Sunday, November 30, 2014

Gluten and Soakers and Sponges - Oh My!

Over the past few months, I've been experimenting with my bread recipe.  It's not a bad recipe, but the results can be inconsistent.  Sometimes the loaf comes out of the oven a thing of beauty; other times it comes out, well, not exactly a thing of ugly, but maybe somewhere in between.  Sometimes the loaf falls, or doesn't get the loft I'm hoping for.  It's not for lack of yeast - as I said, sometimes it turns out beautifully.  I suspect it has to do with the gluten's ability to form an effective network with which to trap air and rise - either there's not enough gluten, or there is, but something is happening during the process that is hindering it.

[Sidebar: the "G" word - Gluten! For reasons not even I understand, I had been trying to reduce the amount of gluten in my recipe by boosting the non-gluten producing grains and non-grain ingredients (millet, lentils, etc.).  But why?  No one in our family is gluten intolerant, or even gluten sensitive.  The result has been a dough that can barely hold itself together as it rises before it goes into the oven, and which can have a hard time maintaining its shape once baking has begun.

Then I saw this video on the way flour is milled, which suggests that the reason some people are sensitive to some wheat products may have more to do with the way wheat is milled and processed than it does with its gluten content. "Unbleached" bread flour is white.  Why is that? Because even the unbleached flour has had most of the actual grain stripped away, until all you're left with is stuff in the middle, which, though not as nutritionally valuable as the whole grain, is really good at producing gluten. Then I read this article in The New Yorker which asked the question "what's so bad about gluten?" It got me thinking - in our case, there's nothing wrong with gluten. So my recipe has been shifting back toward grain based ingredients - currently, only about 6% of the flour blend consists of seeds and legumes - things that don't produce gluten.]

My goal is to produce a truly great loaf of whole-wheat bread.  We have a grain mill, we buy whole grain berries in buckets, and grind our own flour.  But every recipe I've tried starts with some portion of store-bought non-bleached bread flour in it.  Bread flour has a higher percentage of the proteins that form gluten than all-purpose flour, which is why it's good for making bread.  It's like insurance: add bread flour to your recipe, and you increase your odds of turning out a loaf that rises the way it's supposed to. But whenever I reduce the proportion of bread flour below about one third, the resulting loaves end up, well... Technically they're still edible, but not something you'd serve to guests you hope to impress. What to do?

The other day, my wife bought me the 2014 Cook's Illustrated "All-Time Best Bread Recipes" special collector's edition magazine.  It's great!  I'm not so interested in things like focaccia or pizza dough, but there are fantastic opportunities for learning on some unlikely pages. So far the parts I'm latching onto are in the recipe for Whole-Wheat Sandwich Bread and No-Knead Bread. There are two things I'm playing with at the moment:

  • First, there's the soaker, or autolysis.  The challenge with using home-ground whole-grain flour is that still has all the bran fiber in it.  That's a good thing from a nutritional point of view, but less good when it comes to making an effective gluten network, because the pointy fiber edges can actually damage the gluten strands.  In order to soften all those pointy bran fiber edges, I'm mixing the whole-grain flour with some of the recipe's liquid ingredients for an extended period of time before mixing it in with the rest of the dough. I'm still experimenting with the duration, soaking for periods ranging from 4 hours to overnight. 
  • Second, there's the sponge.  In order to boost the flavor to a whole 'nother level, I'm mixing the bread flour called for in the recipe with a portion of the yeast and the rest of the liquid ingredients, and letting it sit at room temperature while the whole-grain flour is soaking.  So far the results haven't been that different flavor-wise than the old way of letting the sponge set for 20-30 minutes, so not sure if it's worth the bother yet. If it doesn't pan out, there's another recipe that involves developing a sponge using a splash of vinegar and a bottle of beer, so I'm totally going to try that!

So far the soaker thing seems really promising. It totally changes the texture of the dough as it's being kneaded, and the loaves seem to have much better hold as they rise and in the oven. If I can get it dialed in, I'll eventually try to replace the bread flour with whole-grain flour and go 100%, eliminating the white stuff altogether. One step at a time. I'll let you know how things progress.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Tour Divide - Weighing In

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

As we emerge from our tryptophan-induced naps, I want to revisit something I wrote about back in September. I had mentioned my plans to drop some weight at the beginning of my Tour Divide training process, instead of trying to do it along the way, or (shudder) wait until just before race day. Not long ago, I read an interesting piece on the Carmichael Training Systems blog that does a great job explaining why I approached it the way I did. In particular, it articulates why it's important to view shedding unnecessary weight as its own training phase, instead of trying to drop pounds while building mileage:

Fall (read: off season) is also a great time of year to focus on weight loss because if this isn’t a focused race season for you then you can make changes to your caloric intake and nutritional composition with little to no risk to your training quality. Many athletes try to restrict calories and lose weight in the spring, but that creates a conflict between your nutritional needs for high-quality training and the caloric restriction necessary for weight loss. It’s better to focus on weight loss during the period of the year when your training goals are less specific.

