If I had to speculate as to why the gluten-free trend has become so popular, despite all evidence pointing to a lack of a connection between health and gluten consumption, I think I would posit that the phenomena allows the food industry to — please excuse me — have its cake and eat it too.
One segment of the population that goes gluten free ends up eating less processed food in general, and less refined grains and sugars in particular. And that’s great. The label “gluten free,” as arbitrary as this may actually be, has become a means by which people make better consumption choices. Both the food industry — which has gone all in by creating and investing in the market segment that is “gluten free” — as well as the consumer win.
Another segment of the population that goes gluten free is drawn, with less beneficial effect, to the wealth of novel products that have been produced for this new niche market. And arguably unlike other food trends, this one lends itself well to packaged and hyper-processed foods. All manufacturers need to do is replace the wheat flour with anything ground up that will hold together given enough xantham gum (whatever that is). This segment of the population might not escape the onset of metabolic syndrome, but they too, like the first segment of those gone gluten free, feel attended to as the savvy consumers they are.
That’s all rather glib of me, and of course, a very small population has a very good reason to avoid gluten. But to be fair, I take the same stance towards vegan food. I practice eating only plant-based foods myself, but I abhor the degree to which consumers fall for the luster of vegan food products as if their manufacturers see buyers as fellow comrades in a morally righteous battle instead of understanding what manufacturers actually see: a market segment on which they might capitalize. The food business has become good at killing all kinds of animals, both human and non-human, and a food politics is only legitimate, in my view, if it takes these aspects into account.
The praxis of those politics must include eating food that tastes good, and that’s where my bread comes in. Now that you’ve got a starter, making good bread just requires a little planning ahead. I make my wild yeast breads a bit differently than other folks; in short, I use a very small piece of starter instead of large one. The benefit is that I don’t have to throw out a big chunk of starter every week. And the process works just as well with starter that hasn’t been fed in a day as it does with starter that hasn’t been fed in two weeks. The drawback is that it takes about 24 hours to go from making bread dough to baking it. But that’s not really a drawback, since you can go about your business during those 24 hours.
The following is about the simplest way to bake bread using old-school methods. A warning though: this bread might look funny, but that’s only because we’ve all developed funny notions over the past century and a half about what “real” bread looks like.
24 Hours Before You Want to Bake Bread
This need not be exactly 24 hours, it could be really be 20 hours, or 27 hours. In a large bowl, mix up 500g whole wheat flour, 8g kosher/coarse salt, 400g water, and 5g starter. Mix it up with your hand, squeezing and mashing it until it forms a rough, wet, batter-like dough. If you’re mashing for a minute and there’s still flour at the bottom of the container, add a little more water, a tablespoon at a time, until the dry flour is gone.
(If you don’t have a digital scale, use about 4 cups whole wheat flour, 2 teaspoons salt, 2 cups water, and about a teaspoon of starter. As always, don’t worry too much about getting exact measurements.)
Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a lid, and leave out at room temperature for about a day.
30 Minutes Before You Want to Bake Bread
Preheat your oven to 450F and if you have a pizza stone, make sure its in your oven. Even if you’re not making pizza or cooking directly on the stone, having it in the oven makes everything bake more evenly.
Oil a loaf pan lightly with olive oil. Or grab a baking sheet and lightly oil it. Or throw down some parchment paper on the baking sheet. Or use a silicone mat if you have one.
Sprinkle some flour down on your countertop — get a good layer down — and then scoop out your dough onto the counter. Get a little flour on your hands, and then fold each of the four ends of dough over itself. (In other words, grab the left side and fold it right, and then grab the right side and fold it left, then grab the top side and fold it down, and then grab the bottom side and fold it up.) This just tightens up the gluten and makes the dough easier to handle.
Now you should be able easily lift any part of the dough and fold it towards the middle. Do this with each of the four sides as before so that the dough gets tighter and begins to resemble an oblong spheroid, if not an actual ball. If you lift it up and turn it upside down, you’ll see that the bottom side — which is now facing up — looks nice and smooth.
At any point that you’re folding the dough, if things get sticky, just sprinkle a little more flour on the counter, your hands, and/or the dough.
So now, you can place the dough on the baking sheet or in the loaf pan. Note that if you’re not using a loaf pan, the lump of dough will flatten and spread out before it gets put in the oven. Most people like to put the nice side looking side up, but others do the opposite, it’s up to you. Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour and cover it with a tea towel or plastic wrap.
Let the dough rest for 30 minutes while the oven preheats. (You want a nice long preheat time so the oven builds up “thermal mass.”)
With a sharp chef’s knife, make 3 or 4 parallel cuts in the dough, about 1/2 inch deep. This works best if you make quick deliberate cuts and don’t worry too much about their depth. Or you can skip this step entirely. (You might get what bakers call a blow out but the bread will taste just as good, I promise.) Put the bread in the oven.
After 30 minutes, rotate the pan. 10 minutes later, start checking it every 10 minutes. When it’s done, it should have at least one or two dark brown spots. It should come easily off of the pan when its done, and if you tap the bottom of the loaf, it should feel kind of as if it were hollow. It’s hard to over bake bread, so don’t worry too much about leaving it in if you’re unsure.
Let the bread cool for at least an hour. If you don’t wait it’s not the end of the world, but the inside of the bread is still cooking in a way, even though it’s left the oven. When you cut into it too soon, the knife will get gummy and it will be harder to slice.