What can I say, I’m a bread baking geek. I cultivate my own starter. I use words like “couche” and “brotform” and “levain.”
People often ask me how I find time to bake my own bread, or how they can learn how to do it too. The truth is, it’s all pretty easy. But it’s also true that bread books over-complicate the process and make it seem intimidating. It’s taken me some time to learn enough to know that although you can spend years trying to perfect your bread baking skills, it’s also a damn near impossible process to screw up.
After all, haven’t people been baking bread since the time of ancient Egypt? If they could do it without spending hundreds of dollars on Le Creuset hardware and recipe books written by insufferable San Franciscans (I kid!), can’t we do it too?
I thought I might share some tips for my friends who are interested in learning how to bake bread, but I can’t help first make a detour, and mention that as with anything else, we can learn much about the current cultural-political-epicurean bread landscape by historicizing it. There are some very good books about the history of bread out there, and probably chief among them is White Bread by Aaron Bobrow Strain. I believe Michael Pollan has written about the history of bread in one or two of his books as well.
Here are the bullet points:
1. All bread used to be sourdough bread. When bread is fermented naturally, using “wild yeast,” bakers call that sourdough. Industrial yeast was isolated about 150 years ago. Sourdough bread tastes better and is probably better for you. But when bread became big business, factories turned to industrial yeast because it produces more consistent, homogenous results and because it allows for a vast reduction in production time.
2. Most bread used to be whole grain. Before the industrial revolution, bread was ground by mill stones. Then, if a baker wanted to make white bread, he or she would have to sift the bran manually. This was expensive, and so only rich people ate white bread. (This is why the rich were said to be “refined,” because they ate refined grains. It’s also why they were obese.) After the industrial revolution, large industrial mills used iron rollers, which ejected the bran automatically, and made white bread easier to make. As a bonus, in the early 20th century, corporations could now hold up their pure white breads as an alternative to the “un-pure” dark breads made by the allegedly dirty and non-white peoples arriving from Eastern Europe.
3. People didn’t always knead bread. It’s a twentieth century phenomenon that is most likely contingent on the shorter fermentation times and drier doughs that became the norm with industrialization. Traditionally, bakers wouldn’t have to knead because when dough naturally ferments with wild yeast, the gluten formation happens naturally. But kneading may also have become popular because it was a conspicuous form of gendered household labor that became normalized at mid-century.
4. Bread didn’t always have weird conditioners and chemicals in it. Bread dough is wet, sticky, and alive, and these are three things that machines don’t really like. So as bread production became industrialized, these things were added for their benefit and not yours.
It may be that these bullet points, especially the first two, explain how bread became a kind of villain in contemporary nutrition discourse. Modern practices may make gluten harder to digest for some people, and refined grains are almost definitely responsible for a whole host of health problems. But I assure you, that unless you have celiac disease, a rare but serious condition, there is nothing wrong with eating gluten or bread. Especially if you make it my way.
Okay, on to the bread baking, almost. First you need to cultivate a starter. It takes about a week, but you only need to do this once.
You’ll need a place to store your starter. I recommend using a little tupperware container, something that will hold about two cups. A little bowl is fine too.
Mix 50 grams of whole wheat flour with 40 grams of cool or cold water. Stir and and smush it together with your hand. Cover it with the tupperware lid or plastic wrap, but if you’re using a lid, don’t snap it on, just place it on top. (You don’t really want air to get in, but you want gas to be able to escape.) Leave at room temperature overnight.
NB: Don’t worry too much about exact measurements. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, try doing 2T of water and 4T of ww flour.
Day 2: Throw out all but 20 grams of the starter. Then, add 25 grams more of the whole wheat flour, and 20 grams more of cool or cold water, and mix it up with your hand. Again, cover loosely and leave at room temperature.
If you’re measuring by volume, try doing 2T of starter, 2T of water, and 4T of ww flour.
Days 3-6: Repeat what you did on day 2. By day 3 or 4, it should start to smell more sour and get a little bubbly. If a dark liquid forms, that’s totally normal and fine, you can just smush or stir it back in.
Day 7: By now you’ve got a starter. You can keep it in the fridge, that way you don’t need to feed it every day. When you keep it in the fridge, you want to put the lid on tight. This is because when its refrigerated, dough doesn’t really produce gases. But if the lid is loose, you run the risk of the dry refrigerator air dehydrating your dough. Remember: at room temperature, cover loosely. In the fridge, cover tightly.
Feeding the starter
If you keep the starter in the fridge, you still want to take it out and feed it once a week, or once every couple of weeks at least. Just take it out of the fridge, throw out all but 20 grams, add 25 grams of whole wheat flour, 20 grams of water, and smush with your hand. Let it sit out 5 to 8 hours (or overnight), covered loosely, before covering tightly and placing back in the fridge.
Next week we bake!