Couldn't have said it better myself. The conflict they talk about is exactly what I wanted to avoid, and why I focused on weight loss before the real training mileage began. Well, I'm happy to report that I dropped ten pounds since that post: I'm currently 175 lbs, which, on my 6'3" frame, puts me at a BMI of about 22. Still five pounds away from my ultimate goal of 170 lbs, but good enough for me to transition out of "meltdown" mode and firmly into "mileage" mode.

See, the program I use to burn unnecessary fat doesn't allow for prolonged periods of exercise. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but there are some very good reasons for this that have to do with stress hormones, glycogen reserves, and other things that impact the way our bodies burn fat. As such, my exercise had been limited to an hour a day for the time I was on program. The hardest part of shedding weight is allowing for the passage of time. Just allowing the program to do its thing.

Patience. Ugh.

But in all seriousness, the program works - if you let it. And it's only taken a few weeks to achieve something that could very well have gone unaddressed. If you're interested in freeing yourself of unnecessary poundage the way I did - whether we're talking 5, 15, 50, or more - check out my contact information in the sidebar. I'm happy to talk you through the program and how we can make it work for you.

[Side-note: if your reaction to my suggestion is "but it's the holidays..." then I have a challenge for you. Food-wise, 'the holidays' consists of two or three meals over the span of a month. This being the case, are you really going to sacrifice a month's worth of potential progress because of a couple of 'off-program' meals? Check out my wife's blog on the subject for some additional food for thought. And even if you want to wait until the new year to get started, let's talk now and set you up for success come January 1.]

Now that I've transitioned back into a weight maintenance phase, I can build mileage in earnest. I'll write more about my approach to training later. Right now I have to get the bike ready to ride in the morning. It's gonna be a beautiful day.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tour Divide - Rules Are Rules

As riders, we’re attracted to events like the Tour Divide in part because of the rules.  And when I say “rules” I mean those listed on the tourdivide website – not the ongoing flame war on the bikepacking forum.  The rules are simple, and they’re tough.

  • Stick to the course.  No exceptions.
  • Advance forward on the route under your own power.  No motors, no drafting.  Sweat & oxygen only.
  • No help from outsiders, unless the "outsider" is a commercial establishment that is open to the public.
  • And if you break a rule for any reason, have the stones to self-relegate.

Solo.  Self-support.  Basically, do it on your own.  All bound up in nothing more and nothing less than a "gentlemen's agreement."  Nothing to win or lose but honor.  Pretty straightforward.

That being said, there are those every year who view the rules as more or less flexible, more like guidelines, to quote a certain pirate captain.  And there are others watching on trackleaders who notice, and wonder why said rule-bending racers haven't self-relegated.  And then there are others who seem to think that the rules as written are too stringent, and isn't it really up to the individual racer's interpretation and intention as to what kind of race they really want to be a part of?  And there are others (I'm losing track here...) who think there should be multiple classes of riders, presumably one for each group of a-la-carte rule-sets being followed at any given moment.

Yeah, makes no sense to me either.  Eszter summed it up perfectly in her post: "We didn't have issues following the rules of 4-square when we were all in second grade.  Why now?"

Exactly.  The rules are what make it a race, and they don’t need to be changed.*  Don't want to follow the rules as written?  No problem.  Lucky for your, there’s already another class of Great Divide rider.  It’s called tourist.  It just doesn’t come with the prestige of having your pointy blue dot chasing its way down the continent with all the others on the race page at trackleaders (though friends and family can follow along on the GDMBR general live tracker).  Maybe that’s a tough pill for those who want to be seen rolling with the fast crowd.

