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.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Yes, Bread Matters

Whitley's "Really Simple Sourdough Bread"

I asked for and received Andrew Whitley's book, "Bread Matters: the state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own" (2009) for the last holiday.  I've been dipping into it here and there, so maybe its time to give a little report or review on it.

Whitley is a U.K. baker and author and organic grain supporter who has started a crusade against unfermented bread.  His book contains a manifesto for the "Real Bread Campaign," which Whitley helped start.  I grew interested in his book after I read about him on Farine's blog, following Whitley's 2012 talk at the Kneading Conference West.

I really love the first few chapters of Whitley's book.  I wish that I had found it 3 years ago.  I might never have had to blog a single word, nor would I have had to discover on my own many of the things he mentions.  It has been a very time-consuming process, wading through the corporate obfuscation and deliberate lies of  the baking industry, all the while researching science articles and learning the different recipe methods for baking bread.  It has been fun, with many side-trips along the way, but Whitley's "Bread Matters" would have brought me here much quicker.

I find it quite exhilarating that Whitley has chanced upon many of the same articles I have, in my curiosity and browsing.  He has come up with the odd article I haven't seen, of course (e.g. Chapter 2, the first 2 endnotes, re: linking excess calcium and prostate cancer, and excess iron with lung cancer), and I'm always eager to learn new things about my favourite topic, bread.  Nice.

However, I have to admit that I'm left scratching my head a bit over the rest of his book: his recipes.  For one thing, Whitely totally ignores baker's percentages, because he believes they are obscurest and misleading.  Using grams in the recipes is enough, he says, to scale any recipe (and he does give grams, and ounces, and even volume measurements for each bread).  I can't really say that I'm convinced, especially when he indicates in the text that when you do scale recipes, you have to adjust the yeast levels.

And maybe he's right, maybe the whole baking hobby crowd (and bakers in general) are too focused on baker's percentages, which use the concept of percentage in a non-standard way from mathematicians and the rest of the world, and the use of the term "baker's percentage" confuses a lot of people who are new to the baking usage (me included).  And the percentages are often used in different ways; once you begin using terms in a non-standard way, the lid is off, and basically anything goes.  Communication suffers.  Furthermore, the use of baker's percentages tends to focus the attention on hydration, which seems to be a North American quirk, whereas I find that European recipes seem to be more concerned with ash content of various flours, and temperature of the dough.  In practice, though, it comes down to how the dough feels and acts, and that's not something that can be easily spoken or written in words, nor imparted by formula. 

Nevertheless, I worked out the baker's percentages for his first recipe (to see what sort of hydration he aims for!  I admit it!)  This is Whitley's "Basic Loaf", a basic, straight-dough whole grain bread:

  • stoneground ww flour 100%
  • salt 0.8%
  • water 67%
  • yeast 1.3%

I decided to make this loaf to see what might happen.  Its been a long time since I made a commercially yeasted bread.  

But for my purposes, the recipe right away had to have some changes made to it.  I don't have any stone-ground ww flour.  I have ww flour from the local Arva Flour Mill, and I know that it was slow-milled in a roller mill.  Because of this, and because of what I learned here, I will put back some bran and wheat germ, to the amount of 5%, to make a literally true, rather than legally true, whole wheat flour, which will simulate stone ground whole wheat flour.

Simulating Stone Ground Wheat Flour by rebuilding it

Incidentally, Whitley gives this same fact -- that some of the germ and bran is removed, even from whole wheat flour -- but he doesn't give us this clue on how to rebuild it, if we don't have stone ground flour at hand.  And really -- how many of us do have access to freshly stone ground flour, unless we live beside a mill or grind it ourselves?

So here is my recipe:

  • roller milled ww flour 90%
  • wheat bran 5% 
  • wheat germ 5%
  • salt 0.8%
  • water 67%
  • yeast 1.3%
before kneading

after kneading

before rise

after rise

proofed and ready to bake
(I baked mine in a roasting pan)
Whitley isn't a fan of adding water to the oven to make steam for the beginning of the bake to allow the bread to rise farther; he says it adversely affects the temperature of the oven.  I've had good results with that method, though, and even better with a Dutch Oven style of baking, where the moisture from the rising loaf is itself contained inside a vessel, as steam, and this allows the bread to rise with the moisture.  So my loaf was baked in a roasting pan, to simulate this part of the Dutch Oven baking.

