What Epuipment Do You Need to Bake Bread?

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We get a fair amount of spam comments on this blog. Exterminators, search engine optimization purveyors and even, this morning someone promoting gossip news about Beyoncé and Jay-Z (a bit off topic for an appropriate technology blog, perhaps?).

One spam comment that came in last week fascinated me. The website had an extensive collection of bread baking how-to videos. Within a few minutes, on the first video I watched, the instructor was already selling a ton of equipment I’ve never heard of: strange $800 mixers, bread machines, dough conditioners etc. Even with the aid of all those gadgets and industrial ingredients, the instructor went on to describe a method of bread baking that involves a whole lot of unnecessary work to produce loaves that looked to me like squishy supermarket bread.

The ingredients you need to make bread are elemental in their simplicity: water, flour and salt and you can make a perfectly good loaf of bread with no equipment at all. But there are a few inexpensive pieces of equipment I like to use:

1. A digital Scale

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Measuring flour and water by volume is so inaccurate that both of the professional bakers I took classes with last year refuse to give cup equivalents in their recipes. Using a digital scale solved 90% of my bread baking problems. The scale pictured above is not the scale that I own, unfortunately. The one I have works just fine, but the OXO Good Grips Scale has a really great feature: a pull out display. This makes it easier to read the scale when you’ve got a big bowl on top of it. It’s inexpensive, and I’ve seen it for sale at my local Whole Foods. It’s also the scale we use when I teach classes at the Institute of Domestic Technology.

2. A proofing basket

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If you want to make a boule, you need a proofing basket. The one on the right is the economy option: a nine inch bowl from the 99¢ store with a piece of canvas or linen from a fabric store. The one on the left is a 8-inch Round Banneton Basket on Amazon. It works just as well as the much more expensive German bannetons I picked up at a restaurant supply store.

3. A loaf tin

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On Josey Baker’s recommendation I’ve been using a loaf pan a lot lately. It’s a lot less trouble and a lot more forgiving than trying to shape a boule. Plus you get a good sandwich loaf. The loaf pan I’ve been using is a enamelware hand-me-down that measures 8 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches.  Baker recommends one made by Chicago Metallic. I don’t like Teflon and you don’t need a non-stick pan. Use some oil and flour and your loaf shouldn’t stick.

4. A Dutch oven or combo cooker

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Mark Bittman popularized the practice of baking boules in a Dutch oven. The technique simulates the humid environment of a commercial bread oven. It works great. For years I used a regular Dutch oven. Just recently, however, I purchased a Lodge Combo cooker, essentially a Dutch oven with a skillet instead of a lid. To bake bread in it you use it upside down. It’s easier to slide a loaf of bread into the pan than it is to plop a loaf down into a Dutch oven.

These few items, plus a plastic container large enough to ferment your dough in, are all you need. If you get fanatical about baking like I have you may want to consider a mill, but that will have to be the subject of a longer post. That said, I could make a decent, rustic looking loaf with absolutely no equipment at all (except, maybe, the scale). Bread is the most elemental of foods. It can be made with just our two hands.

Worth Doing From Scratch: Corn Tortillas

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We do a lot of experimentation here at Root Simple Labs. Some things work out and others fail miserably. I thought I’d periodically look at the projects that have worked in the long term, specifically from scratch. Call this the first blog post in a sporadic series about stuff that’s easy and economical.

Now you should be suspicious of any tortilla making advice dispensed by a gabacho. Let’s just say it’s easy and the results are way better than those dry tortillas you buy at the store. Some things I’ve learned:

  • I have a cast iron tortilla press that works great but my Mexicano friends in the know suggested a wooden press.
  • Making masa from scratch is a huge amount of work and I’ve done just fine with supermarket masa harina.
  • As I like to measure dry ingredients by weight I’ve figured out that for enough tortillas for four people you need to mix 250 grams of flour with 300 grams of water.
  • Cook as many tortillas at once as you can. I can do three at a time on our stove. Cooking one at a time takes forever.

