Notes from Windward: #70


Bread for Community


     In my first week at Windward, I set out to experiment with bread-making using local ingredients. I've done some breadmaking in the past, at my urban co-op house in Chicago, working with whatever flours I had around; usually some enriched all-purpose white-type flour and a huge bag of vaguely "wheat" flour I got at a bulk store in Devon, and occasionally some buckwheat, rye, or corn meal. Rice flour sat on the shelf for a couple months but I was pretty confused about it and never tried to use it.

Eliot picking cider apples

      Setting an afternoon aside, I produced some beautiful loaves that were demolished quickly by my housemates and it took me a couple days to think about putting that energy into another loaf. But I think the two things that have kept me interested and experimenting were the joy of baking my own bread and the community element‒bread is rich nutritionally as well as symbolically in feeding a group and providing the basic means of life to people throughout history. The range of flatbreads and leavened breads, sourdoughs and buns, that arise from diverse cultural traditions are a testament to the centrality of grain cultivation and the loaf form.

     So my goals for making bread here, besides becoming more closely acquainted with my ingredients, were to find non-labor-intensive or low-energy ways to make a fairly large amount of bread and to experiment, for Opalyn and Sarah's sake as well as for my learning curve, with gluten-free breads.

     The first loaves I made were from a standby recipe I used in Chicago for an Italian bread called "fougasse," a fairly straight forward recipe that was flexible in the types of flour used.

     Here at Windward, since we mill our own flour (not by hand), all the flour is whole wheat. Soft white winter wheat is grown locally all over the Northwest and is readily available because it is also fed to the animals here. It has about a 6-11% protein content, lower than most other types of wheat, and so it is not ideal for breadmaking, which requires a higher protein gluten content to create infrastructure for the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast's fermentation.

     Hard red winter wheat is the other primary wheat available, shipped from the Midwest (so not so local). With a protein content of 12-15%, it is traditionally used for whole wheat flour; the red variety, as opposed to the white, has a slightly nuttier flavor favored by many breadmakers. So in terms of working towards my goal of using more local ingredients, I tried out a couple combinations of these two flours to find a balance that would make good bread while using at least some of the more readily available SWW wheat.

     In general, most recipes call for some part flour that is not whole wheat. Whole wheat flour (of any type) contains the bran and germ in addition to the starch- and protein-rich endosperm (white flour is just the endosperm). Bran is fiber-rich and promotes healthy digestion and the germ is rich in vitamins, but the endosperm contains most of the protein‒most of which is gluten.

     Gluten is what makes bread rise‒it traps gas, and is strengthened when the strands of protein align themselves, creating a network that traps gas bubbles and creates an airy crumb in the interior of the bread. If you don't have gluten, the gas produced by the yeast just escapes.

     In whole wheat flour, the bran and endosperm are ground into the flour and take the place of some of the glutinous endosperm; in addition, the sharpness of the ground bran actually cut and disrupt developing gluten strands. Vegetables, seeds, fruit, and other delicious bread additions also "weigh down" the crumb, raising the requirement for wheat gluten if you want to end up with that oh-so-desirable "airy crumb." So since we use all whole wheat flour here, my bread experiments thusfar have been turning out delicious, but rather dense.

two warm loaves of European peasant bread
with sunflower seeds and raisins

      While folks have generally seemed to like the flavor and texture of the bread, it hasn't been rising much and the loaves have turned out pretty small and dense‒we can easily go through two or three loaves in one meal! Ethan (and the two authors noted below) suggested using vital wheat gluten, which supplements the gluten in the bread. In my next batch of bread-making, I plan to try that out.

     In terms of my other goal, finding a lower-energy way of making bread, Walt had gotten two books [Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day] by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, who introduced to me a method of using refrigerated dough. A strong network of aligned gluten strands can be formed in bread in two ways: either through kneading or through the addition of extra moisture which allows the gluten strands enough mobility that they can align themselves.

      I worked in a bread shop back in my high school days and so had seen the use of refrigerated, high-moisture dough on an industrial scale, but the book suggested its advantages on a homestead-scale: no proofing of yeast, kneading, extensive cleanup, or constant surveillance is required.

     Two days ago, I was able to whip up three different types of bread dough‒challah, rye, and some "European peasant bread"‒in about an hour. I left the three batches of dough (each about 4 lbs/4 small loaves of bread) to rise for a couple hours and then put them in the fridge in non-airtight containers. It made it possible for other people to bake bread as part of their lunch-making (and for me to throw together some cinnamon rolls at the last minute for snack using the challah dough) and the dough actually improves the longer it's left in the fridge, up to two weeks, becoming slightly sourdough-ish-tasting.

