All grains contain peptides that mimic morphine or endogenous opioid substances. This is where I deal with my latest loaf craving. Get your bread-based exorphin fix here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

100% Barley Bread

Musing on the Scientific Method
I have been thinking lately of a particular part of the scientific method: verifiability.

Usually I think of the Scientific Method in my own simplified terms: it is A PIE.  The scientific method for nursing is all about Assessment, Planning, Implementation and Examination of results.  My son is an engineer, and he thinks about the scientific method in engineering terms, as the engineering cycle (and there are any number of steps in the cycle depending on how one looks at it, but for our purposes here I will leave it similarly at 4: Develop, Build, Install, Test). 

Despite its importance for our civilization, it is a strange fact that there is no one formally-agreed-upon recipe for the "scientific method".  And the least glamorous, least interesting, most neglected part of the method is verifiability.  When I think of the scientific method as A PIE, verifiability barely fits into the scheme under the Examination phase.

We are all users of science in this day and age, although there are few of us indeed who are on the actual cutting edge of advancing scientific knowledge.  Most of us toddle on behind the ones who are cutting a swath through the jungles or spelunking a trail through the caverns of the unknown.  Where others have blazed trails, the vast majority are stuck in the back trying to make sense of where we have been and where we are going.  Where others have devised theories about the way things are, and have developed tests that will determine the truth of those theories, most of us are simply plodders who struggle with understanding where these theories have left us now.

Since the Age of Enlightenment and even before, the scientific method has performed admirably in guiding us toward truth.  But without one aspect of the method -- and as I have said, it is the least glamorous aspect -- science would have delivered nothing.  It is the verifiability of an experiment, the reproducibility of any given result, that delivers to us what we have come to regard as "proof".  Without verifying a result, we still have mere conjecture, or anomaly.

Recently I finished a curious novel, "Border Songs" by Jim Lynch.  The story is full of fascinating characters, but one in particular caught my attention for today's thought: Wayne Rousseau.  This colourful individual spends his hobby time reproducing the results of famous inventors -- in particular, he goes through Edison's lab notes, and meticulously trials every single filament that Edison used when developing the light bulb. 

One wonders: what possible good could repeating every failed experiment do?  What sort of monomania would actually compel a person to repeat each of these failed experiments -- the hundreds of failed filaments (I mean, seriously, human hair?)  And yet, to the character Wayne Rousseau, repeating these experiments was an attempt to get into the mindset of genius: to repeat the experiments in order to gain access to a mind like Edison that would originally and so doggedly try every conceivable filament until he got one that would work.

But does the repetition of an experiment actually teach someone how to perform the scientific method?  Does verifying an experiment ever get one to the stage where one is performing original scientific research?  It is an idea both absurd and self-evident: that's not how we get to originality, that is not how we get to the cutting edge ideas -- and yet, that is how we are teaching science.  You can't get there from here.  The person who merely repeats what a genius did is no genius.

Just because I turn on a lightbulb does not mean the lightbulb ever went on over my head.

And what is a recipe?  A recipe is a lab note for an experiment.  When I follow someone else's bread recipe, I am a verifier.

Usually I wander around in the deep and dark until something bright and shiny catches my eye and I think, "ooh, diamonds!"  And I run over and try to gather as much information about the thing as I can before my attention is distracted by the next bright and shiny thing.  People have gone before me, and most of the real diamonds are taken.  Those bright and shiny things I notice are mostly quartz, or glints of light reflecting off schist.  I learn what I can, and move on through the tunnels that others have left behind.

Like the other day, I was reading about various grains that contain gluten: wheat, rye, and barley.  And suddenly it hit me: I've made lots of bread with wheat and rye.  But why have I neglected barley?  What do I know about barley?  Why can't I make a 100% barley bread?  How come no one makes barley bread?  Anyone can buy barley grain (pearled barley) at a grocery store.  But why can't we similarly buy barley flour?  (We can buy wheat flour at any grocery store, but we can't buy wheat itself at every store.  Why is that?)  And before long I was just spinning with questions about barley.  Fortunately for me, a lot of these facts have been gathered for me already by humans who have embraced the scientific method in many fields.

Pearls of Barley
So I began gathering shiny facts about barley (from various places, but here is a good start: A brief history of barley foods). 

Did you know, for example, that barley may have been the very first grain that was domesticated by humans?  Somewhere in the fertile crescent, barley grain was gathered, and then planted deliberately, and agriculture began, with civilization soon following.  Certainly before wheat, likely before rice, perhaps before rye (there are new finds all the time), barley was a consideration for human sustenance.

Humans worked with barley.  They found it (still find it) excellent for malting and in the brewing of beer, and as a grain that swells within soups to give it texture and nutrition.  Grinding barley into fine flour, humans have used it in many different recipes in their home cooking.  And they have made bread with it.

