Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rustic Country Loaf, version 2.0

If you’re reading this blog from New England, you’ve probably experienced a touch of snow these past few weeks. And by touch, I mean several feet. It's certainly been a long and snowy winter, and I'm counting down until the first day of spring. In the meantime, I've been cooking batch after batch of hearty soup to keep warm.

French Onion Soup. Celeriac and Pear Soup. Creamy Beet Soup. Potato-Leek Soup. Celeriac and Lentil Soup. Roasted Winter Vegetable Soup. Cream of Celery Soup. Roasted Tomato Soup.

Accompaniments have been anything from oyster crackers to pomegranate seeds to whipped creme fraiche with chives.

But really. What goes better with hot soup than fresh hot bread, smeared in butter?

So, once again, I bring you bread.

Previously, I baked a country loaf with two types of flour: all-purpose flour and bread flour. This new country loaf contains three types of flour: bread flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour. I’ve never baked with rye or whole-wheat flour before, and I was curious about the differences between these new flours.

Let’s start with the basics.

Flour is the ground, sifted meal of a variety of grains. Some grains are termed “hard” while others “soft”. Regardless, each individual grain contains bran, germ and starchy endosperm, but not all flours contain all components. Whole-wheat flour contains all three parts, giving it an extraction rate of 100% - it contains all of the available meal in the grain. White flour only contains about 72% of the available meal as it excludes the bran and the germ.

Flour also differs by the method it is ground. Steal-ground flour is crushed with giant steel rollers. This process generates a large quantity of heat, which strips away the wheat germ and all the vitamins and enzymes within the germ. Therefore US and UK laws require the flour to be enriched.

Stone-ground flour is crushed with two slowly moving stones. This process doesn’t strip away vitamins and minerals, producing a more nutritional flour that doesn’t require enrichment.

A third difference is sifting. After milling, flour is sifted different amounts to produce different textures ranging from powder fine to thick and course. This is important to consider as the texture of the flour greatly effects the texture of the end product. That’s why super fine cake flour is used to bake tender cakes and pastries.

A fourth difference is bleaching. The purpose of flour bleaching is mostly aesthetic. Bleaching flour is just like bleaching any other material- it creates a pure white flour. This is desirable when baking an item you wish you to be pure white. However, bleaching agents also degrade some proteins in the flour and even produce a bitter aftertaste. It's usually best to bake with an un-bleached flour.

On final difference between flours is gluten content. Gluten is the protein found in the wheat seed, and the amount varies between grain varieties. Gluten is responsible for giving dough its elasticity and ability to rise. Therefore, it's important have a flour with a high gluten content if you wish to create a light and airy loaf.

Here’s a look at the four flours I baked with recently:

All-purpose flour is your standard baking flour. It contains a mixture of high-gluten wheat and low-gluten, excluding the bran and what germ. All-purpose flour is bleached or un-bleached.

Bread flour is an un-bleached flour containing hard-gluten wheat and a small amount of malted barley, which improves yeast activity. Due to its high content of gluten, it is used in yeasted breads to create a stretchy dough and a light loaf by trapping a large amount of air as the dough rises .

Whole-wheat flour contains the germ from the grains, which imparts more flavor, nutrition and fiber to the flour. It also contains more fat, which means it is subject to going rancid, and should therefore be stored in the fridge to prevent spoilage.

Rye Flour is milled from a grass cereal and contains far less gluten than all-purpose or whole-wheat flour. Therefore rye flour doesn’t produce a well-risen airy loaf unless high-gluten flour is added to the dough. Rye flour is commonly used to bake sourdough and pumpernickel breads.

And now you know a little more about different flour types commonly used in bread, and I’m ready to get on with this second rustic country bread! This recipe is adapted from Baking Illustrated, and it produces one large, round loaf.

½ teaspoon instant dry yeast
1 cup water, room temp
1 cup bread flour
1 cup whole-what flour

3 ½ cups bread flour
½ cup rye flour
1 1/3 cups water, room temp
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons salt

To make the starter:
1. Dissolve the yeast in the water in a medium bowl. Add the flours and mix until a stiff dough is achieved. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for at least 5 hours, or preferably overnight.

To make the dough:
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, add the flours, water, sponge and honey. With the dough hook, knead the dough at lowest speed until the dough is smooth, roughly 15 minutes. Add the salt in the final 3 minutes.

2. Transfer the dough to a large oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit at room temp for 2 hours or until the dough is tripled in size.

3. Lightly flour your work surface and turn the dough out. Gather the dough into a smooth ball by pulling the dough from the sides and gathering at the bottom. Place the dough smooth side down in a large colander lined with a well-dusted tea towel. Leave for one hour, or until the dough is doubled in size.

4. Meanwhile place an oven rack in the lower middle part of the oven and place a baking stone/sheet on the rack. Place an empty brownie pan on the rack directly below. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

5. Cover the back of a large baking sheet with parchment paper and invert the dough onto this sheet. Remove the linen on top of the dough and cut a large X on top of the loaf with a razor blade.

6. Slide the dough and the parchment below off the baking tray onto the baking stone/tray in the oven. Pour three cups of water into the tray on the bottom. Bake about 35-40 minutes, until the loaf is browned and an instant read thermometer inserted into the bottom reads 210 degrees.

7. Turn the oven off and open the door, but leave the bread inside for an additional 10 minutes. Remove and cool the loaf on a cooling rack until room temperature, about 2 hours.


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