     As far as gluten-free breads, I haven't yet experimented with refrigerated dough but I've met with success on a particular recipe that uses some xanthan gum and eggs‒it rises well, requires no kneading (as rice flour doesn't have anything like gluten and xanthan gum mimics the gas-trapping powers of gluten strands), so it takes about 15 minutes to throw together and about an hour and 45 minutes from start to completion.

Rice flour doesn't have much nutritional value
but it makes a beautiful loaf

     As I continue experimenting with bread, I look forward to the personal joy it brings me and to sharing it with others as I settle into life at Windward. More updates to come!


October 29:

A cluture of love in the WW Bread Lab

     Since my last post about bread in my earlier days as an intern here, I've tried out a number of different styles of bread using mostly refrigerated dough recipes and developed enough comfort with the basic framework to begin experimenting with different balances of flour, integrating buckwheat and corn flour.

     One of my major discoveries came from setting up an experiment in the Windward Bread Lab kitchen using different balances of hard red winter wheat (HRWW) and soft white winter wheat (SWWW) flours in a whole wheat bread recipe that called for a total of 7 cups flour.

     I also adjusted the amount of vital wheat gluten in each loaf based on the amount of SWWW used. Hertzberg & Francois, the chemist-baker pair who have put out a couple books about making artesan-quality bread from refrigerated dough, recommend adding 1-2 teaspoons of gluten per cup of flour. Since SWWW has substantially less wheat gluten protein available to help trap gas produced by the fermenting yeast, I used a baseline of 4T vital wheat gluten and added 1t per cup of SWWW. Each of these batches produce (in theory) 4 small, 1-lb loaves.

Basic recipe for whole wheat bread!

Ingredients: 7 c. whole wheat flour, 1 1/2 T yeast, 1 T salt, 1/4 c. vital wheat gluten, 3 3/4 c. lukewarm water


  1. Whisk together flour, yeast, salt, and vital wheat gluten in a large bowl or non-airtight lidded food container.

  2. Add the water and mix (without kneading) using a spoon.

  3. Cover (not airtight) and allow to rest at room temperature until it rises and collapses (or flattens on top), approximately 2 hours.

  4. The dough can be used immediately after this rise, though it is easier to handle when cold. Refrigerate in lidded, non-airtight container and use it within 10 days. (I refrigerated dough for 5 days before baking.)

  5. When ready to bake: dust the surface of the dough with flour and cut off a 1-lb (grapefruit-sized; a quarter of your dough) piece. Dust with more flour and quickly shape into a ball.

  6. Allow to rest, loosely covered with plastic, on a greased or cornmeal-ed surface for 90 minutes (or 40 if you are using unrefrigerated dough).

  7. Preheat oven to 450 F. (If available, place baking stone on the middle rack and empty broiler tray on any other rack.)

  8. Just before baking, brush top of bread with water. Slash loaf with 1/4-inch deep cuts using a serrated knife.

  9. Slide loaf in (onto stone or on pan). Pour 1 c hot tap water into broiler tray and close the oven door. Bake 30-35 minutes until richly brown and firm--when you tap the bottom of the bread, it should sound hollow. If you used a cookie sheet, moving the loaf to a different rack halfway through will help it cook more evenly.

  10. Allow the bread to cool before slicing and eating...then enjoy!


The three experimental dough mixtures I tried

Batch #1 had 1 c. HRWW, 6 c. SWWW and 6T wheat gluten;


Batch #2 had 2 1/2 c. HRWW, 4 1/2 c. SWWW and 5 1/2 T wheat gluten;


Batch #3 had 4 c. HRWW, 3 c. SWWW and 5T wheat gluten.


     This experimental approach to bread produced some very clear results. Batch #2 was by far the best; #3 and #1 were both harder and denser, and were much drier than #2 the next day. All of the loaves were pretty small and I concluded that the wheat gluten could have been increased even more.

     Nonetheless, this bread experiment was important for me to get a sense for what balance of flours--and the resulting protein content--works well and produces a balanced, hearty bread. I have also made some challah-like bread using mostly SWWW with a little corn or buckwheat flour, and it has tended to be too light to be satisfyingly bready.

