Dave Miller on Baking with 100% Whole Wheat

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My bread baking obsession has fallen into roughly three periods or phases. First came the Nancy Silverton years, when I went through her complex and not always successful recipes. Then came a period when I was too busy to bake much, so I turned to no-knead bread, dominated by Chad Robertson’s first cookbook. Results were better but I was still making white bread.

My new bread baking adventure began this weekend when I took a workshop taught by Chico, California baker Dave Miller. His breads are almost all 100% whole wheat. He mills his own flour from carefully sourced heritage grains. Using a levain (a starter), he creates loaves that foreground the flavor of the grain. In short, he shows that bread can have as much flavor diversity as wine.

Miller is a true master craftsman. He’s also a superb teacher: humble, patient and generous. He’s also convinced me to completely change the way I bake bread. Over the next few months I’m going to adapt his techniques to my home kitchen and I hope to share what I discover. In the meantime, here’s what I learned: miller2 Miller summarized bread baking as a yin and yang balance between elasticity and extensibility. Our job as bakers, Miller suggests, is to understand what gives bread its form and to shape and bake dough at the best possible moment.

Much of the weekend was spent analyzing what can go wrong and how to fix it–the causes of over-proofing, under-proofing, bad color etc. If you’re scaling ingredients, noting the temperature and controlling variables as best you can, it’s a matter of deduction to correct mistakes. It’s been my experience that after practicing with a particular bread recipe over and over again I can tell by appearance when a loaf is going to succeed or fail. The ideal bread cookbook, which has yet to be written, would have a long troubleshooting section with photos.

One fascinating detail Miller discussed was the yin and yang of levain microbiology. Levains are a symbiotic balance of natural yeasts and lactic acid producing bacteria. Temperature and feeding schedules can alter the balance between the yeast and bacteria. The longer the starter goes between feedings, for instance, the more the bacteria will dominate. Too much bacteria in the levain and you’ll get a bread that is overly sour and over-fermented (a problem I’ve been having lately). Feed the starter more often or shorten the time between the feeding and using it in a loaf, and you’ll boost the yeast and decrease the bacteria.

Some other concepts:

  • Ultimately, there is no perfect recipe for bread. Different flours, temperature, humidity, the way you shape a loaf, length of the autolyse (resting period before adding salt), qualities of the levain are just a few of the many factors. You must take notes and learn to recognize the quality of a dough and learn to adjust on the fly.
  • Whole wheat flour soaks up a lot of water. The recipes we used called for over 100% hydration.
  • Miller bakes in a hot oven to get loaves that are very dark.

With the exception of the rye bread Miller made, the wheat breads had a similar method:

  1. Starter was added to flour and water to build up a levain. This was allowed to ferment for three hours.
  2. Miller likes a long autolyse. Flour and water for the final dough were mixed and allowed to sit for at least a half hour before adding salt. This period gets the enzymes working.
  3. The final dough is mixed in a mixer for 5 minutes at the first speed and 5 minutes at the second speed (if you don’t have a mixer, Millers suggested stretching and folding, not kneading). Of course, flours will behave differently, so at all points, including the mixing, Miller uses his eye to judge when the dough appears to be worked enough.
  4. The dough sat out for around an hour and then went into a fridge set at 40-47° F overnight.
  5. The next day the dough comes out of the fridge is divided and preshaped and allowed to rest for around three hours at room temperature.
  6. The dough is shaped, put in a basket and allowed to proof for another 3 hours (depending, of course, on temperature).
  7. Once the proofing is done the dough goes into a 500° F oven for 20 minutes. The temperature is reduced to 450 degrees for the final 30 minutes. Steam is important. In a home oven I prefer baking in a cast iron pot.

A LABB member shot video of the workshop that we hope to be able to share. When that video becomes available I’ll make sure to link to it on Root Simple. The shaping method he showed us was straightforward and easy especially considering how wet the dough was.

Practice makes perfect, so I’ve got a lot of baking (and a lot of mistakes) to make in the next few months. If my results are a tenth as healthy and flavorful as Miller’s loaves I’ll be happy.

How is your baking going? What kind of loaves do you like to make?

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19 Comments

  1. I’m in the hopeful baking stage…. First loaf I made was at age 14 the milk bread out of Beard on Bread. I then went through torment baking my way through Nancy Silverton and Chad robertson’s books. I declared myself “not a baker” because precision and recipes are hard for me for some reason. I am learning through online resources and classes that it’s a lot more flexible and intuitive than I thought. Now I’m jazzed for Bread Camp!

  2. I am looking forward to your updates as you experiment with these techniques.

    I’ve been a fan of Peter Reinharts books and it was from his recipes that I learned the concepts of delayed fermentation and then in a more recent book I noticed that he started recommended more strech and fold techniques rather than kneading.

    The recipe I make that has the highest hydration is a Ciabatta bread and it is quite tricky to prepare and proof because of how wet it needs to be. However, I have been very happy with the results.

    Did Dave Miller do any 100% whole wheat ciabatta, foccacia, or enriched breads or were they all rustic styles?

