Last night I met a man. He's the new boyfriend (he's in his sixties -- is he still a boyfriend?) of a friend of mine. He's into sourdough and he's come to town with his six year old starter. He tells me he lets his dough rise in the refrigerator for four days. It's late, and as I walk him to the only open store which sells flour, he makes his bread sound pretty wonderful. I tell him I'm off wheat. "Have you read Michael Pollan's latest book?" he replies.
"Uh-no.... but I've read all his others!"
"You have to read that book," he tells me. Damn, I think. That's the book I put down in the library last summer as soon as I saw it was pro-bread. I was so happy without bread! But at the store, when this guy buys a bag of the white stuff -- plain white, fortified flour -- I buy one too.
Before bed I pull out the starter I made over the course of ten days, back before Christmas, using Mike's Sourdough Method. I didn't know Mike, just found him on the internet and he seemed to know a thing or two. That was over three months ago. I baked with the starter only once and the flour must've had a gound rock in it. There was grit in every bite and it had to be thrown away. But before I threw it, the little taste I had was quite sour and interesting. After that, I stored the starter on the middle shelf of the fridge way in the back. I feed it occasionally because my daughter Alice really wants me to make bread again. I owned a bakery way back when. We used to grind our own wheat. I know how to bake, but I was willing to leave that history behind to protect my brain and my ankles -- both of which, I figured out last year, feel the effects of wheat.
I dump half the starter down the sink then added 1/4 cup warm water and 1/2 cup of the white flour and leave it covered in plastic wrap on the counter. Then I put on my pajamas, download Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, and read through a lot of the introduction before falling asleep.
Woke up at 6:30 and fed the sourdough right after the cat. It had doubled in size overnight (the starter not the cat). I added 1/2 cup warm water and a full cup of white flour. It's now in a bigger, clear glass bowl with plastic wrap stretched over the top. It has found the space in my brain that cares for living things. I won't forget to feed it. Who was I kidding? That sourdough has been waiting since December. No, I hadn't read Pollan's book, but I have been following sourdough in the news. And is it a coincidence that today I was greeted with this article at the top of my Twitter feed: What If Everything You Knew About Grains Was Wrong? (You should definitely read it now.)
After an hour the starter is bubbling.
Have decided to skip right to Part lll of Pollan's book -- the bread making part.
Fed the starter again at 8:00 pm, by 9:00 it's almost doubled in size and I have to dump some down the sink so I don't wake up to an over-flowing bowl.
The bread guy came to my house today to teach me his sourdough-bread-making-in-a-bag technique. I had fed my starter again in the early a.m. and it was ready to go.
In an 18X22 in. clear plastic bag we poured about a kilo of flour, about a quarter of which was whole wheat. (That's 6 cups of white flour plus 2 cups of whole wheat, but we just used the kilo bag that the flour came in as a measure and guestimated the portion of whole wheat.) I saved the kilo bag because for traveling, I can just fold it up -- easier than packing measuring cups! Note: This is to make 2 loaves of bread.
We added about 2 T. of sea salt, then shook the bag so the dry ingredients were fairly evenly distributed, then we rolled the top of the bag down and sat it on the counter like a bowl and added about 1/3 cup of my starter. I say about because we just used a big serving spoon and the starter was gloppy, and my baker friend said we didn't need to be precise, and I'm happy with that. Then we added just under 3 cups of water. We started with 2 cups, then added more after a few minutes of kneading the bread from the outside of the bag.
What's cool about this technique is it's very tidy, no floured kitchen counters or tables so it lends itself to tiny kitchens. After the flour was evenly moist and had started to form into one mass, we loosely twisted the bag shut, leaving space for the dough to expand, and put it in the fridge where it's supposed to rise for four days... Today is Friday and the idea is to bake on Tuesday. We will see! Bread friend also left me a small amount of his six-year-old starter which I fed with whole wheat flour and water. He said to give it three days of sitting on the counter to let it do its thing.
Last night I met an agronomist from UNAM who tracks the agricultural land uses of the region. I asked her about wheat production here and she said wheat was a bigger crop locally until recently because the price has fallen. But she said the bread that she'd had from locally grown wheat really tasted special. So now I'll be on the lookout for wheat berries in the market. I do have a grinder...