As for me, I’m not 100% which way I’m going to go in 2015 – racing or touring.  I’m one of those for whom this will be my first foray into multi-day racing.  Would I like to see my blue dot (more to the point, would I like to have others see my blue dot) on the race page at trackleaders?  Heck yeah!  Do I plan to uphold the rules as written?  I do.  But my primary goal is going to be learning – learning the course, learning what I’m capable of, learning how to do be a part of this crazy sport.  Is that really racing?  I don’t even know.  But unless I put that pressure on myself – the expectation that I’m going to push myself at something like a race pace – my outing could easily devolve into a leisurely tour.  And that’s not what I want.

Somewhere in that "Spirit of the Tour Divide" forum, someone suggested that a commitment to follow the rules be a part of a prospective racer's letter of intent.  I don't know why that never crossed my mind when I wrote my "blog of intent", but I think it's a good idea.  So consider this an addendum to my letter of intent.

I’ll be racing.  And I’ll play by the rules.  And if I end up breaking a rule for any of a million reasons, well, hopefully you’ll hear about it from me first.


*Okay, I realize I just said the rules don't need to be changed, but I'd like to add one.  Call it the "good sam" clause.  If someone is in need of assistance - maybe she snapped a quick-link in grizzly country, or maybe he's face down in a ditch and the buzzards are circling - have the decency and/or courtesy to offer a helping hand.  What do you have to lose?  You won't be penalized for it, and whether they self-relegate or not, well, that's up to them.  Heck, they may not even accept your offer.  But at least you'll go to sleep at night knowing you're a decent human being.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Safe Poison

The other day, I posted a link on Facebook about "why wheat is toxic." The article talked about how "Wheat harvest protocol in the United States is to drench the wheat fields with Roundup several days before the combine harvesters work through the fields as withered, dead wheat plants are less taxing on the farm equipment and allows for an earlier, easier and bigger harvest." It was alarmist in nature, but it got me thinking.

So I started to dig. I'm just getting into this now, but it looks like it's a real thing, and it's been happening since 1980. It's called pre-harvest crop desiccation. It's when the farmer sprays herbicide on his crop 7-14 days prior to harvest to a) kill weeds, and b) speed up the natural plant drydown process, allowing crops to be harvested quicker, easier and earlier while at the same time maximizing both crop yield and quality. In Saskatchewan, only Reglone by Syngenta is registered for the explicit purpose of desiccating crops, but elsewhere (and I mean all over the world, not just North America), the chemical called glyphosphate (aka Roundup) is widely used for the same purpose. According to Monsanto, "pre-harvest use of glyphosphate started in 1980 and revolutionized perennial weed control." Fortunately for the consumer, glyphosphate is "environmentally benign" and "safe for humans... so long as it is applied carefully."

Whatever that means.

Look, I realize farmers are under tremendous pressure to produce crops that are profitable, and with chemical companies telling them their herbicides are safe for human ingestion, why wouldn't they use them? There are countries out there that are banning the practice of pre-harvest desiccation based on the "precautionary principle." But such bans are criticized by the Glyphosphate Task Force (I'm not making this up) as being "disproportionate and scientifically undifferentiated", unnecessarily restricting agriculture in the countries where they are in effect.

So it seems that unless the law of the land actually prevents farmers from doing this kind of thing, we as consumers are pretty much unprotected. I don't know about you, but I'm leery of agenda-driven "science" that tells me it's safe to consume something that is designed to kill other things.

So what can we do to protect ourselves? I don't know the answer to that question, but buying organic is probably a good place to start. "Organic" is big business now, so it's probably prudent to find out what "organic" really means, and make sure Monsanto hasn't weaseled its way into the organic farmer's field. Yes, it costs more to buy quality, but come on - what is your health worth to you?

Food for thought. Pun intended. 

Here are some references. Bon appetit. Pun intended. Again.…/agronomic%20benefits%20of%20glyph……/cro…/herbicides/Pages/reglone.aspx…/pre-harvest-use-glyphosate-recen……


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Tour Divide 2015 - Be Prepared

Quick post.  In the name of being prepared for this crazy Tour, I'm taking a NOLS Wilderness First Aid course this weekend at REI.  It's a two-day course, and today was day one.  Holy cow, it's like drinking from a fire hose!  And this is the 101-level "introductory" course.

Don't get me wrong - the course is great and the instructors are awesome.  I just didn't know how much I didn't know!  Hopefully, once all the new info has had a chance to soak in, I will at the very least know what everything in my First Aid kit is for.

And who knows?  Maybe someday I can put some of this information to use helping someone besides myself.

In the mean time, I need to get ready for bed.  Tomorrow is day two.