I was looking over asmartmouth.com and I just can’t believe we have never posted a yeast bread in the history of the blog. It seems impossible to me. Bread baking is such an intrinsic part of my life. I have been baking my own bread since I was 16, not all the time, but often. In recent history I don’t think that I have bought a loaf of bread in the last two years. We always bake our own. Last Christmas Matt and Anjuli gave me my own flour mill so now I can even grind my own flour. If I had the land I would probably grow my own grain.
I love to bake my own bread, grind my own flour and knead my own dough by hand. The more hands on the process, the better, as far as I am concerned. There is something so elemental about baking bread, so peaceful and life giving. Did you know that in ancient Egypt bread was a form of currency? They had their priorities straight!
About a year ago I read Sally Fallon’s controversial book, called Nourishing Traditions. In a nutshell, she explains the science behind why Grandma knew best, or perhaps, Great Grandma. That techniques used before the Industrial Revolution were far superior nutrition-wise; nowadays the processed food most of us eat is damaging to our health. She talks about bread and cooking with whole grain. We all know that whole grain is better. But did you know that it is far better to soak your whole grain overnight before starting to assemble your dough? For those who are curious about the why, read on. Otherwise, skip the history and science lesson and let’s make some bread.
On grains and soaking
Grains, albeit in smaller quantities, have been a part of our diet for a very long time. There is evidence that our hunter gatherer ancestors were foraging for grain as early as 19,000 years ago. Rice grew in the hot, humid parts of the world, wheat and oats in the temperate areas, maize in the New World and barley and rye where it was cold. These wild grains were ground, parched on hot rocks and heated in the fire to remove their husks.
A whole grain is made of a germ, bran and endosperm. White flour is predominantly endosperm. According to A History of Food, along with scrubbing our modern white flour of its germ, we’ve also lost 75% of the mineral salts, 35% of fat, 10% of protein, 50% of vitamin E and 75% of vitamin B. When we removed the bran, which contains all of the fiber in the grain, we also wound up engineering a carbohydrate that can be digested quickly with up to 90% assimilation. While this sounds all well and good, our digestion is not suited for these simple sugar spikes. Fiber keeps our digestion healthy; it adds bulk and serves as fodder for the good bacteria in our intestines. White flour, lacking any fiber, has been linked to all sorts of diseases.
While those of us who eat whole grains would like to think that the “white stuff” is mostly a modern invention, we’ve been debating flour colors for a long time. People have been sifting flour as far back as Egyptian times, and grading it both on texture and color. Many cultures valued white, fine flour over the coarser brown kind. Until the end of the second century BCE, and the rise of master Greek bakers, grinding grain was done in the home. With the introduction of mills, people no longer needed to grind their own grain. However, whole grains were never as removed from the general population as they are today. While mills had been around for a few centuries, it was not until the Industrial Revolution that we engineered a grain which could stay on the shelf without going rancid but by removing the fatty germ (and most of the bran). And white bread was born.
These days, it has become common knowledge that whole grains are healthier than refined white flour. But just switching to whole grains isn’t enough. Whole grains, legumes and nuts contain phytate (the salt form of phytic acid, the principal storage of phosphorus) and enzyme inhibitors, both considered anti-nutrients. Phytate binds with iron, zinc, and to a lesser extent calcium and magnesium in the body and prevents their absorption. So not only can we not readily absorb the phosphorus in whole grains, by consuming them our body can also be robbed of other important minerals.
Many of what we consider anti-nutrients are simply a plant’s natural defenses to protect its seeds from being eaten or from sprouting when conditions aren’t optimal. Plants generally need warmth, a slightly acidic environment, moisture and some time to sprout. Of course animals, like ourselves, are drawn to fatty, starchy grains; just as the germ of grains have everything the baby plant needs to survive, it also has many beneficial nutrients for humans.
As Sally Fallon points out, ruminants are primed for digesting tough plants. In addition to having four stomachs to our one and longer intestinal tracts they, unlike us, have the enzyme phytase in their guts which allows them to break down phytate and release phosphorus for absorption. Not to mention the fact that they stand around most of the day chewing their cud.
So how do we reduce the amount of phytic acid while increasing the amount of whole foods in our diet? We do what people have been doing for ages: we soak our grain in an acidulated solution for 12 to 24 hours. Fermenting and sprouting are also excellent ways to make grains more digestible.