Grinding it myself is the only way that I'll be sure I have a truly whole grain product. One problem with wheat labels is that you don't know if you're getting the wheat germ in the product or not. Whole wheat can just mean white flour with the bran added back in. But it's the germ that has the protein and nutrients. And then there's the whole problem with the way it's ground and the fact that heat generated by most grinding methods can destroy so many nutrients that nutrients have to be added back in. Thank you, but I'd rather get the nutrients from the grain itself. Here's a very complete article about the problems of processed wheat and the benefits of whole grain from whfoods.org : HEALTH BENEFITS: Wheat -- the Whole Truth.
I was growing impatient to get on with the bread making, so I decided to just whip up some sourdough this evening using this recipe: San Francisco Sourdough. I turned it into 8 large rolls which will be ready to bake around 9:00 tomorrow morning, at which point I'll have taken the dough in the bag out of the fridge. So tomorrow there ought to be a couple of breads to compare.
But there's a problem. The whole wheat I bought has sand in it! Must be the same batch of whole wheat I bought before Christmas. I will be buying elsewhere in the future, but for now I have a lot of dough made with sand!@#$%*!. At least the doughs are only 20% and 25% whole wheat, not like the last time when I made 100% whole wheat and it was so sandy each taste had to be spit out....
I expect learning to make good sourdough bread to be a process, I don't have high hopes for what will be coming out of the oven tomorrow anyway, so I'm not too upset, just annoyed.
Now I'm beginning to feel like a baker. Woke up at 6:30, slightly earlier than usual, checked the rolls rising on the counter and saw they'd tripled in size. I figured I could have them baked in time to send Alice to school with one. Wouldn't it be nice for the family to wake up to the smell of baking bread!
Here in Mexico I have a gas stove and the numbers on the dial are in centigrade and the settings are in ranges: 200-175º is the low setting (175º centigrade is just under 350º) and then there's a setting called Max which I think is about 500º, but I'm not sure any of this is particularly accurate and besides I'm at 6000 ft. altitude which changes things anyway, so I'm just going to have to experiment and use my nose and tap with my fingers to figure out when the bread is baked.
Although I've made a lot of mistakes with this batch, Alice did walk to school with a warm roll in her hand, so at least that goal was accomplished. But here were the problems:
- The bread had sand in it, not making it inedible, but obviously that's highly-undesirable.
- It's not particularly sour -- maybe a 1 on a 3pt. scale.
- The top didn't brown, though the crust was nice and hard -- I sprayed water on the rolls at least three times during the last 15 minutes or so in the oven.
Back in December I made Alice knead the dough because I was so averse to having any wheat contact, but last night I really got into the feel of it. The recipe called for kneading the dough for 15-20 minutes. The contact brought me back to my three years as a baker as did getting up this morning and going right to the baking.
I used to get up at 4:30 to have my bakery open at 5:00. Probably my fondest memory of that time goes like this: In the winter of 1987 I would get up, bundle my new born baby boy into his Babybag which was like a papoose with legs, strap him in a car seat in our Subaru and drive the two miles through dark and unplowed-snow to my little freezing bakery. I'd turn on the heat and fire up the ovens, nurse the baby and put him, still bundled up, into his wind-up swing where he'd go back to sleep while I started the drip coffee makers and mixed the first batches of dough -- eight-grain, anadama, and cinnamon raisin -- in the Hobart, then put them in big buckets in the proofer. After that, other bakers and customers would arrive and the day got stressful in any number of ways. But that first hour or so of just being a mother and a baker was heaven.
Health note: Woke up at 5am to use the bathroom. Normally I would've fallen right back to sleep until 7:00. At least that's my recent normal sleep pattern -- I sleep GREAT! But today I couldn't fall back asleep. Can I blame the bread I ate baked and ate yesterday? Possibly. Otherwise, I feel great.
Yesterday I baked three batches of sourdough bread. The first batch was made with my own starter. I mixed the dough in the evening and shaped it into rolls. They rose for about 12 hours, then I baked them. The rise and crumb were very good. The crust was fairly thick and crunchy, but not as brown as I'd like it. Would've called them an excellent first attempt but there was sand in the whole wheat flour.
Then I baked the bread dough that had been sitting in the refrigerator for four days in a plastic bag. It had a much sourer, fuller flavor -- 2.5 on a scale of 3. I shaped two round loaves and cooked them directly on ceramic tiles I had placed on the bottom of the oven. The oven started out as hot as it would get, then I turned it down. It took an hour for the loaves to be done. Parts of the bottoms were burned. I learned later that I should've had the tiles on the oven rack, not on the floor of the oven. Still the rise, crumb, and crust were pretty good. Too bad there was sand in the whole wheat (this bread was 20% whole wheat).
