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Bread—well, actually wheat—is once again in the crosshairs. And not just wheat, but other grains too, depending on who you believe and what your struggles are. There are a lot of theories about diet, wheat, grains, and carbohydrates floating around and, not surprisingly, they all seem plausible. And like it or not, bread is getting the blame for a lot of ills. I have baker friends who say, “It will pass, just like the last scare.” But I’m not so sure.
Fifteen years ago the Atkins diet was very popular, followed by the South Beach diet and other low-carb plans. Collectively, they took a big bite out of the bread market, and the immediate result was that Wonder Bread lost a lot of sales but somehow recovered—until recently, that is, when the parent company declared bankruptcy. In 2003, when numerous reporters at a bread conference asked me, “Is bread dead?” my reply was, “No. Bread has been with us for six thousand years; I don’t think it’s going away.” But my less public response to my baker friends was, “There’s an opportunity here. It’s time to focus on whole grain breads and make them as good as the artisan loaves. This is the future.” And so they did—not because of anything I said, but because it was the logical, intuitive, necessary thing to do. Yet here we are, ten years later, and thanks to the growing (and important) gluten-free movement and some recent popular books, even whole grain breads have a big bull’s-eye on them. What on earth is going on? Is it possible, after six thousand years, that bread really is dead? I still say no, but once again we bakers are at a crossroads and need to ask, “What is the opportunity within all of this concern?”
I’ve been thrilled and privileged to be in the midst of the American artisan bread revolution that began in the mid-1980s. Actually, its roots go back even further, as I’ve chronicled in earlier books, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that things really took off. I remember the excitement that many of us felt as we metaphorically and literally sat at the feet of our mostly European bread heroes and learned their tricks of pre-ferments and soakers and how the relationship of time and temperature work on ingredients. The excitement of discovery was palpable as bakers and millers took field trips together to meet farmers and learn about the differences among wheat varieties and the influences of terroir.
Soon, schools of thought emerged, with disciples of various bread masters working their way through dogmatic beliefs, arguing about the virtues of poolish versus biga, yeast versus wild yeast, mixing versus folding, and high-protein versus low-protein flours. They faced off at competitions and in the marketplace and railed against the mainstream. Then they softened—integrating, expanding, and sharing their repertoires with each other and creating new schools of thought. American teams excelled at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (the World Cup of Bread or, as we call it, the Bread Olympics). American bakers, who had been cross-pollinating each other’s approaches with growing stores of knowledge and expertise, became internationally influential. The home baking movement grew exponentially through the advent of baking websites and award-winning bread books, each adding a new technique or breakthrough method and posing questions that were previously taboo, such as, “Do we really need to knead?” and, “Can bread that’s partially baked and frozen and then rebaked be as satisfying as a freshly baked loaf?”
Over the years I’ve become friends with a lot of bakers, millers, and farmers. It’s a wonderful community of earthy, spiritual, generous, and above all hardworking people. It’s also a community of creative, resourceful, and resilient people. Six thousand years is a long lineage; bread and makers of bread are not going away. But I will say this: during bread’s six-thousand-year saga, bread bakers have always been reinventing themselves and their craft.
This brings us to the current moment—the opportunity at hand. If you’ve followed me through my literary journey with bread, you know that I’m fascinated by new frontiers and revolutionary turning points, whether cold fermentation, new ways to make whole grain breads, or even unconventional methods for making gluten-free bread. Early on, I learned that answers come by asking the right questions: what-if questions and questions that others are too timid or narrowly focused to ask. Some people have the tenacity to do one thing over and over again until they do it better than anyone else. They establish benchmarks and signposts for those who follow in their path. Others, more restless in spirit, step onto paths less traveled and forge new frontiers. Sometimes they go too far and disappear for a time—or forever. But sometimes they stumble upon fertile ground and become the pioneers for the next wave.
While I admire beyond words those who can relentlessly drill down deeper and deeper in their Zen-like quest for the perfect loaf, I tend to be even more fascinated by and drawn toward those adventurous souls who yearn for something not yet seen. I’ve lived in each world at different times, and I believe both are essential aspects of the journey. But at this crucial time and crossroads in the history of bread, I especially delight in exploring the as-yet-unknown and in meeting others who, each in his or her own way, expand the boundaries of what is possible. In this book, I’ve applied some of what I’ve learned from them to create new recipes and formulas, and I also share some of their recipes, insights, and stories.
Some of the things these bakers are exploring address current questions related to health and nutrition, some focus on flavor, and some are responses to global, environmental, and holistic concerns. Each is a piece of the puzzle of how bread, glorious in its tradition, symbolism, and significance, is relevant at this time. As you’ll see in the following pages, I think it is. In fact, I think bread is having, as it has so often throughout history, yet another revolutionary moment.
In fall 2009 I got a call from Joe Lindley, the owner of Lindley Mills, located in Graham, North Carolina. I knew of Lindley Mills mainly as an independent, private-label organic mill whose most well-known client was King Arthur Flour. I was already using Lindley Mills flours at a pizza restaurant in Charlotte where I was a partner, and we were very happy with them. Lindley’s multigrain blend was unique in that it was milled into a very fine powder, which gave it the ability to form fairly strong gluten bonds despite containing a number of gluten-free grains. For pizza dough, having a strong gluten network is critical for allowing the dough to stretch without ripping, so this flour was a revelation. However, I did have one concern: it resulted in a crust that was slightly drier, lacking the creamy texture of classic white dough. That said, it was still the best whole grain pizza dough I’d had to that point.
