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Generally Recognized As True: March 2008

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Another attempt at getting good bread from the bread machine: whole-wheat with pre-ferment

[ updates at the end of the post ]

This weekend, I planned ahead to try and make a more involved loaf of bread from the bread machine. The standard bread machine recipes are not bad. They're not good, either; although my machine's French setting produces a nice basic white loaf (though it takes 5 hours on this setting).

So, for this one, I was trying to create a better-textured and better-flavoured whole wheat loaf than the one that is prescribed by the manual. I've tried a number of personal variations on the manual recipe -- usually significantly increasing the water:flour ratio so that the loaf is not so densely-packed -- but the result is usually a little bit coarse and has a bitterness to it.

One of the ways to reduce the earthy bitterness that will be present in a good whole wheat flour is to create a pre-ferment that allows the yeast enough time to break down the starch and allow the sugars trapped within to come out. This is usually done well ahead of the time of baking -- the day before.

As a base for my experiment I used the whole wheat recipe on p. 270 of Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice". This recipe produces dough for two 1 lb. loaves, so is reasonably easy to adapt to a single 1 lb. loaf because reproducing a loaf of bread is often a matter of reproducing baker's percentages. So, here, I am essentially combining the essence of this recipe with the experience I've built up over time in trying different things with this particular bread machine. For that reason, it's important to specify the machine since every machine will have its own algorithms for resting, mixing, rising, and baking. So, for reference, I'm using a Zojirushi BB-HAC10 bread machine. This machine makes 1 lb. loaves. I got it from Golda's Kitchen.

One note before I go into more detail: baking benefits from precise measurements. If I am going to err one way or another between too dry and too wet, I usually err on the side of more liquid in the dough. But don't go too far. As a standard, for flour only, I use 128g = 1 cup.

I haven't yet seen the finished loaf or tasted any yet. It's in the machine now. It's quite exciting. I've had a look after the final rise and I think it will be OK, so I'm going to post this anyway. I'll follow-up later.

Making the soaker is quite simple: you simply mix coarsely ground grains with water and let it sit at room temperature overnight, much as you would when sprouting any other type of grain. So, here, I mixed 1/2 cup of coarsely ground corn (polenta) with just under 1/2 cup of room temperature water, covered with plastic wrap, and let soak overnight.

Sounds pretentious, but it's also quite simple: you combine some of the flour that will go into your bread with water and yeast and allow the yeast to have a pre-event party. You then let them rest so that they can enjoy the big day. To translate, mix 96g of flour with about 1/8 tsp. of instant yeast and just under 1/2 cup of tepid water. Stir everything together only until the flour is moistened, cover with plastic wrap, and let it sit at room temperature for 3-4 hours. It will start to come alive in that time (if you see the Virgin Mary in the surface texture, do not be surprised). After it's sat for the required time, put it in the fridge overnight.

Baking (main event)
About 1 hour before you start baking, get the poolish out of the fridge and just let it sit on the counter to get its temperature up a bit.

In the bread machine pan, I put about 1/4 cup of water in the bottom, scraped the soaked corn into that water, and then scraped the poolish in as well. I flattened that lot out and put 128g of whole wheat flour on top, added both 1 tbsp. of honey and 1/2 tsp. salt to one corner of the flour then made a small well in the middle of the flour, in which I put about 3/4 tsp. yeast (the idea of making a well in the flour is to keep the yeast dry until the machine is ready to mix, so keep this in mind as the goal).

I put the pan into the machine and started the regular cycle.

And here we are. I'll follow up with more later, after the baking is done.

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[ update #1 : I'll keep this posting here anyway, but be advised that the loaf collapsed near the end of rising, so this is not a good recipe. From the odours involved, I suspect too much yeast or not enough salt. This is why bread-making can be such a pain: imagine if you'd done much of the baking work by hand! Even without the baking effort, the burst bubble of anticipation can be disappointing. ]

[ update #2: after tasting a piece of the salvageable part, I think the problem is actually too much water. Perhaps it was not a good idea to add the 1/4 cup water to the pan before baking. The essence of this experiment is correct: the bitterness is gone, and the taste of both the wheat and the corn is prominent. The different flavours are very well-blended. ]