Keep a bag of masa harina around and you’ll be ready for any tortilla emergency. In just a few minutes you’ll have healthy, tasty tacos and save money.

Josey Baker’s Awesome Adventure Bread (gluten free!)

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I figured a gluten free recipe might be a nice balancing gesture after Erik’s gluten post of last Friday. We love our gluten intolerant friends, and want to feed them well.

We are also continuing our love affair with Josey Baker’s new book, Josey Baker Bread. While Erik is the Bread Master in our house, I step up to the oven sometimes, when I really want to try something.

One thing I really wanted out of this book was a loaf of what Baker calls “Adventure Bread” which by the photo looked to be trail mix in loaf form. Baker says he developed it in response to the many requests he received for gluten-free bread. Wisely, he decided that instead of trying to replicate real bread without gluten, he’d make something entirely different.

It works. It’s made of nuts, seeds and oats, moistened with oil and water and held together with chia and psyillium husks…

[Psyllium what? We'd never used psyllium seed husks before, but they are apparently used in gluten free baking to help bind ingredients--like chia, they are mucilaginous. We found them in the dietary supplement section of Whole Foods, for what it's worth. Be sure to get the husks, not powdered psyllium seed, which is a laxative.(!) ]

…No yeast. No grain other than oats. It is tasty and moist and sliceable. Better still, its easy to make! Seriously, it’s foolproof. If you have bread baking anxieties, just leave those behind. Making this “bread” is easier than making cookies.

In texture, Adventure Bread  could belong to that camp of dense Nordic/Germanic breads, like Vollkornbrot, but its nutty nature sets it apart. The only thing I don’t love about it is the pumpkin seeds–I don’t like their slippery texture so much in this context. Next time I may switch those out. I’m going camping this weekend, and am taking this “bread” with me. Now that I’ve baked it, I suspect I could take this bread and nothing else to eat, and I’d never be hungry.

Geek moment: You know how in the Lord of the Rings the Elves have a travel food called lembas? One bite will fill a man’s stomach, etc.?  When I cut the first slice of this loaf, I cut the slice in half and gave one piece to Erik. It was first thing in the morning, before breakfast. We both nibbled our halves thoughtfully, and then I said, “Well, I guess I don’t need breakfast.”  It’s that filling. It’s our lembas.

(N.B. Despite being tall and skinny, Erik has the stomach of a Hobbit and managed to eat our lembas bread and breakfast that morning. And second breakfast. And elevenses.)

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The heartiness of this bread drove me to an Internet calorie calculator to figure out how many calories I might be downing with every slice. The loaf weighed about 2lbs, 11 oz./1230 g. (I have to guesstimate because we ate a slice before I weighed it.)

Adding up the calories for all the ingredients for one loaf,  I arrived at 4974 calories. As a comparison, a plain loaf of bread made with 500 g. of whole wheat flour has about 1667 calories.

Figuring out the number of calories per gram for the Adventure Loaf, and then weighing a 1/3″ slice of the bread, I arrived at a calculation of roughly 300 calories per slice. So yeah, lembas.

But this is good! This is healthy, efficient eating. Thing is, if you eat a slice of this stuff,  and you seriously are done with food for a while. It’s not like lesser foods which you just keep eating and eating, searching for satiation. Nor is it something your stomach will burn through in an hour or so, sending you back to the kitchen for more snacks. No siree. One slice of this and you’re good to go for a long time.

For the actual recipe, I’m going to direct you to davidlevoitz.com, because he got actual official permission from the publisher to reproduce the recipe–and as a bonus, there’s also a write up on Baker himself. Scroll to the bottom for the recipe.

Update after living with loaf for a few days: I second Baker’s recommendation to serve it thinly sliced and toasted, smeared with a little something sweet. It’s best that way. But I did just get back from a camping trip with the bread, and it’s fine un-toasted. It got a little damp in the cooler, and so lost some charm, but still fed me very well. It shows no sign of getting stale, or even knowing the meaning of “stale.”