Because of my bad luck with the sand, my girl-friend and her new baker/boyfriend let me have half of the dough they had rising in a bag in their refrigerator. I walked over and picked it up, we chatted for quite awhile, and by the time I walked home it didn't seem wise to put the dough back in the refrigerator. I used the same steps as I had with my bread, only I put the tiles on the rack. I was meeting my husband at a movie, so I may have sped up the process too much.... I didn't get the rise that I did out of the first two batches. But the flavor was excellent, and there was no sand! Also, I broke off a little piece of that dough raw and blended it with some new flour and water, and this morning it's bubbling away. So I have a good new 6 year old starter as well as my own starter!
My next goals are to find some wheat berries and make my own whole wheat flour, so I can be sure that the flour I'm using has the wheat germ -- the most nutritious part, still in it, and that it's as fresh as can be when I bake it. I want to make a bread that's at least 50% whole grain. I just started a 7 week diabetes course offered on Coursera by the University of Copenhagen and it's convinced me more than ever not to let my family eat non-whole-grain bread! If you ask me, white bread and commercial "wholewheat breads" are as much a cause of diabetes as Coca-Cola.
Add about 2 T. of sea salt, then shake the bag so the ingredients are fairly evenly distributed.
Roll the top of the bag down and sit it on the counter like a bowl. Add about 1/3 cup of sourdough starter and 2 cups of water. Unroll the top of the bag and begin kneading the bread from the outside. After a few minutes of kneading, add up to another cup of water. Continue to knead until the dough starts to come together. Once you're pretty sure all the ingredients are well mixed and there is no flour that hasn't made contact with water, loosely twist the bag, leaving room for expansion, and store in the refrigerator.
After these two balls have risen again for about 45 minute to an hour they are pressed out again and then formed into the finished loaf shape and left to rise one more time (covered). This is the final rise prior to cooking.
|My nifty hand grinder -- It clamps to the kitchen table. You|
pour the berries (that's what's in the bag) in the top. The white
bowl is catching the flour.
Even without reading Pollan's book, I had decided that this time I was going to start with a ratio of 50% whole wheat : 50% white flour and only replace white flour with whole grain after perfecting each ratio. Today's bread and rolls had excellent rise and I think they could've risen longer if I'd let them, so I'll move on to a larger ratio of whole wheat for the next batch.
Truly, today's rolls were one of the most successful things I've ever baked, taste-wise. And it was great timing to have my new sourdough bread friend show up just as the bread was about to come out of the oven. He agreed that the flavor was excellent! The crumb was quality too.
This afternoon, I went back to the mercado and bought three more kilos of wheat berries. It's going to be hard for me not to start another batch of dough tonight, which means tomorrow I'm going to have to start giving bread away...
DAY 10 - A SETBACK
Yesterday was pretty great from a baking perspective. I hadn't expected to get such great-tasting high-lofting sourdough rolls (the bread loaf was slightly less successful) so fast. And it was interesting to me how filling they were. I think that's the whole grains at work! Throughout the day I ate five rolls with little bits of butter. They were about 2inX2in -- small dinner roll size. Other than that I ate some veggies and rice around noon, a slice of turkey breast, some fermented carrot and cucumbers for comida (around 3:00), and snacked on raisins, apples, and peanuts during the evening while I caught up on my nutrition class.
In the morning I went for a mile run in the park, but other than walking to the market, that was the extent of my exercise.... Still I was tired by 9:30 and went to bed. I woke up twice to pee, the second time, figuring it was almost morning, I fed the cat, and when I went back to bed I couldn't fall back to sleep. I kept thinking about a baby shower I'm planning to throw in June, three months from now. Were the dates right? Could I count on having it outside? What if people were on vacation already?... As I mentioned before, I usually sleep great, so I took note that this kind of night angst was not usual for me except when I drink too much alcohol and I hadn't had any alcohol. I decided I might as well get up and greet the day. I wondered if I would wake my husband up if I started to grind wheat in the kitchen... I got up and checked the time. It was 1:15 am. That's when I knew I had a problem. I was sure it was the wheat. I borrowed a little sleep aid from the pharmacy drawer, and went back to bed. At 7:30, I woke up feeling fine.
