How bread can teach you patience

Yeast makes bread rise, but lesser yeast makes better bread. Bread made with a quarter teaspoon yeast develops more flavor than a good heaping helping of two teaspoons. So why would anyone ever add more yeast? Well, you pay for it with time.

If you mix your dough, forget about it for a few hours; or leave it out overnight or stick it in the fridge for a day — if that process doesn’t drive you crazy — you draw more flavor out of the wheat. Take a deep breath, forget about it, and wait.

So when I saw a recipe from King Arthur that emphasized the minimal amount of yeast, I figured I would try it. It had a couple more qualities that I look for in bread.

  1. Half the flour is whole wheat. You get all the fiber from the bran and all the nutrients from the germ. I’m sold.
  2. This is an artisan bread, which I prefer, not an enriched loaf. What’s the difference, you ask? Both are yeasted breads, but quite different animals. Here are the differences.
  • artisan breads are free-form, while enriched breads are usually made in loaf pans to get that characteristic (some might say cartoonish?) square bread shape with wings at top
  • artisan breads have a strong crust and holes inside, while enriched breads are softer with an even texture throughout
  • artisan breads tend to emphasize just the taste of the wheat and often have just flour, water, yeast and salt as the ingredients. While enriched breads are — you know, enriched — with sugar, dairy, fat, raisins, cinnamon, cheddar, what have you
  • artisan breads are cooked faster and hotter, while enriched breads are cooked for longer at a more gentle oven temperature
  • artisan breads are good for tearing off bits to have with butter or olive oil, while the raison d’etre of enriched breads is toast and sandwiches.

Artisan loaves are somewhat fetishized (one could argue I’m fetishizing them right now); so it is rare to find a whole wheat artisan bread because the bran detracts from the holey chewiness somewhat. This recipe is a find.

The recipe makes two loaves.

Whole wheat artisanal loaves based on King Arthur’s recipe

Step 1: Make the sponge

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Whole wheat loaf: mixing the sponge

One cup whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur’s premium whole wheat), 1/16 teaspoon instant yeast (basically, a pinch), half cup water. Stir with a whisking motion, my favorite implement for this is a chopstick. You might have to use your fingers at the end. The point is not to knead it, just combine it into a very sticky mixture. Leave this on the countertop overnight or all day, covered with plastic wrap.

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Whole wheat loaf: sponge

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Whole wheat loaf: sponge ready to rise

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Whole wheat loaf: sponge after it has risen

Step 2: Make the dough

By next morning the sponge will have expanded; if you touch it lightly with your fingertip it will press in easily just like a — like a baby’s cheek. Now mix the dough.

Mix the dry stuff first:

2 1/4 cup bread flour (substitute with all purpose; this is not the whole grain)

1 1/4 cup whole wheat flour

1/4 teaspoon yeast

1 1/2 salt

Put the dry flours into the bowl of a mixer if you are using one, otherwise a large bowl. Stir the dry stuff together with a fork. Try not to let the salt come in contact with the yeast, because it kills it. The way to do that is stir the yeast in with the flour first, then sprinkle the salt on, and stir that in next.

Now break the sponge from Step 1 into walnut-sized bits and throw into the dry stuff. Once in a while stir to cover the wet sponge with the dry flour.

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Whole wheat loaf: breaking the sponge into bits

Now put in 1 cup + 3 tbsp filtered water (not tap water since it is chlorinated). Start the mixer on the slowest speed for just a minute until all the water is combined with the flour and forms a shaggy mass. If it looks like there is dry flour at the bottom that simply will not get combined, you can help it along with a spatula; or if they still can’t find enough water, give them a spoon or two, the poor babies.

whole wheat loaf: a shaggy mass

whole wheat loaf: a shaggy mass

Now cover with plastic wrap and leave it be for 10 minutes. This process is called autolysis, which gets the dough to start the process of building gluten on its own, in the presence off water, without you doing a thing.  Except waiting. I told you this was all about waiting.

This recipe for chapati/roti, even though it is about a flat bread, has some explanation of the process of building gluten.

Now, the kneading will proceed a lot faster. Turn on the mixer on slow speed for about 5 minutes.

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Whole wheat loaf: done with mixer

Pull out the dough, and finish the process by hand on a counter top. You now have a smooth dough. Put it into an oiled container, cover the dough with oil inside and out, and mark the level to which the dough comes up to.

Whole wheat loaf: a smooth dough

Whole wheat loaf: a smooth dough

At this point you will be waiting for 3 – 4 hours; if this doesn’t fit your schedule and you want to wait longer, use the fridge.

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Step 3: Folding once in a while

While the bread is rising, give it some folds while handling it gently (don’t pound at it). The first time after an hour of rising, the second time another hour later, or skipping it is fine too. This is how you fold the bread — that I learnt from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s book The Bread Bible. Drag the dough out and flatten it into a rectangle. Fold both ends in one on top of the other as though you are trying to wrap a present. Flatten it out gently, give it one quarter turn, stretch it out widthwise, and give it another fold.

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Put the dough back in its container. Allow it to rise until it is at least doubled, which you can tell from the line you drew to mark its level. When it is fully risen it will be very puffy with air and you might even see bubbles at the surface. Look carefully at the picture on the right below — you can see bubbles enveloped in a thin stretch of dough.

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Step 4: Shaping

At this point you are ready to shape the dough into loaves. Pull the dough out gently, lay it on the counter, and cut it into two. Each half will be shaped separately. The idea with shaping is you flatten the dough out and start rolling it width-wise, quite tightly, while firmly tucking in all ends. At the end you will have a cylindrical roll. Pinch the seams closed. When you think of bread rising, the easiest way to think of it is that you are stretching the dough at the surface to increase surface tension and make a sort of balloon — a gluten balloon — that will trap the air in as the yeast breathes out CO2.

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Dust the loaves with some dry flour, place them on a parchment paper on a cookie sheet to rise. Cover with plastic wrap so that the surface does not dry out.

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Whole wheat loaves: final rise

At this point wait 1.5 hours until the loaves have expanded 1.5 times.

Step 5: Scoring

Preheat the oven at 475 F. Before putting the loaves into the oven one has to score them, which means make half inch deep cuts on the surface. Once it starts baking in the oven the rapid expansion of steam inside the dough is going to make the bread rise so much that it wants to explode (the gluten balloon will want to pop). The cuts guide the ‘explosion’ to happen along those channels instead of an untidy way anywhere along the loaf (usually along the seams).

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So take a sharp, serrated knife, and make swift, slicing cuts along the top surface with a very gentle motion. Half inch deep at least. Now mist the loaves with water from a spray bottle, and they are ready to pop into the oven.

Step 6: Baking

The oven at this point is very hot (475 F, and if you have a pizza stone stick it in there as well). We are going to circulate the heat around so it penetrates the loaves as fast as possible using steam. During the first 10 minutes, mist the loaves to create steam: open the oven door very briefly and spray water around inside. Mist it a few times — three or four times — during the first 10 minutes of baking.

Now lower the temperature to 400 F, and bake for an additional 25 minutes. Take the bread out and let them cool for an hour before slicing.

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Whole wheat artisanal loaf

The crumb of this bread was quite nice with a few small holes.

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Remember I said above that the explosion in the oven will want to happen along the seam, and you want to avoid that? I wasn’t able to avoid that completely, witness the explosion along the side below.

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Well I sliced right into that explosion and the whole thing was delicious anyway.


2 thoughts on “How bread can teach you patience

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