Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Houston, we have a problem. . .

I won't say I wasn't warned, but I am feeling as though we may have sentenced ourselves to a month of truly dreadful bread. Wheat, it turns out, is very hard to come by. We managed to find some from Tom Brantmeier . Tom warned us that is not a great bread wheat, as did the folks at Cress Springs Bakery (who mill it for Tom), but what choice do we have? I suppose we could try to gut it out for a month without bread, but that is no choice at all. So on we go.

I do not go in for the 100% whole wheat loaf that I call "hippie bread". In my view, people's passion for whole grain goodness has overpowered their aesthetic sense and caused them to accept a doorstop as a food product. A bread should be leavened, for the love of Pete, or else you might as well eat tortillas (which is where we may end up if this does not work out).

In preparation for our month-long experiment, I made a test batch of bread—a couple of loaves of simple sourdough.

But I must start at the beginning, and the beginning of bread is wheat. I took delivery of 10 pounds of hard wheat from Tom Brantmieir. I brought it home and ground it in the NutriMill. It looked very branny, so I seived it through a medium seive, then through a fine seive. I can't quite believe how much bran I took out, but it was still pretty brown, and it has a fine sandy feel to it. I had done a small experiment with a third seive made of mosquito netting, but all this screening is a pain, so I decided to skip it.

I mixed up the dough, a simple sourdough (for you bread geeks out there, I gave it a 30 minute autolyse and hydrated it to about 75%). I mixed it in the KithenAid mixer for a few minutes, then turned it out for fermentation (or first rise, to all you home bakers). A long time passed, during which I did a bunch of bread-geek voodoo to it that is supposed to make for better loaves. Finally it was time to bake. Only when I turned the loaves out of their rising baskets to be put into the oven, the bottoms plopped out and the tops stayed in the baskets. The loaves tore in half—a total failure.

So what happened? In short, I have a gluten crisis on my hands. We've all heard of gluten, I expect. It's the protein that allows bread to rise by forming an elastic net that can trap gas bubbles. It is what makes bread dough stretchy. Without it you have nothing but starch. Compare bread dough to cornstarch paste and you begin to get the difference. Tom's wheat is not very rich in gluten (the growing conditions in this region are not right for those varieties), so I need to shift to techniques that will make the most of what little gluten is present. One problem is bran. The bran part of the wheat kernel shatters when you mill it, and it makes tiny particles with sharp edges and little spiky hairs on them that actually cut/tear the gluten mesh. So I will definitely be including the mosquito netting step next time. Also, acid has a detrimental effect on gluten, and the sourdough starters are very acidic, especially during the hot summer months. So I will have to go to a commercial yeast. Lucky for me that SAF yeast is in Milwaukee, a mere 75 miles away, and easily within our radius. I will also use a number of other dough handling techniques that are intended to increase the suppleness and handling quality of doughs made with marginal flours. No need to bore you with the details now, but if they work, I will definitely bore you with the details.

As part of my research, I looked at my home-ground flour under the microscope and compared it to a high-quality store-bought flour. This is what I saw (store-bought on top, home-grown on bottom):

Not sure what I was looking for, but no smoking gun here. The bran particles in the home-grown are bigger, but they are not really any more numerous than the ones in the store-bought. The granule size seems mostly comparable. One thing I will say is that the home-grown flour is much darker in color. This may be because it has more germ in it. Also, I understand that commercial flour is often aged, and that this lightens the color a bit. We'll see if ours changes over time.

I've got 20 more pounds of wheat coming this week. I hope it goes better the next time around. (SCL)