frozen in a sealed plastic bag at 0° or below. When you take it out of the freezer, leave it in the plastic bag while it thaws until visible signs of water on the outside and inside of the bag have disappeared. Then take it out of the bag. Bread that is thawed at room temperature will be palatable, but can be made nearly as good as fresh bread if it is thoroughly reheated and allowed partially to cool before serving.
Don’t store bread in the refrigerator. (Ever! Because it goes stale quickly!) Unless you are going to use it for croutons! —Alan Scott, The Bread Builders
Grinding Your Own Flour
If you’re going to make your own starter and bake your own bread, chances are you’ll eventually get picky about flour. Whole-wheat flour contains the wheat germ and bran, source of most of wheat’s vitamins, minerals, and fiber. All-purpose flour has had the germ and the bran—and their nutrients—removed in milling; one reason this is done is that the fats in the wheat germ spoil quickly (that’s why wheat germ should be refrigerated). Enriched flour has had some of its vitamins and minerals—but not all of them—restored.
Like wheat germ, however, the vitamins and oils in whole-wheat flour are perishable. No matter where you buy your flour, store it in the refrigerator or freezer in an air-tight container. When you buy flour, ask your grocer, health-food store proprietor, or mail-order vendor how it is stored and for how long.
There’s another answer: Buy organic wheat berries (see Resources) and grind your own flour. The hard wheat berry is nature’s Tupperware, preserving the nutrients inside the grain (though you’ll still want to store wheat berries in a cool place). Home-sized, hand-crank grain mills are available from a variety of sources for about $70 and up. It doesn’t take long to grind enough flour for one batch of bread.
You can also fresh-grind only part of your flour and simply make sure the rest of it is as fresh as you can get. Alan Scott uses a home grinder to grind half the rye for his rye loaves fine, and the other half coarse. He adds the coarse-ground rye when he feeds his starter, so that it softens a bit but retains a nutty quality. When he makes whole-wheat bread, he uses King Arthur white whole-wheat flour and adds fresh cracked wheat berries.
2 cups whole wheat flour (fresh ground is great; otherwise simply buy the freshest flour you can)
2 cups water
1 pound organic grapes (stemmed but unwashed)
Blend the flour and water together. With clean hands, mash the grapes one by one in the flour and water paste. Put the resulting mixture in a large (1 gallon at least) glass container in a warm, but not hot, place; loosely cover with plastic wrap.
Feed the starter 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water daily for two weeks to one month.
When the container gets to be more than half full, remove half the starter and compost it. At the end of the fermenting period, the grape skins should be mostly dissolved and the mixture should smell healthily yeasty with fruity and slightly acid overtones. After this fermentation period, you can keep your starter in the refrigerator and reduce its feedings to once a week. However, before using it to make bread, take it out of the fridge, and let it sit at room temperature for two days to wake it up again, feeding it daily.
(If this whole process makes you impatient to make bread, get a sample of a friend’s starter or mail-order some from one of the vendors in the Resource list. If you do both, you can compare breads made from the starters and chart the evolution of your own.)
BASIC WHITE SOURDOUGH
4–5 cups organic, unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup starter
1 cup water
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup coarsely ground cornmeal (polenta)
In a bowl or on a clean work surface, dump 4 cups of the flour. Make a well, and put in the starter, most of the water, and the salt. Work with your hands or a wooden spoon, adding water until all the ingredients are incorporated into a shaggy mass. If the dough is too wet, add more flour, a tablespoon or two at a time. If you’re using an electric mixer, Erin likes to keep her dough as moist as possible while still having it dry enough allowing it to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
Allow the dough to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Scrape off your hands.
Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until it stretches easily, is shiny and still moist to the touch, but not sticky.
Allow to rise, protected from drafts, for either 3 to 4 hours in a warm place, or for 1 hour in a warm place and then overnight in a cool place (such as the refrigerator); adjust the time according to how long it takes the bread to double in bulk.
Take the dough out, allow it to come to room temperature if it was chilled, and knead it a few turns to remove the biggest of the gas bubbles. Cut it in half and shape it into two round loaves as described earlier, or make two long loaves by stretching each half into a square, rolling it, pinching the seam, and tucking the ends under. Sprinkle a cookie sheet or loaf pan with cornmeal and place the shaped loaves on the pan. Drape with a damp towel and allow to rise in a warm, moist place until doubled again—one to two hours. Meanwhile, preheat the oven (along with any baking stones or cloches) to 500°. Prepare any moisture-inducing tools—misters, pans of water, etc.
When the loaf has risen, slash the top with a sharp knife in any pattern you fancy. Slide the loaf onto your hot stone, mist the oven if necessary, and quickly close the oven door. Reduce heat to 450 degrees. Check the loaf at a half-hour and every 10 minutes thereafter; when it’s brown and sounds hollow when tapped, it’s done. Let it sit for at least 10 minutes before slicing or breaking into chunks.
DILL, BLEU CHEESE SWIRL SOURDOUGH
4–5 cups organic, unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup starter
1 cup water
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup coarsely ground cornmeal (polenta)
2 tablespoons fresh snipped dill (or more to taste)
4 tablespoons crumbled bleu cheese (or more to taste)
Combine dill and flour in a large mixing bowl, stirring until well combined. Mix the remaining ingredients (except the cheese) as described earlier through the first rising. When the dough has completed its first rising, divide it in half. Stretch each half into a rectangle 6 by 10 inches. Sprinkle each with half the bleu cheese. Roll each lengthwise; pinch the seam closed and tuck the ends underneath. Sprinkle cornmeal in two loaf pans; put in the loaves, drape with a wet towel and set in a warm place to rise until double. Bake.
Dorothy McNett's Place
243 Sixth St.
Hollister, CA 95023
fax (831) 637-5274
Baker’s lame, proofing baskets, starter, other tools
King Arthur Flour
PO Box 1010
Norwich, VT 05055
Flour, starter, baking equipment, tips, recipes
Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog
Lehman Hardware and Appliances, Inc.
One Lehman Circle
PO Box 41
Kidron, OH 44636
Grain mills, whole grain
PO Box 679
Cascade, ID 83611
Sourdough cultures from Austria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Russia, San Francisco, Saudi Arabia and the Yukon
Walnut Acres Organic Farms
Organic flour and whole grains, other organic products
Clayton, Jr. Bernard. Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads. Revised and Expanded Simon & Schuster, 1987
Robertson, Laurel. The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. Random House, 1985
Scott, Alan. The Bread Builders:?Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens. Chelsea Green, 1999
Silverton, Nancy. Breads From La Brea Bakery:?Recipes For Connoisseurs. Random House, 1996