by Maria Reidelbach
Walking into a house that smells of baking bread may be one of the most welcoming experiences ever. Inhaling the fragrance of a yeasty, browning loaf feels like a motherly hug. It’s an aroma so potent it’s been known to sell homes to jaded shoppers and induce hungry lovers to pop the question. Talk about aromatherapy!
I’ve been making my own bread for several years now, and I never tire of that great smell. I began baking when I decided to switch from white bread to whole wheat, which is much better for a body in so many ways: it is metabolized more slowly, eliminating glucose spiking and keeping energy even; it has more protein, vitamins, micronutrients, and lots of fiber. So many virtues!
One of Ethan Plank’s legendary loaves. Photo by Maria
But finding delicious whole wheat bread was a different story. A trip down the supermarket aisle was disappointing. The “whole wheat” breads were anything but—most had just a little whole wheat flour and they were marshmallowy industrial loaves with loads of chemicals. Bread in the deli section was a bit better, but those that were high in whole wheat seemed as dry and scratchy as floor sweepings. Plus, they cost up to $5 a loaf. I wondered if I could do better myself.
In my college days I had lived on heavy, homemade hippie bre
ad, just awful in retrospect. However, I had heard that there was a “new” way to make great bread at home and it sounded promising. Jim Lahey, from the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City, had developed a recipe based on ancient practices. His basic loaf has just four ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. And although it takes up to a day from start to finish, there is very little work time involved—no kneading!—and no fancy tools or appliances, other than a bowl, napkin, covered pot and oven. From the very first try, I was making beautiful, 75 percent whole wheat loaves, crusty on the outside, marvelously chewy in the inside, and aromatic as heaven.
How can just a few basic ingredients make such a complex, sublime foodstuff? The science and art of bread baking are truly amazing. Wheat is unique among grains in having a high percentage of the protein gluten, a complex of molecules. When flour is mixed with water the molecules unfold into stretchy strings that bond to each other, giving bread dough its characteristic stretchy, bouncy quality.
Flour mixed with water is also an ideal habitat for yeast, a living organism that creates the bubbles that make bread light. Yeast cells apparently float around everywhere just looking for some bread dough to eat—set out a jar of flour and water and in a couple of days it will be happily bubbling and aromatic from millions of yeasty beasties feeding and farting.
Starch, another element of wheat, finishes the process. Starch cells absorb water, swell, and, when baked, solidify foamy dough. Baking also creates two dramatically different taste experiences—the chewy, moist interior of the loaf, and the crunchy, flavorful, dark brown exterior—a miraculous combination.
Ethan Plank bakes legendary loaves in his home oven that he
contributes to the annual Stone Ridge Library Fair, on the last
Saturday of April. Photo by Maria Reidelbach.
Although the basic ingredient list is short, and the process of mixing, rising, and baking is simple, bread making has infinite variations and subtleties. There are endless recipes and discussion threads online about the nuances of form, function, and finesse. These can result in some sublime loaves, but my goal is to bake good healthy bread that doesn’t take too much time, attention, or money. To this end, I reached out to some local mavens for their secrets.
Ethan Plank is a home bread-baker whose golden loaves, sold at the annual Stone Ridge Library Fair, have gained him legendary status. He uses Lahey’s long-fermentation method and loves enhancing his bread with additions—a favorite is to grind multi-grain cereal, like Bob’s Red Mill, in a coffee or spice grinder to add in small amounts to the dough or sprinkle on top before baking. He taught me to thump the bottom of the loaf to listen for a hollow sound that signals doneness, and also shared that if you’ve undercooked a loaf and it’s gummy inside you can always slice and toast it. Essell Hoenshell-Watson, the Alternative Baker of Rosendale, saves a pinch of dough from each batch for the next, which encourages a delicious diversity of yeast.
Don Lewis, of Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners, is local bread’s best friend. Don has national stature as a pioneer grower and miller of many grains, including a bunch of rare varieties of wheat. His flour is stone-ground and fresh, bursting with flavor and nutrition. Don recommends a scale to weigh ingredients, since flour fluffiness makes it sketchy to measure by volume. I switched to Wild Hive flour a year ago— it’s awesome. Even though it’s more expensive than King Arthur flour (my backup), the cost is still only about two bucks a loaf! Wild Hive products are about to become regionally available for retail purchase—request them at your local grocer or co-op, and until then, mail order.
Accord has a community wood-fired oven. If you’re interested in baking in this traditional way, send an email to email@example.com.
No-Knead Whole Grain Bread (adapted and simplified from My Bread, by Jim Lahey) Yield: 2 loaves
• 4 1/2 cups or 600 grams whole wheat flour
• 1 1/2 cups or 200 grams white bread flour
• 1 Tbsp. kosher salt
• 1/2 Tsp. yeast
• 2 2/3 cup or 600 grams of water
• additional flour for dusting
In a medium bowl mix together the dry ingredients, then mix in water. Cover bowl and let sit at room temperature for 12 to 18 hours until bubbly and more than double in size. Cut the stretchy dough in half and turn one loaf out onto a counter dusted generously with flour. Flour your hands and lift the edges of the dough up and inward until you have a nice round shape. Take a cloth napkin, sprinkle it generously with flour, place your loaf on it and fold napkin edges over to cover it. Repeat with the second loaf and leave to rise at room temperature for an hour or two.
Preheat your oven to 475 degrees and put two covered 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 quart pots (ceramic, iron, metal, terracotta, or any oven-safe material) on a lower shelf position. When the dough has doubled in size, remove the pots from the oven. Pick each loaf up with your hand under the cloth, gently invert into each pot. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lids and continue baking until the crust is a deep brown, another 15 to 30 minutes. Remove the loaves from the pots and let cool completely before slicing—this may be the hardest part!
Maria Reidelbach is an author and artist who lives, works and breaks bread in Accord, NY.