Monday, September 20, 2010

Whole Wheat Baking Basics...Part I

Oh, boy. Forget the word "basics;" this topic is HUGE. Let me try to begin...

If you're like most people who like to bake, you're probably used to white flour recipes, and understandably so. White flour has been a staple of many households since the Industrial Revolution, and it's readily available in just about every grocery store in the country. If you're trying to sneak more whole wheat into your diet, maybe you're trying out some recipes that allow half whole wheat and half white flour. That's where I was about three years ago.

When I made the total switch to whole wheat baking, I ran into MANY bumps. I've handled more "bricks" than a brick mason. This was very humbling for someone who had never had a loaf of bread flop before. And then there are incidentals, like a couple nights ago when I forgot to add the yeast. I was trying to calm a crying child and figure out why my dough's consistency was so funky, when I spotted the bowl of yeast sitting by the sink. So homemade pizza got served a little late.

You can find recipes online for all whole wheat breads, but they oftentimes don't tell you everything you need to know. I'm not sure I can tell you everything you need to know; in fact, I probably can't. Nothing can make up for experience, and with whole wheat baking, experience is key.

Today, I'm just going to address getting started, ingredient by ingredient.

1. FLOUR: Obviously you need the whole wheat flour to start, and freshly milled is best because whole wheat flour from the store is rancid (read more here). Unfortunately, easily procuring freshly milled flour from your local mill is something of a bygone era; click here to read more about home grain mills. If this isn't an option for you, go ahead and try to make some bread with flour from the store. I can't guarantee how it will turn out, but it will give you some practice.

2. LEAVENER: If you're thinking of making sandwich bread or something of the sort, you'll want to make yeast bread and yeast will be your leavener (the stuff that makes it rise). If you want to make a quick bread (e.g., muffins, sweet bread, desserts, etc.), you will use baking powder and/or soda as a leavener. For the most part, I have not had problems converting quick bread recipes from white flour to wheat flour. Your muffins may not turn out as light and fluffy, but they'll have fuller flavor. The reason they may not look like the puffball muffins in the bakery section in the grocery store is because white flour has additives (one book I read mentioned acetone - isn't that finger nail polish remover??) that strengthen the gluten. Gluten is the protein in the flour that makes your bread rise.

For yeast breads, it's really best to use recipes that call for ALL whole wheat flour; I tried converting once and it was a disaster. But back to leaveners. With yeast, temperature is important! Instant yeast can be added directly into the ingredients, but regular yeast, which is cheaper because you can buy it in bulk, needs to be dissolved in some water that is 105-115 degrees. Admittedly, I've always had a knack for judging the right water temperature; I hold my finger under the faucet until the water is just becoming uncomfortable. Water that is either too hot or too cold will either kill or not activate the yeast. When in doubt, use a thermometer.

3. OIL OR BUTTER: I use olive oil and regular butter; both have worked well for me.

4. WATER, SALT, AND SWEETENERS: Water that's not too hard or soft is fine; I usually use tap water. Salt can simply be table salt, and many recipes I use call for honey. Raw honey will work as long as you don't have a long rising time for your dough (like a sponge dough, which is a portion of the dough that's started the night before). Ok, if I just confused you, strike that last sentence. Raw honey should be fine!

5. LOAF PAN: Use a slightly smaller, 8x4 pan for whole wheat baking. The traditional 9x5 pans will produce very "squat" loaves. Happily, these can be found easily. I even got mine at a big box store. Whoa.

6. THERMOMETER: When in doubt, use one. Temperature is important for yeast and also rising times. As you get used to baking, you probably won't need it as much.

Honestly, the best thing to do is to find someone who can hold your hand the first time or two you bake with whole wheat four. Or if that's not an option - and it wasn't for me - spend a few bucks and buy a good book that's dedicated to the art of whole wheat baking. The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book is as aggravating as heck but if you can persevere, worth its weight in gold because it offers so much variety in both types of breads and timing variations. The Bread Becker's Recipe Collection is probably the most user-friendly whole wheat baking book I've come across, and a good place to start although it offers less variety than Laurel's, and the recipes tend to call for more oils and sweeteners. I have my favorites from both books.

Hope this helps...stay tuned for more on the baking process! And if you're an experienced baker, your tips and advice are welcome!

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