When my bread friend visited yesterday he asked me if the bread was effecting me in any funny way, and I had said, it's too soon to tell. He commented that the dough of the rolls we were testing had fermented for only fifteen hours. He mentioned that that was probably enough time to break down the gluten and gliadin, but he wasn't positive. Hmmmm... I'd say not. So I'm going to keep on with this experiment, but only with bread that ferments in the refrigerator over a number of days. The next bake will be Sunday, with dough fermented four days. Today, Friday, I'll start another batch with a greater whole wheat to white flour ratio. That will be ready for baking next Tuesday. After those two batches I should know more about whether I can/want to tolerate sourdough bread or not. My son (that baby who used to accompany me to my bakery predawn back in the 80's and who has totally given up wheat) suggested that five rolls might have been a lot for a first foray back into wheat.... Okay, point taken. Today, one slice, and no more.
Meanwhile, I want to discuss an interesting lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig from UCSF that I heard last night as part of my UCSF Coursera Nutrition class. He spoke to us about the importance of fiber. Really more than the importance -- the absolute necessity of fiber to health. His point is that we really need to eat foods that have their own natural fibers intact, both soluble and insoluble. The insoluble fiber, the stringy part, forms a lattice work, and the soluble fiber, the gel-like portion, fills in the holes of the lattice and together they line the intestine preventing nutrients from leaving the gut too fast. They actually help the nutrients continue along the intestine until they get to the beneficial bacteria which absorb a percentage of them and the calories that go with them, saving us from having to burn those calories ourselves -- (thank you bacteria!). (Unfortunately, he totally shot down smoothies, saying the blender cuts the fiber to smithereens.) "Eat the fruit, don't drink juice," is his advice.
Lustig's talk goes hand in hand with what I learned from Michael Pollan's visit to the Hostess factory to see how Wonder breads are made. (This should be mandatory reading for anyone who eats too much bread.) Wonder breads, the white and the various whole wheat versions, are without wheat fiber. It has been replaced by cottonseed, wood pulp, and other non-wheat fibers. Lustig points out that added fiber doesn't do us any good. "You can't add insoluble fiber to foods, just soluble, but you need both to work together."
I'm happily back to grinding my own whole wheat today!
Pulled half the dough out of the bag that's supposed to be fermenting for 4 days, a day early. It just wasn't doing much in the bag... it didn't do much when I let it sit on the counter and come to room temperature either. So I've got some rolls that would've been good if I'd paid more attention to Mike's directions about starter. As they are, they'd make pretty good ammunition if your fort was being stormed. Darn! It turns out, you really want to be sure your starter is doubling after each feeding. And that's particularly true, of course, if you're going to use more whole grains, because that's a bigger load for the starter to lift.
What should I do with the rest of the dough in that bag? I think it might make a decent pizza crust...
Meanwhile, I've taken 1/4 cup of the six year old starter I was gifted, out of the fridge, and I'll be feeding it over the next few days -- until it's doubling in size between feedings -- before I create another batch of dough. Go starter!
Perhaps I was too hard on myself. Alice's friend had one of the aforementioned rolls, declared it delicious and askd her where we bought them. "Oh, my mother made them..." said Alice, like it happens every day... I sent said friend home with four rolls. The flavor is good because the wheat was fresh ground. That does make a difference! And relative to industrially made bread? Well there's no comparison.
Later in the day I rolled out pizza dough and made a chunky tomato and onion topping with dried oregano and fresh basil and thyme. On top of that I put Oaxaca cheese. It's hard to slice the pizza, but it tastes damn good hot and cold.
Ground more flour this morning to make more dough once I'm sure my starter is plenty feisty. And this afternoon I took half the refrigerator dough out... it's been fermenting in the bag for only three days but has risen much better than the last batch. It's wetter. It's made with 5 cups of freshly ground wheat to 3 cups white flour and I used 1/2 cup of starter. It takes about 2 hours to rise each time I deflate it. But it does rise. Patience is key.
My sourdough mentor sent me this article today: Fermented Wheat Protein and Gluten Intolerance. It's about why sourdough bread may be okay for those with gluten sensitivity. Here's an excerpt:
It is not wheat itself that is problematic for celiacs, nor is it even gluten, strictly speaking. The offending protein is actually a small portion of the gluten protein known as gliadin. A specific sequence of amino acids in this protein triggers an immune response in gluten intolerant individuals, and that is the basis of celiac disease and several other forms of gluten sensitivity. The other protein present in the gluten molecule, glutenin, is believed to be relatively harmless to celiacs.
In theory, if these few amino acids could be altered, gluten protein could be rendered harmless to celiacs. Too good to be true? Maybe not. A 2004 study published in the academic journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology found long-duration fermentation of sourdough bread resulted in a product significantly more tolerable to celiac patients than untreated bread.
