Friday
Apr082011

Our Daily Bread

Before leaving the subject of flour, one important lesson:  Unlike white refined flour, whole grain flour is alive and perishable.  It's best if eaten fresh and keeps longer if kept cold.

I wished to perfect a recipe for whole-grain bread.  Cook’s Illustrated had refined a recipe for whole-wheat sandwich bread in their March/April issue.  Perhaps I could improve on their work.  Ha ha.  To this end I designed an experiment to evaluate the variables.  Does soaking the flour in the liquid overnight bring out the flavor?  Should the water be filtered, straight from the tap, or mixed with milk?  Does added gluten improve the body?  Should the fat be a mixture of butter and oil, or simply canola oil?  Is maple syrup better than honey?  Is more salt and yeast better?  Does it help to add ground flax, wheat germ, or something chewy like sunflower seeds, cracked grains, or chopped walnuts?  Does it matter if I let it rise once or twice?  Basically, is a more complicated recipe better than a simple recipe?

I tested all the variables by making 16 mini-loaves of bread.  (The dough balls for half the tests are shown in the picture.)  After baking the loaves, they were evaluated by a taste panel (myself, wife, and daughter).  We reached a conclusion that surprised us.  Unsure, I repeated the taste test with grandchildren aged 5, 9 and 11 as the jury.  I wish now I had made a video as they sampled each piece and argued about the taste, texture and body.  Kids have an innate respect for food and an instinct to eat what is healthy, really.  (And they love games where they get to give out the grades.)

The conclusion?  Cook’s Illustrated made it too complicated.  To our taste, the simplest bread is as good as the complex variations we tried.  The flavor of wheat overcomes all the subtle additions, especially if it’s fresh.  You can make good bread with just six ingredients: flour, pure water, good oil, honey, yeast and salt.  Mix it all together, let it rise just once, bake it, and be done.  The only variable that stood out was too little salt, and too little honey.  Yeast works best if it’s warm so heat the liquid to 110 degrees F. (baby-bottle hot), and let the bread rise someplace warm (a slightly heated oven worked for us).  I did use (Brita) filtered water, thinking chlorine residuals might deter the yeast. 

Oh, I learned one other thing:  Optimizing a recipe requires a deep knowledge of cooking and I've never even been to culinary school.  I should have held a contest for you readers and coughed up for a prize.  That would have been an easier way to get a good bread recipe.  Here is our recipe:

Skip’s Basic Bread (1 loaf)

1-¼ cup warm filtered water

1 pkg. yeast (2-½ tsp.)

1-½ tsp. sea salt

¼ cup honey

¼ cup canola oil

3 cups whole grain flour (keep an extra ½ cup ready if dough it is too wet)

Directions:

Combine ingredients in order and mix.  Knead 5-8 minutes by mixer using a dough hook, or by hand, until dough becomes stretchy.  If dough doesn’t pull away from bowl into a loose ball, or is too sticky to work, add a little flour.  Flatten ball on an oiled or floury work surface into a rectangle and roll into a log nearly the length of the baking pan.  (Bending the ends under and reshaping the log makes neater loaf ends.)  Place in pan and let rise in a warm environment 1-2 hours, depending on temperature, until dough rises above pan.  Bake at 350 degrees F. about 30 minutes, until top is golden-brown. 

This completes a prior rash promise to share a bread recipe.  It was a lot of work but it gave an appreciation for the finer points of bread making.  If you prefer a fancier recipe, note the recipe earlier this week by Sasha; it looks pretty good and has an option for oatmeal, a variable we didn't test.  And, as always, please add any comments to round out this discussion.  Oh, a tip on saving money from a reader:  If you bake bread regularly, you can save by buying yeast in bulk.  It's the most expensive ingredient.

___________________________________________________________________

Last week finished the first quarter; we have passed the 25% mark.  Next week we will take on the food corporations and talk about the importance of your buying decisions.  In the following weeks we will look into inedible and edible oils—which ones make you sick and which make you healthy.  We'll also continue our tour of the aisles of the local grocery store. 

Please let us know about any subjects we should address.  We have a 52-week plan, but will revise topics to answer popular demand.   Last week I thought it important to talk about birth defects and folic acid but knew it would not be the most popular topic as the condition is rare.  Though an important service, it did slow the steady growth that has blessed this blog.  Please help us regain our growth momentum by sharing this blog with your friends.  This helps everyone: research shows that change is more lasting if we do it with our friends.  Best.

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Reader Comments (37)

That is basically the same recipe we have made for 22+ years, but we do 5 loaves at a time.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

Anne, thanks for the endorsement. I should have just turned this over to you. Best.

April 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Just a quick note: I hope it's okay. Yesterday I put a link to your flour post on my blog. I really enjoyed it and when my husband read it, so did he. I love this blog. I love that it's knowledgeable without being covered in ads for the new Jillian Micheal's workout, protein powder, etc.. I love that it's straightforward and honest. So thanks for that. I'm not going to lie and say that I've been doing all of these changes, but a couple of them I am, specifically the bread and cereal. I feel good about that.Thanks for this recipe! I'm definitely going to have to try this one!