But barley bread has been superseded by wheat for bread virtually everywhere since early Roman times, because of wheat's most unusual gas-trapping abilities.  We still grow more barley than rye in the world, but we use more barley in beer than we do in bread: for bread, even rye is used more.

But scientific experimenters still trial barley loaves.  See this grain science article from the journal Cereal Chemistry (1986).  The pictures are great.  But I can't imagine even verifying this author's work on barley.

Meanwhile, Marta Izydorczyk has written a couple of scientific articles on barley for the Canadian Grain Commission that are worth perusing: "Baking healthy bread with barley"and "Creating new potential for an old grain".  These articles are interesting for learning what hoops we need to jump through just to mill a barley flour.  Marta seems to think that adding 6-10% barley flour to a wheat bread will make it much more nutritious, and won't have any negative effect on loaf volume, appearance, or consumer perception (there is that 10% figure again that we saw in the quinoa loaf!)

How long do we have to keep reproducing failed experiments before we understand that we have, as a species, moved away from barley bread?  Barley has benefits for humans though: scientists are finding it doesn't spike your insulin levels like wheat does, its bran is excellent, and if fermented as sourdough, its starch is more nutritious for humans.  It is so good it is often considered as an additive to wheat breads.  Often you will find people putting spent barley (the stuff that's left over from the malting process when beer is made) into bread.  We hate to throw this stuff away.

But we as a species have forgotten how to make a good wholegrain barley bread.  Even the National Barley Foods Council, who gives tons of barley recipes, will not give us a barley bread.

The Alberta Barley Commission has a few breads, but they are mostly just barley-supplemented wheat breads (typical is this ABC bread)
Canadian Food Barley has a few whole grain barley loaves, including this sourdough barley loaf made with 38% wholegrain barley -- but again, no 100% barley bread.

There are hints that in order to make a 100% barley bread, we must use it like rye, and keep it very wet.  There are suggestions that we must use other additives, other foodstuffs, to get a proper volume.  But here, we must be careful.  Looking up barley bread on the Internet as I have, you will certainly eventually find that the Nazi scientists examined a strange neurological condition (neurolaythyrism) that occurred in the Ukrainian concentration camp at Vapniarca, when inmates were fed barley loaves that also contained boiled grass pea seed (typically used as horse fodder).  Again: some failed experiments ought never to be repeated.  This unlikely bread combination, fed exclusively to inmates over an extended period of time, resulted in many prisoners developing Lathyrism.  Why some succumbed and others didn't is still a puzzle, but it would appear that the problem was not so much the barley, but rather the grass pea. The legume that was added to that bread contains a glutamate-like neurotoxin called ODAP that poisons the mitochondria, invoking widespread cell death.

A 100% Whole Barley Bread?  The Sardinians knew how

The ancient Sardinians apparently knew how to make a 100% barley bread (orgiathu), using a special starter they called ghimisone.  This article (Attene G., Ceccarelli S. and Papa R. (2007) "The Barley (Hordeum vulgar L.) of Sardinia, Italy".  Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution Vol.43 No. 5. 385-393) costs money to download, but one can find some of the info for free elsewhere.

Barley has been grown in Sardinia since neolithic times, and although the original seed was imported, it has grown wild there as a landrace since it was traded for and brought from the fertile crescent.  Mostly it is fed to horses, but the very poor have traditionally made a bread with it.  It still has a reputation of being a second-rate bread for the poor.  As economies have improved, the knowledge of how to make this bread is being lost (one source said that this process virtually died out in the 1950's).  Using Google Translate, I found a page that describes the traditional Sardinian fermentation and leavening of barley loaves.  It sounds a bit complex, and with the translation still rudimentary, I was not entirely sure what is the bread and what is the leaven.  Reading this page alone, it seemed to me that the leaven was baked, and I thought to myself, "that can't be!"

But another page (The Bread of Orzo) described the process and made it somewhat clearer to me.

Barley seed is not cleaned prior to being milled, but occasionally the seeds are gently roasted first.  Eight to ten days before baking, it is ground carefully, sieved to separate the bran and then again sieved a couple of times to remove the thicker semolina.  All parts of the flour was used: the finest for humans, and the chunkier for animals.

Gluten content is low in barley, so to encourage the gas-trapping ability of barley dough, a "ghimisone" was made -- a large loaf made by mixing warm water with very fine barley flour.  These were boules weighing 2-4 kg.  They are warmed for a long time, until the surface  became hard and brown (the original article said that the dough was baked very slowly in a corvula.  I didn't know what a corvula was, but I pictured it as a sort of dutch oven; Google Translate didn't find the word, but the word appeared again elsewhere as "corbula" which is not a dutch oven but rather an "asphodel basket".  Asphodel is a daffodil-like plant with a strong, elastic stalk that is woven (see some lovely Sardinian woven baskets here).  The barley dough is put into the basket, which is then set in (or nearby?) a hot wood-fire oven, so the dough does not get direct heat.  It warms, but I don't think it is baked.  It is not yet bread.

