Transforming Flour, Becoming Bread

Putting bread in perspective. A photo essay accompanied by historical commentary.

The baking of bread, one of much of  humankind’s most basic foods, transforms seemingly ordinary ingredients into the sublime, at times anyway (for exceptions, just think of black-burned toast or cannonball-consistency buns).

Bread belongs more to the sacred than to the mundane. In the making and the analysis, we lose sight of the awe, the miracle of the raw, becoming nourishment.

Whole Grain Bread
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Yeast, bubbling with life, soon to perish in fire. Eliza Acton, in Modern Cookery (1845), says:

The yeast procured from a public brewery is often so extremely bitter that it can only be rendered fit for use by frequent washings, and after these even it should be cautiously employed. Mix it, when first brought in, with a large quantity of cold water, and set it by until the following morning in a cool place; then drain off the water, and stir the yeast up well with as much more of fresh; it must again stand several hours before the water can be poured clear from it. By changing this daily in winter, and both night and morning in very hot weather, the yeast may be preserved fit for use much longer than it would otherwise be; and should it ferment rather less freely after a time, a small portion of brown sugar stirred to it before the bread is made will quite restore its strength. [p. 385]

Whole Grain Bread
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Mixing flour, water, yeast, and oil. Ms. Acton, of course, expounds on flour, too:

The best flour will generally be found the cheapest in the end; it should be purchased if possible from a miller who can be depended on for supplying it good and unadulterated. Let it be stored always in A dry place, as damp is very injurious to it; if kept habitually in a chest, this should be entirely emptied at intervals, cleaned with great nicety, and not filled again until it is perfectly dry. The kneading trough tub, or pan, with every thing else indeed used for the bread, or for the oven, should at all times be kept scrupulously clean. [p. 385]

Whole Grain Bread
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Seeds — flax and sunflower — add mouthfeel and texture.

Whole Grain Bread
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

A good kneading , about half-way there, though. The dough feels very moist at this point and it should stay that way, due to the whole grains’ extremely huge capacity for binding with any water in sight. Janet McKenzie Hill, in Cooking for Two (1909), instructs readers on how to knead bread:

Learn to knead dough without pushing the fingers into it or scattering flour, etc., over the table and floor. Keep the crust that forms on the surface of the dough, while it is in motion, intact. Keep the dough moving, bring it forward, by turning it at the back with the tips of the fingers, press down upon it with the hand just above the wrist, push it back, then repeat; bring forward, press down and push back, occasionally turning halfway round, until the surface is filled with tiny blisters and the mass is round and smooth. Then return to the bowl, cover closely and set aside out of all drafts, until the mass has doubled in bulk. [p. 293]

Whole Grain Bread
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Kneaded and plunked into a greased stoneware bowl to rise. Carefully. Listen to the judgmental words of Miss Catharine Esther Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) in The American Woman’s Home: Or Principles of Domestic Science (1869) on women who neglect their bread’s rising:

The snowy mass, perfectly mixed, kneaded with care and- strength, rises in its beautiful perfection till the moment comes for filling the air- cells by baking. A few minutes now, and the acetous fermentation will begin, and the whole result be spoiled. Many bread-makers pass in utter carelessness over this sacred and mysterious boundary. Their oven has cake in it, or they are skimming jelly, or attending to some other of the so-called higher branches of cookery, while the bread is quickly passing into the acetous stage. At last, when they are ready to attend to it, they find that it has been going its own way,—it is so sour that the pungent smell is plainly perceptible. Now the saleratus-bottle is handed down, and a quantity of the dissolved alkali mixed with the paste—an expedient sometimes making itself too manifest by greenish streaks or small acrid spots in the bread. As the result, we have a beautiful article spoiled —bread without sweetness, if not absolutely sour. [p. 174]

Whole Grain Bread
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Risen bread, finger-poke tested.

Whole Grain Bread
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

The loaf, risen. John Harvey Kellogg, in The Household Manual of Domestic Hygiene, Foods and Drink (1870), wrote:

The sturdy German eats his black bread made of the whole grain with a keen appetite, and it makes his muscles firm and his sinews strong in spite of the pernicious influence of his favorite lager beer.