Beyond Basic Loaves
Whitley quickly moves beyond these simple straight doughs, through the intermediary steps of preferments (sponges, poolish) and then he heads into sourdough territory.

No extra bran this time just extra wheat germ, with Whitley's Really Simple Sourdough Bread

I decided to try his Whitley's "Really Simple Sourdough Bread" Recipe as well.  As before, I give here an interpretation of his recipe, using roller-milled whole wheat flour, with added wheat germ to get it closer to the stone ground he calls for.  Here is the baker's %:

  • roller milled ww flour 95%
  • wheat germ 5%
  • water 70%
  • sourdough starter 16%
  • sea salt 1.6%

The amounts given in his original recipe are very small, and there is no way this amount of dough would make a bread that would fill the standard size tin here in North America.  I made another at the same time, which used the baker's percentages I'd figured out, and put that dough in a different tin, a larger than usual tin.  And that was too much dough.  So my feeling is, every recipe in this book would have to be scaled or tweaked for the average North American user.

The nice thing about this recipe is, I can make a loaf like this with my sourdough, rather than tossing it out when I am just refreshing the dough.

The book contains a lot of recipes, and I'm sure that I'll be checking out more in the future.  It will take me a while to go through them all.

But here's the one big complaint I have with the book (and it might be a selling feature for you, who knows?)  While his text extols the virtue of whole grains, and organic flour, he nevertheless includes some all purpose or bread flour in many recipes, as most other recipe books do.  For an example of one of his recipes that does this, already online, you can check out this recipe from the Guardian's Food and Drink section.  It is a little more involved than the basic recipe above.  See how he uses a mix of white and wholemeal flour?  That is the way most of his recipes read, even though he says you can make it using only wholemeal.

The Next Thing I Need to Know
Now here is the problem I have with this: although he is careful to list additives and weird ingredients that go into Chorleywood type industrially-puffed loaves, he scarcely mentions the vitamin enrichment of the denuded white flours.  I expected him to tell us the source of these vitamin enrichments, not just tell us why they are there, or what else we are missing.

Because it seems obvious to me that the mills who are required by law to put these vitamin enrichments back into the flour after taking it out will use the very cheapest ingredients.  What is the source of these ingredients?  Who sells them?  What chemlabs make them?  Are they made ethically?  Is their sourcing environmentally sustainable?  Would they be acceptable to vegetarians?  Are they truly healthy in the amounts typically consumed?  These are all questions he has asked of the other ingredients that industrially baked loaves carry.  For example, he discusses preservatives like calcium propionate (E282), which "may be a carcinogen;" and he mentions L-cycsteine hydrochloride (E920) which "may be derived from animal hair and feathers."  But he doesn't tell us anything about the source of vitamin enrichment that has

  1. been mandated by law in most nations in the world, to some degree, since the widespread adoption of roller mills
  2. allowed for the widespread proliferation of processed foods that use denuded or fortified flour, even though studies extol the virtues of whole grain

The point is, now more than ever home bakers need help in making whole grain bread.  They don't need yet another recipe book that tells them its ok to put only SOME whole grain in their bread (that leads quickly to acceptance of the misleading baking industry-oriented mislabelling of "whole wheat" as merely containing some whole wheat flour). The next thing that happens is, the home baker puts more and more white flour into their loaves, less and less whole grain, and suddenly there is no further reason to bake at home.  These home loaves become the same damn thing you can buy anywhere.

It really takes a dramatic turn in intention to be a home baker today and INSIST that whole wheat must mean whole grain, like I've been doing.  I know, because I often feel the pressure.  The pressure to bake white loaves is intense and seems to be embedded in our culture now.  Chorleywood extrusion processes have changed the taste of our society.  When you say no to that, you are actually stepping outside the norm.  It gets more and more difficult to stick with whole grain.  Home bakers need to know that its ok to insist on whole grain.  In my opinion, that is what Whitley's book should have focused on, in the recipe section.  But instead, his theme seems to be, above all else, just bake it yourself.

It may be that he hopes that people will begin to notice taste differences in the loaves, and will eventually insist on stone ground whole grain as their baking experience develops (as it has done in my case).  Indeed, the recipes do seem to take one on a journey from simple to ever increasingly difficult methodologies and more complex tastes.  But this book doesn't insist on whole grain.  It insists on artisan loaves, home-made loaves.  It gives lip service to organic.  But it misses the boat on whole grain.

