Saturday, April 10, 2010

How to make whole wheat bread

(edit - for a video demonstration click here: Whole Wheat Bread Video)
After many requests, I am finally posting on how to make bread. Sorry for the delay! I believe bread making is personal for everyone - meaning, it's really hard to follow the instructions and get a nice loaf of bread the first time you do it. You might even have to try making several loaves of bread before you get the hang of it. Please do not give up if your first attempts fail; you'll get better the more you do it. I suggest trying to make at least one loaf a week, that way it's fresh in your mind. I make several loaves each week - the most I feel comfortable handling at one time is four loaves. You might be different; do whatever works for you.

You may find that you are soon able to make nice loaves of bread, and then all of the sudden, something goes wrong and your bread does not turn out. It could be any number of things ... the flour, the humidity or dryness in the air, the temperature, the yeast, the kneading time, the baking time, and so on. Usually when my loaves do not turn out good, it's because I did not add enough flour. Sometimes I get in a hurry - haste makes waste! We still are able to eat the bread, however it does not look pretty or hold together as good.

This recipe will make TWO loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. You may substitute oil for the butter and brown sugar for the honey, however I personally prefer butter and honey. You may omit the potato and potato water - just substitute 2c of warm water instead.

1) one small potato, skinned, chopped and boiled till soft, and the cooking water
2) 4t dry active yeast, ~1/4c-1/2c very warm water, 1/2t honey
3) ~1/4c honey, ~1/4c butter, 2-3t salt, 4c whole wheat flour*
4) additional whole wheat flour* as needed (could be 2 to 3 cups more)

*Use hard red wheat (a 50lb sack of organic berries from Azure costs about $20 right now)

First, boil your potato in about 2 1/2c of water until it is soft (ingredient #1). Drain the water into a pint mason jar (2c) and set aside to cool. If there is water remaining, save that for something else (I put it in soup). If there is not enough potato water to reach the two cup mark, add some water. Mash the potato and put it into a large bowl to cool - you should have about a fourth a cup or so. This bowl will be what you start your bread in.

The potato starch aids in rising. It also makes a more moist, flavorful loaf.

Next, get your yeast ready (ingredient list #2). I prefer to use a wide mouth pint mason jar for this as it does not have a 'lip' and thus is easy to scrape out. Put the very warm water in and the yeast on top. Dip a tea spoon or butter knife into honey (don't scoop it out, you only need a little bit to feed the yeast), and then stir vigorously until the yeast it dissolved. It should look something like this:

Let it sit until the yeast is foamy - this is called 'activating' or 'proofing' the yeast. I like to let it sit until it reaches the top of the jar, however it does not have to rise that much - the point is to make sure the yeast is active and letting it rise half or double its size is just fine. If it does NOT rise within 10 minutes or so, either you started off with dead/old yeast, or your water was not at a good temperature (usually it is too hot). Try again - this time pay close attention to the water temperature. If it still does not work, you might have bad yeast. However, if you just bought the yeast, this is probably not the case! I buy yeast in bulk and store it in the freezer - I keep a mason jar of it in the fridge and replenish the jar when I need to. It's been in there for about 1 1/2 years and still works great. A five pound bag of dry active yeast costs less than $20 through Azure Standard; a 2lb bag is $9. Try to buy in bulk ... those little packets sold at the store are a waste of money!! [Azure delivers to the Pacific NW and parts of the Midwest; if you are not in these areas, there should be some other sort of bulk delivery available to you.]
While you are waiting for your yeast to activate, put ingredient list #3 into the bowl that has your mashed potatoes in it. Also dump the cooled (yet still warm) potato water in.

I prefer the 'sponge method' for making 100% whole wheat bread. Basically this means you make a batter first and let it rise once before adding the rest of the flour and kneading the dough. This tends to soften the bran and makes a lighter loaf. After the yeast has risen properly, add that to the bowl. Stir vigorously - about 200 strokes; I prefer to use a wooden spoon that feels good in my hand. You will have a thick batter. Scrape down the sides, cover with a cloth, and let it sit till doubled - I forget about mine and come back within an hour or so. At this point, you may put it in the refrigerator over night and continue with the rest of the directions in the morning.

Here is the sponge, ready to add the remaining flour.

