It’s a wonderous thing to take four simple ingredients and turn them into something as spectacular as a loaf of bread. As we spend more time at home, many of us are getting creative in our kitchens and looking to accomplish a new feat. One of the most satisfying and useful staples to learn is baking bread at home.
In addition to accomplishing a new cooking skill and enjoying the tastes of your efforts, psychologists say spending time in the kitchen can help relieve stress and improve your mental health. It can be a relaxing and even meditative process, providing a sense of control; plus, it can be a cure for boredom and fill ample time while at home.
Bread is one of the world’s most widely consumed foods. Research suggests that it dates back 30,000 years. However, it was not until the turn of the century and the industrial revolution when bread’s status in daily lives changed. Prior to this, wheat was ground by hand using stone grinders, making flour harder to produce. With the invention of iron and steel rollers, processing wheat changed dramatically. Stone grinding removed the wheat berry, which contains most of the fiber, but not the germ, which contains the oils that are rich in nutrients. The new roller mill was able to remove both the wheat and the germ, resulting in flour that was mostly starch with little nutrients, flavor or unique characteristics.
With this industrialization came new types of wheat. Wheat was bred to grow fast, stay stable in different weather conditions and had high yields. This allowed more farmers to grow it and for consumers to purchase and store the flour since the fat would not spoil it—making bread more commonplace in daily life. This “new” wheat continued to evolve. The modern wheat typically found on grocery store shelves is typically a cross-bred variety, often with genetic manipulations to appeal to mass production.
This may be one reason why bread has gotten a bad rap in recent years. Many people blame modern wheat for contributing to the obesity epidemic and increased awareness of gluten intolerance, as many people cannot easily digest it.
Bakers who want to produce a loaf that is of a higher quality, has a longer shelf life without the addition of preservatives, and is more complex in texture and flavor want to use flour made from heritage grains.
“Heritage grains are older strains of wheat that have been passed down from generation to generation and have not been manipulated or cross bred,” says Nick Ambeliotis, founder and owner of Mediterra Bakehouse.
Ambeliotis launched Mediterra Bakehouse in 2000 after spending 18 months traveling the world and learning from the best bakers. Latching onto European techniques, the bakery uses cold water versus warm when proofing the bread, incorporates a levain sourdough starter, allows the bread to rise for over eight hours versus one hour or less, and scrutinizes all of the ingredients used.
That is why in 2012 Ambeliotis partnered with a local Arizona farmer and planted 50 acres of heritage grains in Coolidge. Red Fife, Sonoran White and Durham Blue Beard are the three types of heritage wheat Mediterra Bakehouse grows. Many farmers find heritage grains difficult to grow because they take more time to mature and the economics are difficult to sustain.
These grains are also better tolerated by people who may be adversely affected by gluten. But more importantly, the flour creates a more unique, high-quality and better-tasting bread.
“I don’t know of any other bakery in the country that grows their own wheat,” Ambeliotis says. “We wanted to invest in and have our hands on growing our wheat because that is how we approach everything else in the bakery. Each loaf of our bread is hand kneaded and shaped, loaves put into the oven and packaged by hand, and only the best ingredients are used. Sourcing our own wheat was a simple next step to ensure our techniques matched our quality.”
Mediterra mills the wheat on its Austrian-imported stone mill and uses that flour in its bread. The bakery recently started selling 2-pound bags of its heritage grain flour on its website, mediterrabakehouse.com, allowing home cooks easier access to these hard to find flours.
Once you have the flour and a recipe from a reputable source, a few good tips for proper technique will help you pull a delicious loaf from the oven every time.
In addition to sourcing heritage grains, Mediterra uses a sourdough culture (levain in French). This may seem daunting at home, and while it takes time and attention to detail to maintain, it is very artisanal and quite simple. Ambeliotis provided these steps to build a liquid levain at home that is ready for sourdough bread production in 10 days.
A whole-rye flour is recommended to start the culture. The wheat germ and wheat bran present in these flours (not found in white flours) have more nutrients and minerals that allow for faster enzymatic activity and fermentation. Rye flour also has more natural sugars than other flours that will speed up fermentation (more food for the bacteria to metabolize). A small amount of honey is also used in this initial feed. Honey naturally contains wild yeasts and will help jumpstart the levain.
• Whole-Rye flour: 5 ounces.
• Room temperature water: 6 ounces.
• Honey: .2 ounces (1 tsp).
• For a total of 11.2 ounces.
Mix ingredients well; cover with plastic. Let sit at room temp (72 degrees to 80 degrees) for 24 hours.
On day two, feed the starter two times, 12 hours apart with the same formula both times. An unbleached white flour and/or a heritage grain whole wheat flour can be used from this day on out.
• Half of starter from day one 5.6 ounces.
• Whole rye flour: 1.2 ounces.
Whole wheat flour: 1.2 ounces.
• Water, 85 degrees to 90 degrees: 3 ounces.
• For a total of 11 ounces.
Mix ingredients well; cover with plastic. Let sit at room temp (72 degrees to 80 degrees) for 12 hours.
On these days, follow the same feeding formula every day. By day 10, the levain should have enough strength and complexity of flavor to be used in bread production.
• Half of starter: 5.5 ounces.
• White flour: 1.2 ounces.
• Whole wheat flour: 1.2 ounces.
• Water: 3 ounces.
• For a total of 10.9 ounces.
Mix ingredients well; cover with plastic. Let sit at room temp (72 degrees to 80 degrees) for 24 hours. There should be signs of bubbling signs of fermentation and aromatics coming from the starter by the day 10.
Maintaining a levain
Ideally, a levain works best and is healthiest if it is fed every day with the formula above. However, for most home bakers that can be hard to maintain. The starter can be fed, left to ferment at room temperature for 12 hours, then put into the refrigerator. The starter can be left in the fridge up to a week before it needs another feeding. However, three days before you plan on baking, it should be pulled from the fridge and fed with the day three to 10 formula daily to refresh and strengthen.
When to use a levain in bread
The characteristics you are looking for in your bread determine when to use your starter. If you like bread that is very sour and tangy, you should use a starter that has been fermenting for 18 to 24 hours. If you want a less sour bread that will showcase more of the flavor of the grains in the bread your starter should be 8 to 12 hours old. You can play with fermentation to achieve the desired results in the finished product.
Once the ingredients are sourced, the next important step is measuring. A home digital scale is highly recommended to weigh and measure ingredients. This will ensure an accuracy that measuring spoons and cups cannot.
After resting, the dough is then kneaded. The purpose of kneading the dough is to build structure, develop the gluten and incorporate air. The difference between good breads and great ones is the rise time. Most recipes typically instruct for only an hour rise, but Ambeliotis recommends two and a half to three hours. The longer proof will result in a better interior crumb.
Baking bread is a great activity or new hobby to take up. Whether you are digging in to your first dough or kneading out your hundredth, there are always new recipes to try, and pulling a hot loaf from your oven can be one of life’s greatest joys.