Friday, December 28, 2012

My (Possibly Optimal) Bread Process

As I'm home for the holidays now, I lack photos of most of the process described here.  When I next bake bread, I'll take some pictures.

AKA, How to make good bread as easily as possible.

Like any geek, I enjoy a good optimization problem.  I especially enjoy those that involve routine kitchen tasks.  One thing that I've added to my list in the last few months is baking bread.  While in Europe this year I learned a German recipe for a whole wheat spelt loaf, and since I got back to the States in August I've been making it weekly, trying to perfect it.  My criteria to optimize are as follows:

  • All flour must be fermented for several hours with a sourdough starter 1
  • It must be primarily whole wheat spelt
  • It must have a good, hearty crust
  • It doesn't have to be as light as a loaf of white bread, but it must not be super dense and gummy
  • While satisfying the above, it must be as easy to make as possible
The  recipe I learned in Europe was super-simple already; it involved only two mixings of ingredients, no kneading, and the most time-consuming part of it was greasing the bread tins. But it still seemed, well . . . sub-optimal.

The first change I made was to mix all of the ingredients in at the beginning.  This is a good idea not just to make it easier, but so that all of the flour in the recipe has a chance to undergo a long fermentation, something that I consider essential to producing truly healthy bread.  I may be missing a nuance in the final product by skipping a step, but it still makes a good loaf.

The second change I made was to measure by weight instead of volume.  Apart from being much more accurate, measuring by weight is just easier and creates fewer dishes.  I put a large mixing bowl onto my scale, pour in flour until it reads the correct weight, then zero the scale.  I move the whole thing to my sink, turn on the faucet and watch the scale.  When the water is done, I pour on the salt, again watching the scale.  The one thing I don't measure is my starter. I don't think the amount of starter makes much of a difference with such a long fermentation.

The final change I made was to simplify the greasing of the bread tins.  Instead of using butter or oil spread around with a finger, I found out that you can use a spray bottle filled with a mix of oil and water 2.  Then I put some flour in a small metal strainer and shake it over the tin to evenly distribute it.

Bragg's makes a spray bottle for soy sauce that's perfect for greasing tins.

I've made this bread about once a week for the last four months, and I think it's about as good as it can get.  I could probably put in some more effort to get a slightly better product, but I don't think it would be worth it.  So enough introduction, here's the recipe!

Ingredients (makes one loaf):
  • 500 g whole wheat flour 3
  • 500 g water
  • 10 g salt
  • sourdough starter
  1. Mix all of the above together in a bowl, then ferment at room temperature, covered with a cloth, for 12 hours or so.  You might need to add a bit of water to the dough; you want it wet enough that you couldn't knead it, but not watery (otherwise it'll take forever to bake).
  2. Put some of the dough back into your sourdough starter container.  It's too easy to forget this.
  3. Grease a 9x5 bread tin.
  4. Stir the dough to collapse large air bubbles, then ladle into the tin.  Cover the pan with a cloth or spritz it with oil to keep the top from drying out.
  5. After 30 minutes, start preheating your oven to 450 F.
  6. After another 30 minutes, check on the loaf.  Keep checking every 15 minutes until it has risen enough that if you poke it it makes a depression which holds its shape.
  7. Place the loaf in the oven and set a timer for 30 minutes.
  8. After 30 minutes, the crust of the loaf should be set.  Open the oven door and place a probe thermometer into the center of it.  Set the timer to go off at 200 degrees Fahrenheit (I do 195 in Arizona at 7000 ft of elevation).
  9. When the thermometer goes off, take the bread out of the oven, run a knife along the side of the tin, and then invert it to drop the loaf out.  Let it rest on a cooling rack 4 for several hours before cutting open (I think it's best to wait an entire day).

  1. I haven't been able to find conclusive evidence that soaking improves bread's digestibility.  However, there's plenty of evidence that sourdough fermentation is a healthy thing.  I personally think that the rise in rates of gluten intolerance in developed countries may have something to do with an overall decrease in bread fermentation times. Just a hypothesis.
  2. If you read the post I linked to, you'll note the concern about sanitation.  It's always good to be safe, but in this particular case I don't worry too much.  The botulism toxin is destroyed by 5 minutes at 190 degrees Fahrenheit, which is easily reached on the outside of my bread during baking.
  3. I prefer spelt flour, but you can use rye or whole wheat.  I haven't gotten a satisfactory rye loaf yet from this recipe, but I also haven't experimented enough with it.  If you decide to use  white flour, you'll need to reduce the water drastically (probably to 60% of the flour weight).
  4. A collapsible steamer basket is a nice cooling rack substitute.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fat Washing Jar Lids

Reduce, reuse, recycle, right?  Many of us strive to do things in that order, and one of the best things to reuse is glass jars.  You can buy things in bulk with them, ferment things in them, store leftovers, make yogurt, etc.  Glass is totally non-reactive, doesn't hold odors, and lasts forever.

However, as good as glass jars are, their lids can absorb odors from food, especially from things canned in them.  Pickle and salsa jar lids have particularly strong odors.  These flavors will assert themselves into whatever food you put in them - trust me.  These jars tend to be great shapes for re-using, which makes this all the more frustrating.  After a couple recent rounds of pickle-flavored yogurt, I abandoned hope that repeated batches would rid the lid of it's flavor, and started researching ways to solve the problem.

I found my answer in the book Cooking For Geeks by Jeff Potter.  He has a section on "Fat Washing".  He was talking about fat washing alcohols, to either remove unwanted flavors, or to infuse flavors from fat into alcohol (think "hot butter rum" or bacon whiskey).  I knew from reading other cooking books that many flavors (and vitamins, for that matter) are fat or alcohol soluble, and don't dissolve into water.

So I did a little experiment.  I put some lard into a pickle lid, put it on a rack on top of the wood stove, and kept it there for two days.  Then I wiped the excess off and washed the lid clean.  And guess what?  It totally worked!  There was no noticeable pickle smell remaining.  And no lard smell either.  I've since used this technique for salsa lids as well, with the same result.
Lard melting in a lid on the wood stove.

I'm not sure if the warming step is necessary for other oils - lard has to be warm to stay liquid, but it may be that if you used an unsaturated vegetable oil, you could do this at room temperature.  It stands to reason that hotter oil could absorb more flavor, however.  I also don't know if it really needs two days for it to work.  And I'd like to try alcohol-washing, using vodka or everclear instead of fat.

What I do know is that now I can reuse my glass jars without fear of creating pickle-yogurt.  Or salsa-raisins. get the picture.