The Flour Upgrade
In high school, Louis Diat was my hero, and I baked croissants, brioches, and challah, so there was fresh bread and pastry in our house almost every day. (Most of the year, there was also a surplus of eggs and garden produce.) By the late 1970s, I was pastry chef in pretentious restaurants in New York City. After that, I ran and owned restaurants and hotels in California for a few years, before changing my life. In all, I have baked a lot of stuff that looked and tasted just like what you would find in a good bakery. More recently, I have moved to milling my own flour; and, I like the results.
Today my rules are:
Everything is a compromise.
The (home) chef’s role is to produce the best over-all menu within the limits of budget, schedule, and resources.
I suggest that excellent bread deserves as much status as any other high-end food stuff, and today, excellent bread is rarer and harder to find in commercial establishments than other high-end food stuffs. It is easier to find excellent cheese and excellent wine than excellent bread to go with the fine cheese and fine wine. However, excellent and even great breads can be baked at home.
The pro-baker wants high volume crumb, so s/he can sell air at the price of bread. However, high crumb volume may not suit the home chef’s menu. The restaurant manager puts what looks like a generous basket of bread on the table, but in in fact, it is mostly air. The restaurant does not want you to fill up on bread before you order. In contrast, the farm wife may serve sandwiches to a hungry work crew as they sit in the shade of trucks in the fields. Or, friends show up, and everyone gets to talking and it is nice to be able to put a spread on the table without stopping to cook. These needs want a bread that is the staff of life.
However, if bread is the “staff of life” and a substantial source of calories, then bread needs to be denser. And, it needs more nutrition, so the calories from the bread are not the empty calories of white flour. One should not need a mountain of bread on the table to feed active people. And, a denser bread allows a sandwich to make an excellent lunch for a hiker or climber, or member of a harvest crew. And a denser bread does not leak mustard, mayonnaise or . . . . One reason for all the “nutrition bars” is that our bread is full of air, with empty calories.
The pro-baker likes to produce bread that stales quickly, so the shopper will buy more bread tomorrow. San Francisco Sourdough and even many Parisian “pain de campagne” stale much faster than the sourdough breads that I bake at home. The home baker may want bread that keeps very well for a few days.
The pro-baker does not care about the glycemic load of white bread - s/he does not have to deal with your family’s diabetes over the decades. The home baker can be proactive, and produce more healthful breads.
The pro-baker wants bread that can be produced quickly; the home chef can schedule to produce better bread with less effort, and that small effort spread over a day or 2 or 3.
The home baker’s needs are not the needs of the pro-baker. The home baker does not need to bake the same breads as the pro-baker. The home baker does not even need to admire the breads of the pro-baker. (Which is not to say that the competent home baker cannot turnout a pile of beautiful baguettes in an afternoon.) The home baker can adjust the schedule of the bread to fit the schedule of the baker and the house. And, the schedule can vary with the seasons. In the winter, the sourdough process goes faster because I just leave it on the kitchen counter at night, while in summer, I have to put it in the refrigerator overnight. The kitchen counter in winter often produces the better product, but the results are not quite as consistent as putting the dough in the refrigerator.
Pro-bakers must keep the ovens full, so as one product comes out the next is be ready to go in, thus fermentation and rising times must be carefully calculated. Home bakers working with sourdoughs and production schedules running 12 to 36 hours have more time flexibility. Often these (rye) breads need an hour of cooling time, so you bake during breakfast and eat it at dinner. Or, you bake during the evening news (or algebra homework) and make it into sandwiches in the morning.
Better flour makes better bread
White flour allows for a high degree of consistency – the same recipe in volume over and over- this is good for the pro-baker. The home baker can change breads with the seasons.
Fresh flour produces better bread, just as fresh vegetables are better than canned or frozen vegetables. However, the use of fresh seasonal vegetables requires adaption to the vegetables available. Likewise, the home baker can adjust their baking to complement the seasonal vegetables. If you cook with fresh seasonal vegetables, then you should also use fresh flour, and adapt as necessary.
Whole wheat flour has about the shelf-life of an egg. If you cannot use a bag of flour in a few weeks, then you should arrange to mill flour fresh, because intact wheat berries and intact rye berries will keep for several months under good storage conditions.