  3. While I’m Gluten Free, my DH is not and I’ve gone back to bread making for him. Am following your posts to find a good balance of delicious for him and easy for me. no knead bread is of course, the easiest, am developing techniques to make that dough into several different (w/different flavors) things for variety, without overloading us with breads; ie – pizza crust, some rolls brushed with milk for a different crust and then kneading in some oatmeal for the loaf of bread itself. first thing I learned from you is letting the dough sit longer for more flavor all around what ever it is I’m making.

  4. I’d love to hear more specifics about 100% whole wheat baking. I’ve got a white flour SF-style sourdough bread pretty well worked out for my kitchen (seems about as good as, say, Boudin, to me), but I haven’t had too much success adding whole wheat.

    How is the starter maintained? I’ve been transitioning mine to whole wheat in an attempt to build up more whole-wheat-loving yeast.

    I don’t think I’ve ever broke 100% hydration but I’ve gotten close. I think this will give me inspiration to just go for it. Can you say what hydration your recipes actually called for?

    The only mixing mentioned here is in the mixer. Is there much kneading/mixing before for the autolyse? No extended kneading or stretch-and-fold periods?

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Miller uses a starter that’s around 63% hydration. Since he bakes only once a week he dries it out and then rehydrates it and feeds it a day (I think) before he uses it. He then does a three hour build of that starter to make the levain used in the final dough.

      His hydration is, believe it or not, 100% to 110% depending on the flour.

      No kneading before the autolyse–just integration. After autolyse there is 5 minutes at slow speed and 5 minutes at second speed. After that there is at least one stretch and fold depending on the flour he’s using. If you don’t have a mixer you would have to do a stretch and fold process to develop the dough since the hydration level is too wet to knead.

      It’s definitely a very different method from what I’m used to–the no-knead Tartine method. But one taste of Miller’s bread convinced me to give it a try. And we’ve got a new mill in the Pasadena area where I can source wheat berries.

  5. I am very disappointed with this post.

    This is EXACTLY what is wrong with American life today.

    Wine, cheese, bread, sushi, Internet, film, my sport, my hobby, my this, my that . . .

    Just eat good food, work hard, and find somebody to love and focus on. Why don’t we simply live responsibly and then give of our time and energies to our families, friends, and neighbors?

    Wouldn’t it better to use the time it takes for this indulgence to volunteer to make our families and communities better in any way?

    For crying out loud, why does our bread have to “have as much flavor diversity as wine”?

    • I neglected, in this post, to emphasize a number of other aspects of what Dave Miller taught us this weekend. First of all he has a deep commitment to the health of his customers. One of the things he did in class was to hold up a loaf of supermarket “whole wheat” (which isn’t really whole wheat–most of the big millers sift out a percentage of the bran and germ and add it back in the form of a vitamin tab). The other thing he did was press his finger into that supermarket loaf to show us that it was not actually cooked all the way through–that raw flour may, in fact, one of the reasons so many people have trouble digesting bread.

      Miller also supports a network of small farmers. He buys his wheat and rye in bulk. By so doing he supports a long term, sustainable, form of agriculture. These small farmers have diverse operations–many grow more than just wheat.

      Miller sells his loaves at the Chico farmers market for $5. This is half the price of fancy bakeries in big cities.

      And flavor is important. The way to get people to eat more whole grains is if they are tasty and properly prepared. You can learn to do this yourself and, essentially, bake $10 loaves for pennies. Method is important–the way bread is made also has an effect on nutritional value.

      Miller’s style of baking is part of the way we can make our communities healthier. One of the reasons we brought him to Los Angeles is that we hope that home bakers and professionals will bring his techniques to our city. Right now there is nobody in this region of 13 million people baking healthy bread like he does.

  6. I am extremely interested in your future posts on this subject, especially if you get your own grinding mill. I have been working on home ground whole wheat (about 30% sprouted) sourdough for a while. My recipes/breads are getting better and better, but I know I still have lots to learn. I upped the hydration on my bread to 100% thanks to your posts, which helped a lot. I am also planning on trying einkorn and some locally grow heirloom varieties which will change things up, I’m sure. Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned!

    • I got a mill for Christmas–the Komo–and it’s been fun so far. High hydration is definitely one of the key things. Miller mentioned, in passing, that he had some trouble with einkorn–not sure if it was what he got or einkorn in general. I’d like to try it too.

  7. We at Fillmore Farms are such fans of Dave Miller–not just his bread but him as a person! We’ve been selling our walnuts to him now for several years. He has always been a most wonderful person to deal with both professionally and personally. A huge shout out from us for Dave!

  8. Pingback: The day I asked for forgiveness from wheat | Urban Schmurban

  9. Am I mistaken or did you say that there’s a 3 hour bench rest? The first shaping is when the dough is cold. Then it slowly warms for hours on the bench, then the final shaping happens and into the proofing baskets?

  10. After the bulk fermentation, is the dough shaped when it’s cold and then rests on the bench for 3 hours before the second shaping?

  11. I have the pleasure of being able to buy bread from Dave at the Chico Farmer’s Market, as well as freshly ground flour that I pre-order. I very much admire his dedication to his craft & his ethic in business. Besides getting amazing bread, I get to support my community with my dollars & take part in my local foodshed. GO DAVE!

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