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Gluten Intolerance . . . Is It All In Your Head?

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As a co-founder of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers I go to a lot of public events where someone will walk up to me and announce that they are gluten intolerant. Their stories of getting off bread have the flavor of a religious conversion. My defensive reaction (I help run a bread club, after all) smacks of religious zealotry.

We know with a great deal of certainty that gluten intolerance in the form of celiac disease effects slightly less than one percent of the population. That actually makes it one of the most common allergies disorders related to food. But a much larger percentage of people self-diagnose as gluten intolerant who do not have celiac disease. Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the GI Unit at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, kicked the gluten intolerance self-diagnosis trend into overdrive with a 2011 study that showed a large percentage of the population (those without celiac disease) as having a problem with gluten.

Gibson decided to take another look at gluten intolerance and construct a much more rigorous study in which all the meals were provided to the subjects and all urine and feces were analyzed. An article at Real Clear Science summarizes the results:

Analyzing the data, Gibson found that each treatment diet, whether it included gluten or not, prompted subjects to report a worsening of gastrointestinal symptoms to similar degrees. Reported pain, bloating, nausea, and gas all increased over the baseline low-FODMAP diet. Even in the second experiment, when the placebo diet was identical to the baseline diet, subjects reported a worsening of symptoms! The data clearly indicated that a nocebo effect, the same reaction that prompts some people to get sick from wind turbines and wireless internet, was at work here. Patients reported gastrointestinal distress without any apparent physical cause. Gluten wasn’t the culprit; the cause was likely psychological. Participants expected the diets to make them sick, and so they did. The finding led Gibson to the opposite conclusion of his 2011 research:

“In contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.”

Nocebos, incidentally are placebos with a negative effect. If I tell you you are going to get sick there’s a good chance you will. All human beings are highly suggestible. How powerful are placebos/nocebos? A recent study showed that placebos/nocebos work even if you tell research subjects they are taking a placebo/nocebo.

What’s important to note about the nocebo effect is that it results in real physical ailments. Ioan P. Culianu, professor of divinity at the University of Chicago used to quip, when asked about the subject matter of his research (Renaissance magic and the occult), “It’s all in your head.” And then he would wink. His point? We don’t take seriously enough the life of the mind. We dismiss the placebo/nocebo effect as, “just being psychological.” And because it’s “psychological” it’s not “real.” We forget that what goes on in our heads has real world implications.

I think, many people are having a spiritual crisis as a reaction to their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the modern world and the industrial food system. This system is making us sick both physically and spiritually. This crisis is manifesting as non-celiac gluten intolerance and other real health problems. The placebo/nocebo effect was known to the Renaissance magicians that Culianu studied, such as Giordano Bruno. It’s known to all shamans and spiritual healers. It should be taken seriously.

Manipulation of feelings and emotions in realm of our minds (done everyday through advertising, by the way) can  be used for both good and bad. Bruno even wrote a treatise on the subject, De vinculis in genere (On bonding in general). But Bruno and other philosophers of his time took metaphysical matters seriously. In our modern world we value only the material, which is how our lack of awareness of the nocebo effect can get us into trouble. The only people truly aware of the power of the placebo/nocebo effect in Western culture are advertisers and they are largely black magicians. Advertisers harness the nocebo effect of our gluten fears, reinforce those feelings and then use them to sell us products we don’t need.

The nocebo effect raises some thorny questions. If I open a toxic waste dump that creates a psychological feeling of unease that in turn causes people to get sick am I a “psychological polluter?” Am I liable even if I don’t leak any toxic waste? Again, the illnesses are real and the people getting them aren’t crazy.

