Monday, August 1, 2011

Whole Wheat Hearth Bread

Everything has been leading up to this for a while now.

Ever since I discovered St. John Bread in London and their phenomenal loaves of brown bread, so chewy and crusty that you would never guess it came from whole grains, I’ve been meaning to introduce myself to the world of healthy bread baking.

Since then I took a class in school about cooking and ingredient science and found myself fascinated by the amazing lives of microscopic yeast. I also bought whole wheat bread at the farmer’s market hoping for a hint of the St. John breads I left behind. But the loaves I received from the market hippies were, although good tasting and chock-full of millet, flax, and sprouted things, were very dense and crumbly, lending no chew or dexterity and leaving me fishing out broken-off pieces burning at the bottom of the toaster. And I wouldn’t even attempt spreading peanut butter on them unless it was a mass of sticky crumbs I craved rather that a piece of sturdy peanut butter toast. So finally, out of sheer desperation for a decent slice of bread I stood in line at the bookstore with Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads in my hand and determination in my heart. And at last, I discovered the secret to the best whole grain hearth bread.

Unfortunately, this is bread baking with a lot of science behind it which of course means that it’s not a bread that’s is going to easily come together in an afternoon. This is bread that makes you wait, but boy is it worth it. This was my first delve into the long, slow fermentation process and also my first attempt at making bread with a biga and a soaker. I was nervous, really hoping not to screw things up after waiting for so long but was highly pleased with how simple the process ended up being and of course with my final result.

The bread I made, a transitional hearth bread boule, was only half whole wheat, which is the recipe Reinhart suggests for beginners, but had all the aspects of whole wheat that I really love. There was no hint of the mealiness that disappointed me previously because the long fermentation really let the gluten relax and become super elastic. Therefore, the final bread was absolutely moist and chewy, full of complex nutty flavors and a pleasing slightly sour tang. The crust was perfection and even though I was only using a standard oven, baking on a preheated pizza stone and making a steam bath in the oven let the dough spring up fast and develop that awesome crispy exterior. I took the blistered round from the oven and listened to the crust popping and cracking like the applause from an admiring crowd or fireworks blasting off in my achievement. I photographed it as if it was my first-born child, carting it around and showing off my “baby”. Taking that loaf out of the oven may be my proudest of my culinary life and we ate big slabs of solely bread for dinner. It was a perfect meal.

Transitional Hearth Bread
Makes one boule, two batard, or 4 mini baguettes
Recipe by Peter Reinhart

This is not the sort of cooking I am doing every day but I do hope that at some point of my life, this bread baking will be a more daily occurrence. I hope to soon try more of these whole grain recipes like the sandwich loaves, focaccia and pizza dough, and bagels with just as great of results. This bread would be perfect with wine, good cheese, and some select best friends; it makes me feel like the people in Kinfolk Magazine, my new favorite read. It make me feel one step closer to the sustainable, artisan person I strive to be and brings me closer with my food. It makes me trust my intuition, letting my hands determine if the dough is right rather than the recipe. It makes my house smell like heave too…definitely not a bad thing. So bake bread, share bread, enjoy this art.

On Day One
The first day, prepare the biga and starter, which will be used in the final dough on the second day. This will not take too long

1¾ cups whole wheat flour (227 grams)
½ tsp. salt
¾ cup wwater (170 grams)

Mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl for a minute until the flour is completely hydrated and form the dough into a ball. Cover the bowl with the soaker with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 12-24 hours. If you go longer then 24 hours without using the soaker, place it in the refrigerator for up to 3 days and remove it from the refrigerator 2 hours before using.

1¾ cups unbleached bread flour (227 grams)
¼ tsp. instant yeast
½ cup plus 2 Tbs. room temperature water (I needed a little more because it was a very dry day)
Mix the ingredients in a bowl with a wooden spoon to form a ball. With wet hands, knead the dough for 2 minutes until all of the flour is hydrated and the dough feels very tacky. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes then continue kneading for one more minute with wet hands until the dough is smooth but still tacky. Place in a clean, lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough for at least 8 hours before using and up to three days. Remove from the refrigerator 2 hours before using.

On Day Two
 This is shaping and baking day. Two hours before beginning, remove the biga from the refrigerator to let it come to room temperature.

Final Dough
All of the soaker
All of the biga
3½ Tbs. whole wheat flour
5/8 tsp. salt
2¼ tsp. instant yeast
Chop up your soaker and biga into 12 equal pieces each, dust them lightly with flour so they don’t stick, and place them in a mixing bowl. Add the flour, salt, and yeast to the bowl as well. Using a wooden spoon, begin to combine the ingredients vigorously and when they start to come together, knead the dough with wet hands for 2 minutes or until the ingredients are evenly distributed. It is easy to tell when this is done with the transitional recipe because you will no longer see any marbling from the two different flours but only even, light brown dough with no granules of yeast showing. You may need to add more water or flour to end up with dough that is soft and slightly sticky. I needed more water because it was a dry day.

Continue kneading the dough on a flour-dusted surface for an additional 3-4 minutes, incorporating only as much flour as you need to make dough that is smooth and tacky, but not sticky. Form the dough into a ball and let it rest for 5 minutes. Prepare a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Knead the dough for one more minute, adding water or flour as needed until soft and supple. Form the dough into a ball, place in the bowl and roll around to cover with oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise as room temperature for 45-60 minutes.

After rising, shape the dough and prepare the oven. Preheat to 500 degrees. Place a baking stone in the lower third with a metal or cast iron sheet pan in the rack directly below it. Let the pans preheat for an hour before baking. Shape the risen dough into a boule. To do so, remove the dough from the bowl, gently pat it into a rectangle, and bring all four corners to the middle, squeezing them together to seal while pulling more dough in from the sides to tighten. Flip the dough over, seam side down, and continue pulling the dough downward into the bottom center with the sides of your hands while turning the dough into a very tight and round. Place on an overturned metal baking sheet with parchment or a well-floured pizza peel, cover with a towel, and let rise for 45-60 minutes.

When done rising, slash the top of the boule in a star pattern with a serrated knife and gently loosen it from its surface. Prepare a beaker filled with one cup of hot water. Then, working quickly, open the oven, slide the dough from the pan and parchment or peel onto the hot baking stone, pour the water into the baking pan underneath the stone, and close the oven door. Lower the temperature to 450 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes, without opening to door, then give the bread a 180 degree turn. Bake for an additional 15-30 minutes until the crust is dark and crackling, the bottom sounds hollow when tapped, and the interior registers 200 degrees. Cool on a rack for at least an hour before cutting.


  1. found your post on tastespotting--beautiful loaf!

  2. Beautiful loaf of bread! And thank you for reminding me of that book, I've been meaning to get it for some time now - it looks great!