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)
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.