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.


No comments:

Post a Comment