Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Baking Primer - Back to Basics

For a long time now I have been considering running a series of posts that deal with all the basic ingredients and issues involved in baking. With recipes that would be examples of the topic being discussed. The point of this would be to make available recipes, advice and tips for baker's still just getting their feet wet, so to speak, in the baking world.

So without any further ado, here goes.
The most basic ingredient in all baking is, of course, flour. And by far, the most common kind of flour used in the world is wheat flour. It is used everywhere and is truly the most commonly used grain anywhere, bar none. The reason for this is the presence of gluten in wheat. Gluten, a protein that is built of web-like strands, is what gives breads its structure and shape. Gluten is found in other grains too, but none come close to the gluten content of wheat. This is, of course, a huge problem for people suffering from gluten-sensitivities and more serious conditions like celiac disease. For those people, the fact that wheat flour is literally everywhere (not just breads wheat flour is used as a thickener in most processed foods) the booming 'gluten-free' industry is a real boon. Up until recently, it was very difficult indeed to find gluten-free food.

The 'hardness' or 'softness' of wheat is a function of the protein or gluten content. "Hard' wheat is high in gluten, and therefore prized for bread baking. Typically it can have around 12% protein content. If you are baking a cake, however, you would want a much lower protein content, say around 8% to10%. We want chewy bread with crunchy crusts, but crumbly cakes after all. There are also ingredients we can add to a recipe to 'artificially' soften the recipe and produce a softer product. For instance, fat or oil, as in a cake will shorten the gluten strands.

Another way to go would be to use whole wheat flour. As the name suggests, whole wheat flour is made of wheat that has been milled but left whole. The bran, and the wheat germ are not sifted out to make 'white' flour. While the resulting product is much healthier for you, it is also much heavier in weight. This means using relatively more yeast (or longer rising times). Also, the bran, which is still in the flour tends to 'cut' the strands of gluten and holds back the rising. Usually it is better to extend the rising times and avoid the 'yeasty' flavor you get from too much yeast in a recipe. Also, since the gluten has trouble developing in whole wheat bread, typical recipes use a combination of white and whole wheat flours. Otherwise the bread is heavy or just too crumbly.

Other grains have various amounts of gluten but none like wheat. Rye flour has minimal gluten. Other flours, like rice or corn flour, have none whatsoever. Future posts will bring recipes using these flours either by themselves or in combination. I will also talk a bit about baking in a gluten-free environment. Not impossible, by any means but challenging, for sure.

Here is a recipe for a good, versatile rye bread good for sandwiches or just general purposes. it is a typical American deli-type rye bread. It uses a combination of rye and white wheat flours and extra gluten to compensate for the low protein content in the rye flour. Yum!!

Here's what you'll need:
2 Tbs butter melted
2 cups light rye flour
3 cups bread flour
2 Tbs wheat gluten
1/4oz (7g) active dry yeast
2 cups warm water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 Tbs caraway seed (optional but gives a more traditional taste)
1 Tbs molasses
2 Tbs melted butter

Here's what you'll need to do:
1. Melt butter and set it aside to cool. In the meantime grease a large bowl for the dough to rise. Then grease two large loaf pans. If you are making an 'artisan' style loaf, grease a baking sheet and sprinkle with some cornmeal.
2. Place the measured flours (not packed into the measuring cups) into a large bowl and whisk then together. Add the extra gluten and stir them together.
3.Using a stand mixer, add about 1/3 of the flour mixture, then add the flour and mix with the dough hook to make a 'soupy' kind of mixture. Finally add the rest of the flour, the yeast, the salt, molasses, the melted butter and the warm water. Add the caraway seeds now if you are using them. Mix it together to form a, elastic dough. This will take about 3 minutes at medium speed. The dough will be soft and tacky but not sticky.
4. Place the kneaded dough in the prepared bowl and let it rise until doubled in volume. This will take a while because the rye flour has only a minimal amounts of gluten.
5. Deflate the dough, gently, then form it into two free form loaves (for the baking sheet) or two loaves for the prepared loaf pans. Cover and let them rise again until doubled. The dough will now be soft and fluffy!
6. Preheat the oven to 350F (180C) and bake the loaves for about 35 minutes. The loaves will sound hollow if you tap them on the bottom. Cool them on a wire rack.


  1. I want to see your flour collection :)

    Pleeeeease tell me you're making the challah for rosh hashana!

    btw, awesome banner.

  2. Thanks. Yes. I will be bringing challah for the holiday. I have a new recipe for challah stuffed with apples I want to try. BTW, the banner is made of pics from my own bread and Photoshopped together.