Wheat-meal, or graham, bread is incomparably sweeter, richer, cheaper, and healthier than that made of the superfine, bolted, impoverished article. [p. 31]

Whole Grain Bread
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

The loaf, baked. The reward. Or not? In A Popular Treatise on Diet and Regimen (1847), William Henry Robertson states emphatically that:

It is a sound dietetic observation, then, that bread, if wished to be as easily digested as possible, should be baked in small loaves. The principal reason for this, as may be gathered from what has been said, is, that the bread is in this way more entirely freed from the products of fermentation: they must escape more completely from a small loaf than from a large one. There is, moreover, in the second place, less necessity for putting the bread into a very hot oven, or for keeping it in the oven so long a time as to deprive the outer part of its nutritive qualities. Bread baked in small loaves is sweeter to the taste than when baked in large loaves; and this is probably because it is more entirely freed from the products of fermentation. To the same cause may probably be referred, the greater digestibility of toasted than of untoasted bread; the bread being, in this way, not only dried, but the fermented matters being to a great degree expelled,—and more particularly if the bread be cut in very thin slices, and toasted before a hot fire.

Just eat it. And enjoy it.

And the recipe follows:

Whole Grain Bread
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Makes 3 medium-sized free-form loaves

For biga (fermented starter):

1 cup warm water
1 cup unbleached bread flour
1 t. yeast

For softening  (and mild fermentation) of grain:

1 cup seven-grain cereal (I use Bob’s Red Mill with whole grain wheat, rye, oats, triticale, barley, brown rice, oat bran and flaxseed)
1 cup boiling water

For dough:

4 – 5  cups unbleached bread flour
2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 T. dark-brown sugar
1 T. salt
1 T. gluten flour (optional)
1/8 ascorbic aid (optional)
2 t. yeast (or one package) mix in 1/2 cup of water; let stand until frothy
Water to make pliable, moist dough, about 2 cups (or more)
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup flax seeds
¼ cup toasted sunflower seeds
2 T. hulled sesame seeds

Make the biga: mix the flour, water, and yeast together in a medium-sized bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and let it sit anywhere from 2 hours to overnight. This fermentation will give your bread an extra layer of flavor.

About 1 hour before you’re ready to mix up the bread dough, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 cup over seven-grain cereal and let it sit until room temperature.

Put the bread flour, the whole-wheat flour, sugar, and salt and gluten and ascorbic acid if using) in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer or food processor (or a big bowl).  Add proofed yeast, the biga, 1 – 2 cups water, and mix until you see gluten strands forming. The idea is to try to form a structure strong enough for this whole grain bread to absorb the cereal and the seeds. Add the oil,  the soaked cereal, and  mix well. Then add the seeds. Mix in as well as possible with the machine.

Grease a large bowl and wet a clean kitchen towel and wring out excess water. Set aside.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead, using as little extra flour as possible. You will need to work the dough at least 5 minutes. It will be sticky.

Place the dough in the prepared bowl, cover with the damp towel, and let rise until double.

Meanwhile, sprinkle cookie sheets with cornmeal. When dough is ready, form three to four free-form loaves, sprinkle with flour (using a small sifter or sieve gives the best results), and then slash the loaves in three places with a sharp knife. Cover each loaf with dry, clean kitchen towels. (You may be able to cook two loafs on one cookie sheet —  be sure they are spaced far enough part so that they do ever not touch each, even after rising.) Let dough rise until almost double.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F about 30  minutes before baking. Place a small pan on the bottom rack of the oven. Put 1/2 cup of ice cubes in the pan about 5 minutes before baking. This provides steam for the loaves and makes a crustier crust.

Remove the towels, place the first cookie sheet on a rack in the middle of the oven. Close the oven and let bake approximately 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 400 and bake another 5 to 10 minutes. Turn the cookie sheet 180 degrees once about halfway through the time. Tap the loaves on the bottom. If they sound hollow and feel rather light, they are probably ready to remove from the oven.

Remove baked loaves from the oven and set on cooling racks. Bake the other loaf  (loaves) the same way, turning the heat up to 450 degrees F. and adding more ice to the pan on the bottom rack. repeat baking instructions.

Let bread cool completely on racks. Store in freezer in plastic bags.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Nils says:

    Looks excellent. I haven’t baked any seeded breads with a biga yet, so I think I will do it. Is there any hint of acidity / sourness at all?



  2. cbertel says:

    Thank you, Rachel. I am honored, truly.


  3. rachel says:

    Cynthia, you are fast becoming one of my food writing idols…

    I hope that’s okay.


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