Last week my girlfriend asked me, "what does your family think of all this... this experimenting you do with food?"
I had to laugh. Basically they think I'm crazy, do a lot of eye-rolling, and are grateful when I turn out a good dish. I do try to keep their preferences in mind -- my husband doesn't like mushrooms, so I chop them up tiny; Alice loves corn... any dish with a liberal amount of roasted corn goes down pretty well unless there's cilantro in it. I substitute parsley for cilantro and one way or another, I get a lot of vegetables into everybody and they surreptitiously supplement with junk food and I choose not to notice. All that said, they are definitely supportive of my renewed interest in bread baking. "Please don't ever get out of this phase, Mom," said Alice last night as she started into her second sourdough roll. And this morning I got up to find that the kitchen had been cleaned by my husband last night, so well that it looked like an operatory. All the better for today's experiments with sourdough.
Before I got up today, I had an epiphany: the 4-Day Bread in a Bag recipe, as written, will not work for my home-ground wheat. It has too many rises in it. Thinking about what Michael Pollan figured out -- that the bran in real whole-wheat cuts the gluten -- I understood why yesterday's dough, which had looked so promising when I removed it from the fridge, lost its oomph by the time it had been pressed down three times and eventually shaped into rolls. Not that my family cared -- the rolls tasted awesome -- but they're not going to win any prize at the county fair.
So today I took the dough out of the fridge (it's been in a bag in there for four days), deflated it, and shaped it into a long log, with as little handling as possible. I cut it into 16 pieces and I've made two pans of rolls -- one has 9 rolls (3x3 in a square pan) and one has 7 rolls (in a round pan). The pieces are spaced so they don't touch and I covered them. That was at 7 am. So now I'll wait -- all day if necessary -- and when they're touching, I'll bake them...
Well, that didn't work. They spread out and touched, but never rose. I baked them and they're tasty, but flat and stupid looking. So back to the drawing board.... I mixed up a new batch of dough, same proportion of whole wheat to white (5 cups to 3 cups), but this time I'm using a full cup of starter (I used 1/2 cup for that last batch). It's all in a bag in the fridge for at least 3 days. After I mixed that batch I retired the 6 year old starter to the fridge and took out my own starter. I'll be feeding it for a day or two and then I'll start a batch with it.
Alice and Geoff continue to be pleased and encouraging.
It's 4:30 pm and I've just ground some whole wheat to mix up for baking tomorrow. Here's my recipe:
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cup white flour
1/4 cup starter
1 tsp. salt
1 1/4 cup water
Using starter I had had out for a few days and was very active (although I did put it back in the fridge yesterday after I fed it), I whisked the starter before I measured it then put it in a bowl and whisked it with 1 1/4 cup of water and the whole wheat flour and salt. Then I added the white flour and stirred it together with a wooden spoon. It was pretty wet and barely holding any shape when I turned it out on my floured kneading surface. I kneaded it for ten minutes or so, incorporating probably another 1/2 cup of flour. Note: It's easier to handle very wet flour if your hands are wet. Now it's resting for 1/2 an hour. I'll let it rise in a bowl until tomorrow morning, then deflate it, shape it and let it rise again. At least that's the plan for now!
Update: this doesn't work. The bread still doesn't rise well, even with all that extra starter and the taste is too sour (Alice and I both agree). I'm beginning to conclude that a 50/50 whole wheat to white ratio is the best I can do...
DAY 16 -- Experiment Halted Due to Brain Fog and Depression
So with rolls rising on the counter, a big batch of dough fermenting in a bag and two different starters lurking behind it in the refrigerator, I’m quitting wheat once again. FOR ME, fermentation with sourdough does not mitigate the harmful effects of wheat on my brain. I have also had two stomach aches – highly unusual for me -- and as I type, my fingers are stiffer than normal. But most important, I am depressed, and it’s not because I couldn’t figure out how to make sourdough bread. That mission was accomplished. But am I pleased with myself? Nope. I'm feeling too down and foggy to care.
RESOURCES FOR FOLLOW-UP ON MICROBES/GLUTEN/WHEAT:
The cultivable human oral gluten-degrading microbiome and its potential implications in coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity.
If you don't know anything about the rise in celiac disease and gluten intolerance, you really must read: What Really Causes Celiac Disease by Moises Velasquez-Manoff (His book An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases is awesome too.)