That's my opinion.  

I do like Whitley's book, I do appreciate all that he's done for the home baker.  He has been baking far longer than me, he has forgotten more about bread than I'll ever know.  But I wanted to learn the next thing, and it wasn't here.  To me, Bread Matters, and it matters more to me than it apparently seems to matter to many other people.  That is why I expected this book to make a profound difference to me.

Truly, his book deserves a very careful look.  It's already given me a lot of food for thought*.

Results of these breads
I'll never make his basic loaf again.  Not very interesting.  Simple enough, just not enough time to develop fermenting flavours.  A bit too yeasty for my bread snob tastes.

Whitley's Basic Bread
Whitley's Basic Bread

Original Recipe amounts make an extremely tiny loaf.  But nice crumb.

Whitley's Really Simple Sourdough Bread

First attempt at scaling the recipe gave me too much dough for one tin (the tin I used for this dough was extra large)

Lots of Flavour, in my opinion: a bit too sour for my wife's tastes.

The simple sourdough bread has possibilities.  I like its simplicity, but I'll still have to adjust the times for my own batch of sourdough.  Every sourdough is going to have its peculiarities, I guess.  I liked the taste of this one, but my wife complained that it was "too" sour.

Notes to Myself
  • * For example, my questions about the additives put into white flour has made me curious enough to do a bit of research on that myself.  Expect more info soon.
  • All of Whitley's recipes will have to be tweaked for the North American home baker.  Because he hasn't included baker's percentages, will this be harder or simpler for the average hobby baker?
  • Next time you make a tin of Whitley's Really Simple Sourdough Bread, try these amounts for a standard size North American tin.  No guarantees, but this is the next experimental amount I would try, in my tweaking of this recipe.  It amounts to 80% of what I used for the extra large tin above, but in the same baker's percentage ratios.  It is about triple what Whitley gives:
    • 760g ww flour
    • 40g wheat germ
    • 128g sourdough starter
    • 13g salt
    • 560g water
  • UPDATE: this bread had amazing keeping abilities.  I left a heel of it in a plastic bag in my bread cupboard, and it was less stale after a ten days than bread made just 4 days before.


  1. I've been mostly following Peter Reinhart's bread building methods, though of late I've begun reading a few other bakers' books. At the moment I'm considering Ken Forkish's "FLOUR WATER YEAST SALT, The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza".

    Forkish requires a heavy Dutch oven if one follows his recipes faithfully. I don't have such an oven and don't want one just to bake a loaf or two from his book. Your use of a roasting pan to create steam is one of those FREAKIN' DUH! revelations that leaves me feeling more than a little stupid.

    I can still use the baking stone and simply cover the dough with a heated roasting pan!

    Thank you!

  2. Timing is everything. I don't claim to have invented the idea, but I'm glad you stumbled upon it. If it wasn't here, it would have been elsewhere. A roasting pan over the stone won't give off the same kind of even, radiant heat as a Dutch oven, but it will keep in much of the steam, for the 10-15 minutes that the bread has its oven spring, keeping the crust moist.

    Another technique I've successfully used, as long as the oven temp is lower than 450 degrees, is to use the inner ceramic liner of a crockpot. Probably not recommended for longterm use, it gets the job done if you just want to experiment with a few recipes. They are a bit deep for scoring, but they work for Lahey-style loaves.

    Have fun!

  3. The last bread I baked I moved the stone nearer to the top of the oven and placed a heavier steam pan on the lowest rack. When the dough slid onto the stone I poured a cup of boiling water into the pan and closed the oven door quickly. (I need to wear a heavy gauntlet next time I pour water in the pan. I didn't get hurt, but it was painful enough.) Vapor blew out of the top oven vents and the loaf turned out much nicer than I've been getting using a lower oven rack to bake on.

    I still plan to use a roasting pan to cover the dough, but the one I have now just about fills the oven and is difficult to handle right side up let alone upside down.

    For the moment, I'm trying to get all the dough building techniques solidly in my head. That's requiring a lot of note writing!

    Fun is what it's about!

  4. Fun indeed, despite the steam-reddened lobster skin and singed eyebrows.
    Please be careful, and keep baking.

    Congrats on the nicer loaf.
    If you think those are the results you need, consider spending the money for a real 'la cloche' or dutch oven combo cooker.