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristie

I asked a girlfriend of mine to come and teach me my first lesson in breadmaking. She came with a mountain of information about soaking your grains to break down phytic? acid so that the grain is digestible. She soaks everything, specifically oatmeal and wheat. I would love another opinion. I had never heard of this before, and am feeling like my goal to make bread is becoming more complicated (and that the oatmeal I'm serving my family every morning is (apparently) not cutting it without soaking it overnight) than it needs to be. Any thoughts? Is there any need to soak your whole grains? Or sprout your wheat? before making your bread.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMica

Hi! I have recently come across your blog and can't believe I haven't been here before....I LOVE it! genius!! I always think to myself....."if we could just somehow teach the whole world about the Word of Wisdom, what a happy healthy place we'd live...."

I'm glad you started the movement:)

Can't wait to get lost in your archives.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersheena

Can't wait to try the bread recipe. One thing I have always wondered is this: what is the difference between sea salt and just regular ol' table salt? They taste the same to me. What makes one better than the other? Thanks.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGerb

thank you for this post! i have been waiting anxiously since you mentioned you might post a recipe for homemade wheat bread. i tried all of the brands of wheat bread that made your cut (even dave's killer bread) but came away having one issue or another with every brand (too expensive, too dense, too dry, too many add ins = kids not touching it with a three foot pole). i've made bread in the past but, my family is still not crazy about the recipe i usually use. i can't wait to try this one! thanks again.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

Lame question: what type of yeast do you use? Active dry, instant, rapid rise... I'm not sure what the difference is between the varieties. And when you ask for yeast in a recipe, is it just plain yeast or do you let it rise first?

I'm a novice at all this, so excuse the stupid questions...

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I'll try to respond to the many good comments:
YEAST: we used the rapid rise powder in the foil packets. We actually tried two, Fleishman and Red Star but didn't see a difference. We didn't do a pre-rise for the yeast, just mixed it in.
SALT: We used Redmond Real Salt which is 98.32% sodium chloride mixed with trace minerals including natural iodine. Maybe it's healthier, perhaps not a big deal.
SOAKING: I have seen the material on phytic acid but like many nutrition topics there is not agreement on what is best. People are different and have different needs; listen to your body. I soak our breakfast cereals 24 hours, but not the bread flour. We'll revisit soaking when we get to legumes.
Thanks for your kind comments. Skip

April 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

can't wait to try it!

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkristi

In a future post, will you be talking about MSG? I've heard lots of bad things about it, and it seems that there are a lot of ways that it can be listed on a label (which seems to be a bad sign to me.)

If it is something to avoid, I'd like to know!

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

Hello Sacha. Definitely will post on MSG. Skip

April 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Here's a tip for people wanting more moisture in their whole wheat bread: add some mashed potato. I've been making my own bread for several years, and a few months ago decided to throw in some baked potato as an experiment. It turned out fabulous!

I used to add extra gluten, but was worried about altering the basic wheat too much...I mean, if the wheat comes a certain way, shouldn't I just take it as it is? The extra gluten didn't help too much, anyways.

It also helps to experiment with sizes of baking tins. A more slender tin (mine are from Bed Bath & Beyond) will require less baking time, and therefore give you a lighter crust and more moisture in the loaf. I've also found that putting all four loaves in the oven at once overcrowds them and leaves them underdone inside--even if you lengthen the baking time. It works better to bake only 2 -3 loaves at a time to allow the heat to reach all sides of the tin.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I've always bought yeast in bulk, and I can't believe how expensive those little packets of yeast are! I'm currently working my way through a 1.4-lb. container of yeast that I bought for $5.37. I make homemade pizza every weekend, but I don't bake bread as often as I'd like (about once a month). Thanks for the inspiration!

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterr8chel

Another great post. I have shared your blog with many people Skip and I will continue to do so. I am excited to try your recipe, but I was hoping for a bread machine recipe. Can I just use this recipe in the machine?
I'm also excited to read about MSG.

April 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

There is a lot to be said about MSG for sure. Add Aspartame to that and you've got a post about food additives to avoid like the plague. Thanks for the bread recipe.

April 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

I really enjoy the recipes you have posted; I wouldn't mind seeing more! I think a big issue with truly living the WoW as far as increasing our intake of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is the practical difficulty of eating in a way some of us are not accustomed to. Practical (and easy) ways to improve (not ways to be perfect) are the best types of information. Simple recipes or suggestions for incorporating more of these foods into our lives are what I would like to see more of.

April 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterE

Thank you for the recipe and the continued research. I appreciate it. You're covering things I want to know more about and better understand--thank you! And I love that it's a family affair...how great that the grandkids are in on the taste test.

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

I wanted to post about the folic acid/folate issue, and spaced it. After having my baby and all the prenatal pills, I was surprised to find out that it was pretty unnecessary-except for the foilc acid. Some women refuse to take them because they'd rather get their vitamins from the source. I want to feel confident enough in my food choices to be able to do that next time. (I've also heard that the risks of birth defects rises if you become pregnant again before the previous baby is a year old..) Is this true??

Thanks for the blog and bread recipe. Yours is one of the few blogs I look to with anticipation each week.

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCamaronO

Hello Skip,
I am enjoying and learning from your blog. I make a fresh ground whole wheat multi-grain bread about once a week. I would like to have my recipe analyzed for nutrition content and fiber (mostly because I am just curious). Do you have a source where I can do this or is it simply reading the labels and doing the math?

Thanks for helping us all to think and live more healthy.

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCorrie

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