Before the introduction of modern instant yeasts and the onset of our quickbread mania, we soaked and fermented grains. In the pre-industrialized world people had a greater respect and connection with their grains. Over millennia of trial and error, people organically developed techniques that made the most of grains. In Europe and the Americas we used sourdough and other starters to make breads; in India idlis and dosas were made of fermented rice and lentils; in Mexico corn was soaked in many preparations.
Using warm, slightly acidulated water activates phytase (the enzymes which breaks down phytate), thus neutralizing phytic acid. It also activates certain enzymes (by deactivating their inhibitors) which go to work breaking down hard-to-digest proteins, like gluten, for easier assimilation and also increasing important vitamins (especially B vitamins). This acid can come from foods like kefir, buttermilk, yogurt, whey or lemon juice.
That said, you should also know that phytate has antioxidant properties, and, like every other antioxidant at one point, has been placed on the list as a chemical for cancer prevention. It has been known to reduce oxidative stress on the digestive tract, have anti-inflammatory affects and slow blood glucose. So when it comes to food and science, it’s important to seek balance and not simplify foods or chemicals into terms such as “good” or “evil.” Too much phytic acid can cause mineral depletion but some is OK.
Suffice to say, soaked grain is more digestible and, in a yeast bread, it responds more like white flour, making a higher, lighter, more tender loaf than you would have thought possible with totally whole grain.
A word about yeast
Recently I have been reading The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. He was not only a professional baker for many years but he now teaches bread baking at Johnson & Wales University. His book is a treatise on bread. I have learned so much more about the science behind the art of bread making. For the longest time, I have been buying instant yeast from King Arthur’s Flour. There are 2 types, SAF Gold and SAF Red. I already knew Gold was used for the heavier breads that contain eggs, raisins, sugar, etc. and Red for normal, everyday bread. What I discovered from Peter Reinhart was that the Gold is a different strain of yeast, called osmotolerant, grown specifically for use in breads that are very acidic or sweet. For this recipe, because of the eggs and raisins, I used Gold.
A Word about whey
Whey is what is leftover from milk or cream when you separate the curds while making cheese or butter. We use two tablespoons whey per loaf of bread when we are soaking grain to make the batter slightly acidulated. You could also use buttermilk, kefir, yogurt or lemon juice. Keep in mind, though, that lemon juice won’t have the added benefit of all that good bacteria.
Enough about all these technicalities, let’s make some bread.
Spelt Raisin Bread Makes 2 5 x 9 loaves
1 cup raisins
6 cups whole spelt flour
1 1/2 cups cold water
1/4 cup whey
5 teaspoons SAF Gold Instant Yeast (If using active dry yeast use 2 packets)
4 tablespoons ghee
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
3 – 3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
Note: all the above ingredients were organic
Soak the raisins. In a large glass or ceramic bowl, add the raisins and the water. Let soak for 15 minutes.
Soak the grain. Add the spelt flour and whey to the raisins and water. Mix well until thoroughly combined. Put a plate on top of the bowl and let it soak overnight.
Make the dough. Next day, mix in all the remaining ingredients except the whole wheat flour. Stir well until thoroughly combined. Stir in 1 cup of whole wheat. Add more whole wheat until it is hard to stir. Turn out on a board floured heavily with more of your whole wheat. I use a bench knife in the beginning to turn in some of the flour. Then when I have incorporated enough so I can handle it I start kneading with my hands until the tough is slightly tacky, not sticky, 8 – 10 minutes.
Let the dough rise. Grease a large bowl with ghee or butter. Roll you dough around in the bowl to get a thin film of the fat. Cover with a damp dish towel and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.
Form the loaves. Gently squeeze the dough to remove the air and divide in half. Shape each life into a log. Place in 2 greased 5 x 9 inch loaf pans. Cover with a damp kitchen towel and let rise until crested over the top of the pan by 1 1/2 to 2 inches, about 1 1/2 hours. In the last 15 minutes of this second rise preheat the oven to 375 F.
Bake the bread. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until an instant read thermometer registers 190 F or until you thump the loaf on the bottom and it feels a little hollow. I usually turn the loaves after 25 minutes for even browning.
Cool and store. Remove to a wire rack. You can paint the top of the loaf with ghee or butter. Let the loaves cool completely before storing. I wrap one in wax paper and then aluminum foil and freeze. The other I keep on the counter in a bread box. This bread makes wonderful sandwiches and great toast.