Stir in an additional 2 cups of whole wheat flour. I like to stir it in with a really sturdy rubber spatula, scraping the sides and 'kneading' with the spatula as I go. Eventually I use my hand, kneading lightly to incorporate more flour. Add additional flour as needed to form a somewhat firm dough. Scrape the sides down as you go, and then turn out onto a floured surface. [run some warm water in your bowl and let it soak - you will use it again when done kneading] Sprinkle more flour on top, and begin to knead. It helps if the surface is low enough to be able to straighten your arms out comfortably when working with the dough - too high or too low of a work surface could cause your back to ache.
If you've never kneaded dough before, it might help to do a google search on 'how to knead bread dough'. I'm sure there are even videos out there if you don't mind searching for those things. [update - here is a video I did on making sourdough bread. The mixing and kneading process is the same if you start the video at about the 10 minute mark.]
Basically, you push the dough away from you with the heals of your hands. Fold it over, push again. Turn a quarter of a turn. Fold, push, fold push, turn. Fold, push, fold push, turn. Continue on, adding flour as needed, until you have a nice ball of dough that is firm, elastic/springy, and smooth. This is something that will take practice and patience. You will literally 'get the feel of it' sooner or later.
A few things to note - your hands will be gunky and sticky for a while, but it will come off as the dough takes shape. Make sure to knead in each addition of flour thoroughly - it's easy to be hasty and add more flour when it really is not needed. Your total kneading time should be 5-15 minutes. Enjoy it!! Maybe you have a window you can look out and do some bird watching? Or you could listen to a sermon? Talk to your child? Sing praises to the Lord? Pray? Whatever. I really like kneading bread.
Once again, you are done when the dough is firm but springy, elastic, smooth and does not stick to your hands. It is easier to add more flour but much harder to add more water, so be careful not to add too much flour at one time!

Your finished ball of dough should look something like this:

Clean and dry your bowl. Add about a quarter-sized amount of oil to the bottom and rub it all around the bowl with your hand. Drop the ball of dough into the bowl, rub it around a bit and turn it over. This greases the top and the sides so it does not dry out while rising. Cover the bowl with a cloth and set it in a warm place (if you can) to rise. In the winter months, if your kitchen is cold like mine, it will take longer to rise. Sometimes I'll set it on a table somewhat closer to the wood stove, however usually I just leave it in the kitchen and wait it out. Go do some laundry, clean the bathroom, read to your children, etc. Come back in an hour or so, and your dough should be doubled in size. Alternately, you may put it in a warm oven (turn the oven on to warm it up, turn it off and place the bowl in the oven).

After an hour or so (shorter for warm homes, longer for cooler homes), your dough should look like this:

Punch it down and turn out onto the work surface.

Knead the dough a few more times to form a ball. If you did NOT do the sponge method, you will need to rise the ball of dough one more time before proceeding. Cut in half and knead each half into a ball, and then form into a loaf. I like to smash each half down and fold under - smash, fold, smash, fold, etc. - until the loaf is long enough to fit the pan. I then whack it a few times with the hopes of popping any remaining air pockets. Next I smash it into the pan, grease the tops lightly, cover with a towel, and let them rise till ready to bake. Some prefer to stab the dough with a fork to release any remaining air pockets, however I skip this step and it seems to turn out just fine. Also, some prefer to let the dough rise ONE MORE TIME before shaping into loaves (even if they have done the sponge method). I have never done this, and the bread turns out well. I plan to try it though to see if there's a noticeable difference in texture.

The dough has risen enough when you can poke your finger in a corner and a dent remains. If the dent fills in immediately, it needs to rise some more. If the dough appears puffy and blistery, it has risen too long - you may need to remove it from the pans, knead it back into a ball, shape it, put it back into the pans, and rise again. If you cook it when it's puffy and blistery it will probably fall during baking or have big holes in it.

Preheat to 350. You can try to time the baking, however it really just depends on your oven. Check on it regularly after about 30 minutes or so. Eventually you will know it's done by the smell alone. I have forgotten bread in the oven before and then all the sudden I'll smell that it's done - it's always just right. This only applies to whole wheat bread though! White bread does not smell as good. Typically my  loaves bake for about 35-40 minutes. If you take them out too soon, the top crust has a tendency to wrinkle a bit.
The loaves are done when the crust is golden brown. To test it, take it out of the pan and thump the bottom - it should sound hollow. Take the loaves out of the pan and cool on a rack, covered with a towel. DO NOT leave them in the pan, the sides and bottom will get soggy.

If you prefer a shiny, firmer crust, brush with egg whites before baking.

If you are using the bread for sandwiches, it's best to let it cool completely before slicing. If you do not care what your slices look like, it does not have to be all the way cool, however somewhat cool helps. If you try to slice it right out of the oven, it will smash down while slicing.

I might edit this later and add a few things if something comes up. If you make bread using my instructions and feel something is missing, let me know. Also, let me know how it turns out!!