Commercial whole-wheat flour has the bran ground fine, so the bran is difficult to sift out. The result is commercial whole wheat flour produces low crumb volume because the fine fragments of bran in the flour cut the gluten strands. Home milled flour can have coarser bran, which is more easily sifted out. Less bran results in better crumb volume, and the bran can be used elsewhere in the menu. I mill flour, sift out most of the bran, and then mill the flour again a couple of times – this can only be done on certain kinds of grain mills. For sifting, I use a cheap, fine strainer, nothing special. The “dome” shape of the mesh adds to the area of the mesh and makes the job faster. This works because I temper the wheat prior to milling, and the bran comes out in big flakes that can be easily separated. Tempering wheat brings its moisture content up to ~12%. The baker that resorts to a significant white flour percentage to get good crumb volume, might as well be shoveling sugar into their client’s mouths, and that is not a healthy diet.
Fresh, high extraction flour has a richer, less bitter taste, than most commercial whole grain flours. Thus, recipes assuming commercial whole grain flour use fat and sugar added to cover the bitterness. In fact, fresh home milled flour is about 4% fat, and is high in omega-3 fatty acids. (4% fat is about what Julia Child ended up putting in her classic baguette recipe, which called for white flour that has almost no fat in it.) And, a long sourdough fermentation, adds flavor, so other flavorings such as buttermilk, caraway, cocoa, and coriander are less needed. On the other hand, I find that the addition of malted grain does add speed and ease to the sourdough fermentation, and gives nuances of flavor. In addition, doughs that spend time at both 75F and 40F (retard) pick up additional nuances of flavor since different sourdough metabolic pathways predominate at different temperatures, producing different metabolic end products resulting in different flavors at different temperatures.
So people ask what the flavoring is, and I tell them that it is just “wheat, water, and salt.” (My sourdough cultures derive from the wheat flour.) The point is that one does not need other flavorings to have an excellent and interesting bread. A perception that any baked good containing mostly white flour is likely to be boring has been creeping up on me for some time. (Perhaps, since I walked around SF looking for good bread circa 1980. By 1982, I lived across the street from the best bakery in the Bay Area at the time.) The perception has been aided by a long series of better milled and better packaged “artisanal” flours. Each pointed in the direction that better flour allows better baking, and fresher flour is better.
I malt (sprout and dry) some (2% - 5%) of the grain that goes into my flour. This increases the nutritional value of the flour, and almost as importantly, speeds and improves sourdough fermentation. Some of my malted grain gets toasted, which improves the flavors of some breads. Toasted malts are an excellent route to great dark rye breads. I think dark (toasted) malts work much better for flavoring dark ryes than coffee or cocoa.
Commercial wheat growers have started using” Roundup (herbicide) to force “desiccation” of some wheat fields resulting in Roundup residues being present in much commercial wheat. This is an off-label use of Roundup, and is illegal under FIFRA. While Roundup has a low acute toxicity, it can cause birth defects in the next generation. I strongly discourage anyone who might be a future parent from eating commercial wheat or bread prepared from commercial wheat. Organic wheat has become a worth-while investment in future generation’s health.
Measurements and hydration
Commercial flour is tempered to a precise level of hydration, just before packing so weight measurements can be accurate. As soon as the package is opened, hydration begins to change. Thus, if your flour has been open for a couple of weeks, weight /volume measurements are likely to be inaccurate. Specifying hydration (mass of flour and water) to 3 significant digits for flour from a package that has been open for a while (days) is a waste of effort. If the weather is damp and rainy then the weight of your flour will start to change within a few hours.
Weight and volume measurements of home milled flour will not be precise. The cultivar of grain, the current weather, the fineness of the grind, all affect the effective hydration. Some cultivars differ in hydration needs by 100%. Commercial mills can blend to achieve more consistency, but blending is difficult for the small volumes milled in the home. I adjust hydration as I work the dough. And, sometimes I wet my hands to work doughs, rather than flouring them.
Mostly, I work by weight, and for most ordinary breads, I use a hydration of about 65%. That is: 3 parts by weight of flour is hydrated with 2 parts by weight of water. Salt is added at ~2% of the weight of the flour. The sourdough starter is fed with 2 parts of water and 3 parts of flour. This is quick, and easily scalable. A classic 1-2-3 recipe.
It is worth noting, that the classic 1-2-3 recipe is what Joe Ortiz brought back from Europe more than 30 years ago as the secret to the great breads of Europe for use at Gayle’s Bakery, only to see that he already had that recipe, and the secret was the process, not some magic of precise proportions. The secret is in what Jacques Pepin calls “method” and “technique”, (and I would add ingredients). By using different methods, one can use different techniques and ingredients to achieve good product. And, with good technique, one can use different methods and ingredients to achieve good results. For example, there are many different ways to make good baguettes, and more than one way to make excellent baguettes. All of these methods can be reduced to 2 parts of water to 3 parts of flour.