The ghimisones were placed in baskets and covered with flour and wrapped in linen to mature (ferment?) for 5-6 days.  Each ghimisone was then cut apart, and the middles examined.  It should have a soft and creamy, greyish brown interior, and if it didn't appear to be soft and elastic, then it was closed back up and left to ferment another half a day.

This creamy mixture was the preferment, but also the leaven.  Dissolved in warm water and kneaded with a bit more barley flour in a trough, it was then added to more barley flour (and perhaps some commercial yeast?), and left to stand for 5 hours ("until the mass of dough started to crack on the surface" -- just like ryebread).  Then (unlike rye) it is gently kneaded with wet hands, punched down like wheat bread, and it matures again another 3-5 hours.

Finally the dough was divided into 1 pound chunks, from which many "loaves" were made.  Each portion was thinned by hand to a flatness a few centimetres thick and the size of a pizza peel that it sits on.  It is immediately baked by sliding it into a wood-fire, like a pizza.  But it is turned once in the oven, so both sides are browned.  I don't think they blow up like pitas. but remain thin.  Then they are removed and immediately sliced in half and placed in sacks, where they could be kept as a sort of hardtack for up to 2 months.

Finally, I used google translate to investigate another page on Sardinian traditions, which repeats all the info I had already gleaned, and added more to it:

There are artisan bakers who are keeping alive the tradition, among them Angelo Murdeu.  Demand for 100% Barley Loaves will never be great.

My Barley Loaf
I got my hands on some barley flour.  Ignoring all this tradition and research, I just wanted to try a 100% Barley Loaf.  I simply used a tablespoon of Whole Wheat starter to build a barley starter, and then made a Tartine-style loaf -- just to see what would happen.  Side by side with it, I made a 100% Whole Wheat Loaf, too.  Just to compare.

Ha!  Some experiments ought not to be repeated.

First Clue: Both of these starters are 100% hydrated.  Barley flour is going to require more water.

Gluten? Not so much.  Not gooey, even at 85% hydration.

Yeah, well, wheat we are familiar with

Side-by-side, these doughs have just had their salt added.
The barley dough on the left 85% hydrated, the wheat dough 75% hydrated
The doughs have been bulk fermented and kneaded or folded, for 4 hours

Made a sort of loaf and put in buttered tins.  Scored them too.  Why bother?

A bit more fermenting.  Barley loaves are just drying out.

This loaf is nothing like wheat, nothing like rye.  It soaks up water like you would not believe.  This is 85% hydrated, and it feels like it could use more.  When baked, it immediately took on the toughness and consistency of a nut.  It did not rise.  I scored it in hopes that the oven might do something for it.  But no.  It sat there, taking forever to bake, and it just got harder and harder and harder.

Live and learn.  You don't make 100% barley loaves like you would a wheat loaf, or a rye loaf.  You just don't.

But hard as it was, it tastes interesting.  And it warrants some experimentation.  I ate about a third of one of these loaves before it staled and wouldn't submit to a knife.

To verify that what I had made was ridiculous, I gave one of these awful loaves to my friend when it was about a week and a half old -- dried and stale.  It was meant to be a joke.  I told him that it was so hard, he might not even be able to compost it for his garden.  But he managed to hack off a slice or two, and actually nibbled away at it.  Brave soul.

He reported that it tasted rather good, but he had to stop eating it because he was afraid he would break a tooth.  He gave some to his dog (who will eat anything), and the dog took it.  But the dog-who-chews-Giant-Kongs-to-ribbons spit out the bread later when no one was looking.  Not even the dog could get through it.

My friend was rather happy to get another bread from me the next day, made of whole wheat.

Notes to Myself
  • Try again some time.  Try the Sardinian Way.
  • The key to 100% barley bread seems to be a very very long fermentation -- we are talking 8-9 days.
  • A Desem-like schedule, similar to what Alan Scott used for his wholegrain breads, might work for a 100% barley loaf.
  • The hydration has to be high.  I'm guessing 90% at least, depending on the amount of chops in the flour.
  • The bread should be baked thin, and no one should expect it to rise in the oven.
  • This bread will keep a long time without spoilage.  You just might require an axe or chainsaw to cut into it.
  • I tried to find a picture of the official Sardinian bread and couldn't find it.  However, I suspect it looks something like this bread (although this barley bread recipe calls for some wheat flour too).


  1. thanks. I wondered, too -- hating that no-one
    had any 100% to sell. And, not being a cook at all, won't even think about trying. Like you said, some things should not be repeated.

    Loved the read. Again. Thanks
    Sandy Simmons

  2. Hi

    I made some today roughly following this recipe.. If the barley is well cooked it should work. Mine is soft in the middle..
    I'm sure 3 years after the experiment you're ready for the next round?

  3. Haha, loved reading this. Thank you for sharing your experiments.

  4. Fascinating, did you ever try again?