Back to gluten, there may still be a gastrointestinal problem with wheat, Gibson is careful to note. But he doesn’t think it’s gluten. Ever in defensive mode as a bread enthusiast, I have an unproven theory that the way we make bread may be contributing to the problem. Perhaps the pre-digestive power of sourdough cultures, ancient wheats and baking bread longer may have an effect on how our bodies process bread. But there’s no research yet to back up my idea.

As to the power of the mind, like sourdough it’s also about culture, but culture in the non-physical sense. On that note, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Thankfully we can harness the placebo effect to do a lot of good. That will have to be the subject of another post.

Josey Baker Bread: One Bread Book to Rule Them All

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I’ve been teaching bread baking for a few years now through both the Institute of Domestic Technology and the Los Angeles Bread Bakers. When students ask what book they should get I have to hold up half a dozen. Not any more. Now I can send students to just one book: Josey Baker Bread.

The appropriately named Josey Baker (who used to work with another baker named Dave Miller–who mills his own flour, naturally) has written a perfect bread baking course in book form. Everything I’ve figured out about teaching how to bake is in here–start with a simple white bread, graduate to sourdough and then start baking with whole grain. Having trouble shaping a loaf? Bake in a loaf pan instead! Stretch and fold instead of kneading. Simulate a commercial bread oven by using a cast iron pot. And use a damn scale! There’s even the browned butter chocolate chip cookie trick I learned from a friend who owns a restaurant. Has Josey Baker wiretapped my phone?

The book is written in an amusing and breezy bro-speak. Here he is truth telling in the introduction to his scone recipe,

Most scones suck. Why do they suck? Because they’re dry as hell. Don’t act like you do’t know what I’m talking about! When was the last time you had a scone and didn’t say, “I don’t know, this is just a little dry for me.” Or maybe you haven’t even had a scone in a long time, because the last one you ate was so crappy. . . Are they healthy? No, they are not. But what the hell, exercise feels good, so eat as many as you want and then go ride your bike, baker.

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My successful attempt at the Dark Mountain Rye recipe.

Speaking of healthy, I’ve been concentrating on the recipes in the sourdough-based whole grain section of the book. Like Baker, I believe that a lot of people self-diagnosing themselves as gluten intolerant might just be allergic to mass produced supermarket bread. Baker’s Dark Mountain Rye is an example of how whole grain bread should be made and it’s and easy to bake.

In addition to the conventional breads Baker covers, there’s an interesting method of baking pizza in a home oven, a gluten free loaf that I’m going to try and some simple pastries. I also like the flexibility Baker builds into the recipes. Many can either be baked in a loaf pan or shaped into a boule. And there’s always the option to retard the dough in the refrigerator to give more depth of flavor as well as flexibility in when to fire up the oven.

Josey Baker Bread will appeal to both beginners and experienced bakers. Finally the collective wisdom from the recent bread revolution is in one book. If you want healthy, good tasting bread in your household Josey Baker Bread is a great place to start.

Breadbaking (Level 1) Class at the Ecology Center

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I’m teaching a basic no-knead bread class down in the OC at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano on Saturday February 8th. To sign up head over to the event page. Here’s the 411:

Ditch the preservatives and plastic wrap. Join us and learn how to make homemade, all-natural bread from scratch. Take home fresh and ready-to-bake dough!

There was a time in the not-so distant past that the smell of freshly baked bread permeated households everywhere. Let’s revert to those wholesome days and make a difference. In this hands-on workshop, we’ll make a simple loaf using the miraculous and easy Jim Lahey no-knead recipe. Topics discuessed will include types of flour, what kind of yeast to use, how to simulate a commercial bread oven at home, hydration ratios, kitchen tools, troubleshooting, and shaping a boule. Learn simple ingredients, tools, and techniques to master this simple recipe. Participants will enjoy fresh bread and leave with dough to take home and bake!

You must bring a mixing bowl, a tupperware container to take your dough home, a digital scale (if you have one), and an apron (if you have one).