A kilo of wheat/rye dough for a miche is 1,000 grams divided by 5 => each part being 200 grams. Thus, 400 g water is added to 200 grams of starter, 13 grams of salt and 600 grams of mixed wheat/rye flour is added. Some batches, depending on the menu, get a pinch of instant yeast. Often the flour mix is 5% sprouted wheat, 20 % rye, and 75 % wheat, that is milled once, sifted and then passed through the mill 3 more times. It is a golden flour that produces a tan crumb. During baking, water will be lost, so the final weight will be ~ 750 grams. The lost water makes steam in the oven and a good crust.
Baguettes for 20 people => 80 oz. bread, so a pound of starter, 2 lb. water, and 3 lb. of flour, with an ounce of salt and pinch of yeast in the mix. It takes me about half an hour to mill, sift, and re-mill that much flour. With the sourdough, and the long rise, the bread will keep well for a couple of days, so for just the 2 of us, I divide by 4, and we have very good bread for the next day.
Mostly the difference between a country miche and a baguette is the composition of the flour, and how the dough is handled, shaped, and baked. My bread usually comes out of the oven about 18 to 24 hours after mixing the dough.
Things like brioche, croissants, and so forth are different.
I just need to make sure that I have enough good active starter ready to go. I can double my starter every 12 hours, or I can put it in the refrigerator. In the refrigerator, it will develop a more nuanced flavor. Starter that needs to be refreshed, is likely to be refreshed, and used for waffles, or biscuits or something. Starter, that is just starting, (and not strong enough to raise bread on it’s own) is likely to be used to add extra flavor to yeast breads rather than being discarded as in most instructions for starting starter.
I allow about 3 days to sprout, dry/toast, and mill malt. (Actual working time is about 10 minutes spread over 3 days.)
Mixing and kneading
I use long autolyze periods. An extra hour just makes the dough easier to knead.
The plain doughs get about 4 - 6 minutes in the mixer at medium speed.
I am a big fan of stretching and folding. I often stretch and fold after the dough goes into the retard to help speed the cooling of dough. And, stretching and folding will help the dough warm up as it comes out of the retard - a couple more stretching and folding events (with rests between) will not hurt your dough. Pro-bakers cannot afford the time to touch the dough more than they absolutely must. Home bakers can spend more time playing with their dough.
I am a fan of dividing, rounding up, pre-shaping, and then final loaf shaping.
I mostly ferment and proof at normal kitchen temperatures of 65F to 75F, and adjust the time to suit the temperatures. Many doughs are retarded overnight.
I am a fan of letting miche rise in floured, cloth lined, plastic colanders. Baguettes rise on floured cotton duck on sheet pans.
Gas ovens are very different from electric ovens! Wood fired ovens that have the fire on the baking floor are different from ovens that have a fire box underneath the baking floor. Steam heated ovens are different from gas ovens with steam injection. Really! Baking directions/ steam injection instructions are very specific to the kind of oven!! I have used the above kinds of ovens and a few others.
The truth is, that bread dough is mostly water, and that water can make steam, but any (and all) water in the oven, cools the oven. In any kind of oven that can be closed-up (e.g., electric, not gas), if you match the amount of dough put in the oven at one time to the capacity of the oven, the water in the dough will make enough steam to make a good crust, and any additional water (particularly ice, but even boiling water) will cool the oven. The secret to a good crust in an electric oven is to load the properly preheated oven with right amount of dough. Thus, the easy approach is to scale all recipes to the size of YOUR electric oven. In ovens that cannot be sealed, the steam will escape, and you need a cloche. If you must make a small batch of bread in a big electric oven, use a cloche.
For my Wolf Oven, the right load of bread on the “Stone” setting is ~ 1 kilo. My oven will produce a better crust on 2 kilos of dough than it does 0.5 kilo. The right load is a nice miche or a half-sheet pan of baguettes or 3 loaf pans. If I need 80 oz of baguettes, one pan of baguettes is retarded for a baking cycle. (Sourdough baguettes will tolerate an extra hour of waiting, unlike high speed yeast baguettes. : ) I do not use the Wolf baking stone, I prefer a 14” by 18 “ porcelain floor tile.
Preparing the appropriate load for the oven is less effort than using a cloche. An extra pound or two of good sourdough bread that will keep for days, is not the end of the world.