I have been trying to get this post written for days. One thing or another has gotten in the way, but I managed to find a few hours this afternoon, so here goes. Hope you don’t mind lots of pictures.
I was inspired to learn how to bake bread about 18 years ago. My first attempts were less than stellar, and I was intimidated by the whole thing. Yeast baking seemed like such a mysterious and unpredictable process and I would follow the directions for proofing and mixing, but just couldn’t seem to get it to work successfully. My dough would either not rise or if it did rise my loaves would be sort of, shall we say, brick-ish. I was determined to learn though and began in earnest to learn this in the way I learn any new thing, immersion. I went to the library and checked out dozens of books on the subject. I wanted in particular to be successful at not just bread, whole grain bread.
Two of the books that I read made me into a life long bread baker; Breadtime, and Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. The first was the most helpful in teaching me a method and had not heard of before; a cool rise sponge method. My lack of success before was because I was attempting to make whole wheat bread using straight dough methods which are better for white bread. Once I understood how yeast does it’s thing I better understood why my previous efforts were less than they could have been.
So what is the sponge method? If you do a search for it, you can find more info, but basically it’s where you start with all the liquid and roughly half of the flour, along with the yeast and a shot of sweetener for a boost to proof the yeast. Once you let this rise you add the rest of the flour, salt and any other ingredients like oil and sweetener if you desire. After kneading the dough it gets two bowl rises and one shaped rise before baking. That’s the pithy directions, anyway.
Want more details? Okay. Here’s my basic everyday whole wheat bread recipe. Oh and a note about flour, for best results use the freshest and highest gluten you can get. I have a stone mill for fresh grinding my wheat. I prefer Hard White Wheat berries over Hard Red Wheat berries, but either will work. We prefer the milder flavor and softer crust of the white wheat,which is really more golden than white. I buy mine from Honeyville Grain. Here’s my mill.
I bought this in 1999 and have never had a day’s trouble from it. It’s made by hand from a small business much like our own. It looks like they are still in business.
This is my wheat bin that is in the bottom drawer of the little cabinet where my grinder is sitting in my dining room. Okay, so most of you aren’t going to go hard core and get a mill. I know. I recommend in that case King Arthur Flour if you can get it. My local Kroger carries it and I use their unbleached bread flour. It really is superior and what I like best is that it’s certified organic, grown and milled in America, and if you can’t find it local you can order online.
Anyway, back to the recipe.
3 1/4 cup. warm water
1/4 cup honey plus a tbsp. for proofing yeast
1 tbsp. active dry yeast
7 cups fresh whole wheat flour
2 1/2 – 3 cups unbleached bread flour
1/4 cup canola or other vegetable oil
1 tbsp. salt
I like to make two big loaves so I start with 3 1/4 cups of water. I warm this until I can stick my finger in it and only hold for a count of 4. Any longer and it’s too cool, keep warming. Any warmer, it will kill the yeast, let it sit until it’s right. There is a temp you are going for if you like to use a thermometer; so if you must, it’s 105 to 115 degrees. Pour all the water except for 1/4 a cup or so into the mixing bowl. In the 1/4 cup of water add a tbsp. or so of honey and a scant tbsp. of active dry yeast. Sprinkle in the yeast and let it dissolve some then mix thoroughly until completely dissolved. Allow that to sit until the yeast has developed a good foam on top. This is “proofing” the yeast. This should take 5-7 minutes. While that is going on, add 4 cups of the whole wheat flour to the water in the mixing bowl and mix well until the gluten strands start to form. That’s the sticky, stretchy structure that allows the dough to rise as the yeast expels gas. I like to use a heavy duty mixer for this and the kneading, however I did do it all by hand for the first 2-3 years I made bread. It’s a work out but the kneading is actually kind of relaxing once you get into it. I will be honest with you though, I was pretty excited when I got my Kitchen Aid.
Okay back to the yeast. Once it’s “proofed” add it to the mixture. It should have a good head on it almost like a draft beer. If it doesn’t, add a little fresh warm water. You may have not warmed it enough. If that doesn’t work, you may have killed it with water too hot, or it’s old. Try again and if it still doesn’t work, get new yeast. We will assume it worked and move on for now.
After adding the yeast, add another cup of whole wheat flour and mix again for a few minutes. Now it’s time to let the “sponge” rise. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or some plastic wrap and wait a couple hours. It should rise at least a couple inches, but if you get busy and it rises more that’s all the better. It won’t even hurt at this point if it rises enough to actually fall back. Ever heard of sourdough? This is a slightly like that only less fermented.
Now you attach your dough hook if using a mixer, and add the salt, oil, and honey. Mix and add the remaining 2 cups of whole wheat flour one a at time, mixing well after each. It should start to form a soft dough ball as you continue adding flour a cup at a time. I usually start adding unbleached flour at this point and the last cup or so gets added a spoon at a time until the dough ball is well formed and the dough is cleaning the bottom of the bowl. Let the dough rest for 5-10 minutes now before you start the kneading time. This helps the dough absorb all the flour and relax the gluten. Now knead the dough for 6-8 minutes on speed 2 (on my mixer).
Very lightly flour the counter surface and dump out the dough on it. Roll it to coat it and cover with damp towel or plastic again for another 5-10 minute rest.
Prepare your rising bowl with a light coating of oil. I like to use a crockery bowl rather than metal, since it will hold in just the right amount of heat without being too warm. The goal is a good room temperature rise away from drafts. Knead the dough once more briefly until it feels satiny and smooth, and place it in the bowl, turning to coat leaving the smooth side up in the bowl.
Cover again to rise until the point where it can’t rise further. You can tell when this has happened when you lightly tough the top and you finger leaves a slight depression. It it springs back immediately, let it go a it longer.
When it is ready, carefully deflate it and gently knead to reorganize the gluten and put it back for a second bowl rise. This will usually take less time than the first since the yeast will have multiplied. Test it the same way and notice that you can smell a more noticeable yeasty, fermented smell? That’s what you want. It’s time for the final shaped rise. You can use bread pans or sometimes I like to shape baguettes or round hearth loaves and bake those on a flat jelly roll pan.
Okay, gently roll the dough out onto a counter, no flour this time. Divide in half with a sharp knife and deflate the gases. Knead very briefly and give the balls another 5-10 minute rest while you grease the pan(s). I like to use softened butter, but lard or shortening will do also. After the dough has relaxed the gluten will be easier to coax out into a flat circle for shaping into whatever loaf shape you are making. No matter what shape you make, just remember to have the smooth even surface on the top and the seam on the bottom. Also take care not to be too rough with the dough at this point. The gluten is very well developed and if you tear it you won’t get as nice a rise.
Once the dough is shaped, cover again and keep a closer eye on it. You want to catch the rise and get it in the oven before it hits the maximum volume. The last push in the hot oven gives the crust that nice rounded texture which make the loaf pretty and easier to slice. It should be almost doubled and slightly spring back when you touch it as in the bowl rises. When it’s almost there, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and get a good serrated knife to slash the top. This allows the interior to rise a bit more in the heat without cracking the crust.
See it rising more?
Bake 50 minutes, or until you can hear a hollow sound when you remove from the bread and thump the bottom. I like to remove them from the pan to a cooling rack and brush with melted butter to cool. It’s best to let it cool at least 30 minutes to an hour before slicing. The crust will soften and get chewy which makes it so much easier to slice.
Now the best part is to enjoy! My favorite way is while it’s still slightly warm and fresh to eat it with butter and maybe a little honey. Or maybe peanut butter. Or maybe one of each.