     So a small contribution of knowledge for future breadbakers at Windward...2 1/2 c. HRWW and 4 1/2 c. SWWW plus 5 1/2 T wheat gluten produces a good gluten-protein content for bread equal to 7 c. whole wheat flour.

     So, one of the next learning experiences in my WW Bread Lab was a brainchild of Ethan, Sandor Ellix-Katz (author of Wild Fermentation, a great book) and I--a sourdough starter.

     Sourdough is a much older form of leavening agent than the cultivated, packaged baker's yeast that we depend on for breadmaking today. It likely originated around 1500 BC in Egypt and was the only leavening agent available until the Middle Ages, when it was replaced by barm, the foamy scum on the top of fermented alcohol which was a by-product of beermaking. Barm is the ancestor of most baker's and brewer's yeasts available commercially today.

     Sourdough was the main kind of bread made in California during the Gold Rush and sourdough cultures were cultivated for their different flavors and passed on for many generations (some of them traveling across oceans or continents). Californian and Alaskan prospectors protected their starters with their lives, carried hunks of fresh starter dough close to their bodies, and often slept with them to keep them warm.

     When cared for, these cultures approach immortality...a very different concept than the yeast we buy in the store that has an expiration date within a few months! Given the way that sourdough cultures can testify to generations of care, people who value the food of their place and people and maintain it for future breadmakers, it is no wonder that bread, along with cheese and wine, all products of fermentation and time, are so central to rituals and celebrations in many communities.

     The concept of a sourdough starter is very simple--you mix flour and water and let it sit in a warm place with plenty of air circulation. Yeast in the air come and settle in and eat the flour, giving the starter an intriguing smell that Ethan described as "bananas and trash" and which I found much more pleasantly confusing.

     A sourdough starter is a stable symbiotic culture of Lactobacillus bacteria and wild yeast, usually Candida milleri or Saccharomyces exiguus. Fresh flour naturally contains a wide variety of yeast and bacterial spores and when it comes into contact with water, amylase enzymes break down the starch molecules into smaller disaccharides (sucrose and maltose) and maltase breaks those down into glucose and fructose which can be metabolized by yeast.

     Yeast are actually one-celled fungi that consume these simple sugars and produce carbon dioxide and ethanol. The lactobacteria live on the metabolic waste products of the yeast and produce lactic acid, giving the starter an acidic, tangy flavor which also helps make it resistant to colonization by unwanted bacteria and flora. The acidity of sourdough also means that sourdough breads tend to be less likely to spoil and more dense, since there are more enzymes breaking down the glutenous protein structure.

     We named our starter Sandor, decided ze would use gender-neutral pronouns, and tried to remember to take care of ze by feeding ze flour every day. We made a great loaf of pumpernickel using Sandor...and because the pumpernickel was 100% rye (no wheat flour), there was no kneading required!

     Rye has a different structure from wheat flour that allows it to trap gas bubbles without needing to have its proteins "aligned" (as gluten requires). Rye flour has been traditionally associated with sourdough because the rye amylases, which break down the starch molecules, are active at a much higher temperature than wheat amylases and so 100% rye bread will disintegrate when baking unless those amylases are inactivated by the acidity of a sourdough starter.

     Unfortunately, our fondness was not enough to keep Sandor healthy and ze started to have a very alcoholic smell after we had forgotten to feed ze for a couple of days...a testament to the fact that love alone, without care and maintenance, is not enough to sustain an active community of yeast buddies.

     I learned from doing some research that "hooch," the alcoholic layer that had formed on top of Sandor, isn't harmful and can be mixed back in...on the other hand, if the starter smells really off or turns pinkish or orangish, throw it out. I've also read that if you keep your starter in the fridge, it needs to be fed only once a week...which might be a better method of maintenance for me, since I didn't work feeding Sandor into my rhythm of feeding bunnies and other daily tasks.

     Finally, learning from Gina and working with the Oaxacan corn grown here to make cornbread for Ship's Dinner was immensely satisfying. I had never before used flour made from something grown in my backyard, so to speak; even locally grown wheat goes through a lot of mechanical processing before being dumped into our containers and brought to Windward.

      Furthermore, we have become very dependent on wheat in our diets yet the monocrop farming of wheat and other annual grains has contributed to the depletion of the topsoil and devastation of areas of the environment. If we're seeking to live sustainably, energy efficiently, and from our own land, does wheat make sense? Although I'm not prepared to answer that question yet, I'm definitely enjoying the opportunities to work with corn, rice, buckwheat, and oat flours and to push my boundaries of what it takes to make bread.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70