By baking bread at home, you’re in charge of what goes into every loaf and can choose to incorporate local and organic ingredients. Other benefits of baking at home include using less energy (used in harvesting, processing, and shipping store-bought bread), using less plastic packaging, and spending less money. Become a baker and join us during this heart-healthy workshop to learn how.

Instructor: Erik Knutzen

Cost is $20 for Ecology center members and $30 for non-members. The Ecology Center is located at 32701 Alipaz St. in San Juan Capistrano, California.

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:

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Recipe for the World’s Best Whole Wheat Pancake

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The last survivor, captured with a camera phone before being devoured, because we wanted to eat the pancakes more than we wanted to document them.

This morning I cooked up the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten. They were 100% whole wheat but they were so light and fluffy they tasted like they were made with white flour. And the way they were made is the beginning of a grain revolution. Here’s the secret:

  1. Use heirloom grains.
  2. Mill your own flour.
  3. Ferment for a long time with a sourdough starter.

The heirloom grain I used is Sonora wheat, probably the oldest wheat in the Americas. It’s a soft, winter wheat traditionally used for tortillas.

Recipe (based on Nancy Silverton’s pancakes)
210 grams starter
2 tablespoons maple syrup
3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder

The night before making these pancakes I take a tablespoon of mature starter and add it to 100 grams of freshly milled Sonora wheat flour and 110 grams of water. This mixture will be the 200 grams of starter you’ll use in the recipe.

The next day mix all the ingredients together, fry them up in a pan and get ready to have your pancake paradigm shifted.

New frontiers in baking
Freshly milled heirloom wheat mixed into a very wet dough and fermented for a long period with a sourdough starter is also the way that Dave Miller, a Chico California based baker, makes his bread. He takes 100% whole wheat dough, every bit as wet and gloppy as pancake batter, deftly shapes it into loaves and bakes the best bread on the west coast. The Los Angeles Bread Bakers, a group I co-founded, is hosting a sold out class with Miller later this month and I hope to share on this blog what I learn. There is increasing evidence that this method of baking results in a much healthier product.

Bread Ovens of Quebec Free e-book

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North American has two regions famous for oven building: New Mexico and Quebec. The design of the ovens of Quebec have their origin in much older French ovens. The Canadian Museum of History has posted an amazing, out of print book, Lise Boily and Jean-François Blanchette’s 1979 book The Bread Ovens of Quebec, in its entirety online. The book includes the history of the Quebec oven, how to build an oven, bread recipes and even “popular beliefs, spells, incantations, and omens” associated with ovens.

I’m really happy with the adobe oven we have in our backyard–it has produced many a tasty pizza and I look forward to having people over to give me an excuse to fire it up. Ovens, in Quebec households were associated with life itself and I understand why.

If you’re interested in more information on DIY ovens, I’d recommend The Bread Ovens of Quebec along with Kiko Denzer’s Earth Ovens and Alan Scott’s The Bread Builders (brick ovens).

If you’d like to see an oven built in the Quebec style, these folks have posted their experience of building one.

Grist & Toll: An Urban Flour Mill

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Southern California has its first flour mill in a hundred years: Grist & Toll. G &T will be milling grain grown by small farmers here in the Southwest. We’re on the verge of a grain revolution and small mills like Grist & Toll are leading the way.

Dig Grist & Toll’s Austrian grain mill and sifter:

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Rumor has it that Santa is bringing me a mini version of this mill.

Grist & Toll is open for special hours this holiday season:
Friday December 13th 12-6pm
Saturday December 14th 12-5pm
Friday December 20th 12-6pm
Saturday December 21st 12-6pm

Grist & Toll is located at 990 S. Arroyo Parkway #1 in Pasadena, California.

Stop on by and get the bakers in your life some hard to find flours. Make those holiday cookies with tasty Sonora wheat!

If you’re not in the Southern California area leave a comment with some tips on where to find interesting grains where you live . . .