Toward the end of that restaurant’s time, Joe Lindley called and asked if I’d be willing to try a new flour made with sprouted wheat that he was developing, called Super Sprout. He’d also developed a sprouted gluten-free flour blend that he called Sprouted Ancient Grain, made with sprouted amaranth, quinoa, millet, sorghum, and buckwheat. Like many people, I’m a fan of Ezekiel and Alvarado Street breads, which are both made with sprouted wheat kernels, so I asked Joe if his new flour was like what they used.
He said, “No. At those places they sprout the wheat, then grind the sprouts into a wet pulp and then add other ingredients and mix it into a dough. The grain never actually becomes flour. With mine, I sprout the grain, then stabilize and dry it, and then mill those sprouted kernels into flour that can be bagged, stored, and shipped just like regular flour. It’s a totally different product.”
“But doesn’t sprouting the wheat compromise the gluten and damage the starch?” I asked. After all, millers had often warned me about this kind of starch damage. Although all flour has some starch damage that arises during harvest and storage, and also from the pounding the grain takes during the milling process, it falls within an acceptable range. Sometimes, during overly wet growing seasons or if stored wheat kernels are exposed to too much moisture prior to milling, starch damage can exceed acceptable levels. The resulting flour is either ruined or is considered inadequate for bread, as determined by its falling number (see Glossary, page 14). Using sprouted wheat, or any sprouted grain, to make flour seems to go against the conventional wisdom. In fact, the way Ezekiel and other bakeries that use sprouted wheat pulp get around this is by adding a relatively large amount of pure gluten, called vital wheat gluten, to the dough to provide structure. This allows the dough to bake up into what looks and tastes like bread made from regular flour.
Joe said, “You’d think sprouted wheat flour wouldn’t work for bread, but for some reason it does, and I’m not totally sure why. I need you to try this and tell me if I’m crazy, but the breads I’ve made from it are really good, and I haven’t needed to add any vital wheat gluten to it to make it work.”
A few days later, I received two boxes from Joe: one containing twenty-five pounds of Super Sprout wheat flour, and the other containing the Sprouted Ancient Grain blend. Joe advised me that the Super Sprout flour required greater hydration than regular whole wheat flour. “It really sucks up the water,” he said, then added, “I think the key to what makes it work for bread is that I’m using the best-quality high-protein wheat I can find. And that isn’t always easy, especially in the organic realm.”
As most bakers know, all wheat is not created equal. Plus, during growth and processing it’s subject to a number of factors that can create differences even in the same strain of wheat, such as amount of rainfall or irrigation, temperature, humidity, and soil quality. Hard wheat, aka high-protein wheat, can also vary in performance depending on whether the protein balance in the kernels is tilted more toward gliadin or glutenin, the two proteins that ultimately create gluten.
It was time for me to play with this flour and see for myself what Joe was getting so excited about. I mixed up a small batch of basic dough with about 85% water to Super Sprout flour. The water was quickly absorbed, and within a few minutes the dough seemed fairly firm—a little too firm actually. So I worked in some more water and ended up with a very soft, sticky dough that felt similar to ciabatta dough. When I did the math, I had used 14.6 ounces (416 g) of water, which, by weight, is 91.25% of the 16 ounces (454 g) of flour. That’s a lot! A typical white flour ciabatta has only about 75% to 80% water. Then, at five-minute intervals, I did a version of kneading involving four stretches and folds. Little by little, the dough firmed up into a supple, very tacky, pillow-like beauty. It had what I like to call bounce.
About three hours later—after a ninety-minute first rise, shaping, and a sixty-minute final rise, followed by thirty-five minutes of baking in my home oven on a baking stone, I tasted quite possibly the best 100% whole wheat bread I’d ever had. No sugar or honey, no oil, no pre-ferment, and no long, extended fermentation—just flour, water, salt, and yeast. Suddenly, the artisan playbook no longer applied, and this was just my first attempt. I had been prepared to add oil and honey, and maybe milk, to the second go-round, as I would for a standard 100% whole wheat dough, but even without these the bread was soft, moist, and creamy or, as some bakers say, custard-like. This mouthfeel, which I prize in bread, is usually the result of long fermentation and a very hot oven. It can also be accomplished by including fats, sugar, and eggs in the dough, but the holy grail of artisan baking is to get these qualities without resorting to enrichments, as is sometimes achieved in the best baguettes, levains, and ciabattas. It’s difficult to accomplish, though not impossible, with 100% whole wheat flour, and doing so usually entails using ample pre-ferments.
Later, I made several doughs using a combination of Lindley’s gluten-free Ancient Grain blend and the Super Sprout flour to create a multigrain version, finally settling on 20% Sprouted Ancient Grain to 80% Super Sprout. Eventually, I even came up with ways to use the ancient grain blend without any wheat at all, resulting in 100% gluten-free dough. In all cases, the natural sweetness and tenderness of the sprouted grain obviated the need for sweeteners or oils, though for loaf pan breads, soft dinner rolls, and sweet doughs, I did add some enrichments.
I was having a lot of fun with this flour, and I began to realize that I was standing on the threshold of the next frontier in bread. In the pages that follow, I’ll take you on my journey of discovery into this bread frontier. Along the way, I followed sprouted grain flour as if it were a breadcrumb trail, leading me to pulp made from sprouted grains, to millers and bakers who had controversial perspectives on baking with whole grains and wild yeast, and even back into the gluten-free world, which I explored in The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking. Along the way, I visited some arcane corners populated by unusual flours made from grape skins and seeds or from coffee cherries (the fruit that encloses coffee beans). It all adds up to an exciting time for bakers, ushered in by the emergence of sprouted grain flour and proving, once again, that bread is far from dead. Welcome to the new bread revolution!