Josey Baker on Bread: Whole, Wild, Wet, Slow and Bold


You can make bread or babies with Josey Baker’s advice. Earlier this month, the bread cult I co-founded, the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, hosted a class by author and enthusiastic bread nerd Josey Baker. Baker and his mentor Dave Miller (yes, they do have oddly appropriate surnames) have developed a style of baking that Josey has turned into set of five principles, a kind of Kama Sutra of bread: whole, wild, wet, slow and bold. Let’s get funky and break that down.

To make white flour, all the good stuff in wheat is sifted out, leaving it lifeless. Even “whole wheat” breads are made with a significant proportion of white flour. It’s been this way now for a long time. White flour, once the exclusive domain of the elite became, in the 20th century, the ubiquitous loaf of Wonder Bread many of us grew up with.

And what about that whole grain flour at the supermarket? Imagine if the only wine available in stores was wine-in-a-box, and it came in two flavors, “white” and “red.” This would be a sad world. Well, our whole grain flour choices are actually worse: there’s only one kind sold in supermarkets. Despite appearances, though, there’s actually a whole wide world of biodiversity and flavor to be found in wheat, varieties such as Kamut, Sonora, Charcoal, Triple IV, Einkorn and Red Fife, to name just a few. All are radically different in terms of color, texture and flavor. It really is analogous to wine varietals. Both Baker and Miller take advantage of grain diversity by working with farmers, milling their own flour and creating 100% whole-wheat loaves that highlight the flavor differences between wheat varieties. We’re very lucky in Los Angeles to have a retail mill, Grist & Toll, that sells many different varieties of fresh ground flour and whole grain. But, for those of you not in SoCal, check the interwebs for local millers or mail-order sources for flour and whole grains.

The wild refers to wild yeast, as in sourdough or “levain” in French. For me the best thing about working with wild yeast is that the bread has a more interesting, pronounced flavor. Another big advantage is that, due to the lactic acid producing bacteria in wild bread cultures, your bread will last a lot longer–up to a week in my experience. Lastly, though it hasn’t yet been proven, there may be some health advantages to wild starters. The lactic acid bacterias might make bread more digestible.

Both Baker and Miller mix up doughs that are surprisingly wet. Whole grain soaks up a lot of water to begin with, but both Baker and Miller push that wetness to very high hydration levels: sometimes in the neighborhood of 120% hydration if you’re keeping score. (N.B. Hydration level refers to the ratio of water to flour by weight: 100 grams of flour mixed with 100 grams of water = 100% hydration)  A big advantage of wet dough is that you don’t need to knead it. The gluten strands align on their own in the wet dough matrix. You still have to do some stretching and folding to help the gluten alignment process along, but you don’t have anything that resembles traditional kneading. Very wet doughs have the disadvantage of being difficult to turn into hearth loaves. Dave Miller overcomes this by his almost supernatural ability to shape dough. It’s almost like he can just stare at a pile of what looks like pancake batter and miraculously turn it into neat little boules. Baker had a great tip for those of us not as adept at forming loaves out of wet dough: just bake your bread in a loaf pan. Problem solved! I’ve been doing a lot lately.

The refrigerator is your friend. Doing some part of the fermentation in the fridge lengthens the fermentation time and helps develop more pronounced flavors. It also allows greater flexibility in your baking schedule. Got to go to work? Pick up the kids? No problem. Put that dough in the fridge. Baker likes to do the bulk fermentation (e.g. the first fermentation) at room temperature, shape the loaves, and then proof them in the fridge. They can then come straight out of the fridge and into the oven. Miller, due to some quirks in his schedule, likes to do the latter part of the bulk fermentation in the fridge, shape the loaves and then proof them at room temperature. One advantage with Miller’s approach is that cold dough is easier to shape. Personally, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I’ve had more luck with bulk fermentation at room temperature and proofing in the fridge.

One of the biggest mistakes newbie bakers make is puling their loaves out of the oven before the bread is really, truly done.  Both Miller and Baker leave their loaves in the oven until they are almost burnt. The reasons are multiple. Take the loaf out too soon and, particularly with whole grain breads, the crust will be too soft. Another reason is that Miller contends that the sort of whole grain breads you buy at the supermarket are under-baked. Poke the center of those commercial breads and the texture is often like play dough. Plus, I’d say, those boldly baked loaves are pretty.

Josey Baker’s formula is simple: find an interesting grain, ferment it with a sourdough starter with a lot of water, use the refrigerator to your advantage and bake it to the edge of being burnt. The details of this process will be the subject of future posts.

Bold Baking


As co-founder of a baking Meetup group, I get to see a lot of what Michael Pollan somewhat crassly calls, “crumb shots.” One consistent error that I see in many of those bread selfies, is that the baker did not leave the dough in the oven long enough. The crust is too light in color.

I’ve found that my best loaves are the ones where the crust is chestnut brown, taken from the oven just before it starts to burn on the bottom. Too soon and you have a light colored loaf with a soft crust and gummy interior. It took me a long time to figure out that you get a good crust by baking your bread almost to the burning point. Josey Baker calls this “bold baking.” It’s bold because it goes against the beginner’s fear of burning.

While crust color provides a convenient clue for when your loaf is ready to remove from the oven, oven temperature and baking times are also factors. If the bread bakes too fast you’ll end up with a soft crust; if the oven runs too cool you’ll get a crust that’s too hard. In our old O’Keefe and Merritt, I bake my bread at 500º F (260º C). If you’re using a convection oven you’ll need to bake at a lower temperature.

So be bold baker!

Baking Bread in a Casserole Oven vs. a Combo Cooker

71V58kIANBL._SL1200_One of the tricks popularized by Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe is using a Dutch oven to bake the bread. The Dutch oven harnesses the moisture in the dough to create a steamy environment. This allows the dough to rise rather than toast immediately. Commercial bread ovens (and some high-end home ovens) have steam injection systems that serve the same purpose. A Dutch oven is a lot cheaper, of course.

The trick is to get a loose and wet dough into a 500ºF Dutch oven without either burning yourself or smacking the loaf against the side of the pot. Some people first transfer the dough to parchment paper and then transfer that to the Dutch oven, (See Eric of GardenforkTV explain this method). Two years ago I finally broke down and bought a Lodge Combo cooker:

61mB9jx6oXL._SL1200_To bake bread in it, you use it upside-down. The dough goes into the frying pan part and the pot goes on top. In order to get an evenly baked crust in our old oven I’ve got to turn the pot periodically in the last part of the bake. And that’s the problem. The handles make that difficult. It’s not a big deal (I can twist the loaf in the pot), but I’ve concluded that I would have been better off buying the Lodge casserole pot pictured at the top of this post since there’s no long handles.

Incidentally, trying to steam a home oven by spraying the inside with water or throwing in a wet towel does not work as well, in my opinion, since a lot of that moisture is lost out the vent.

045 Whole Grain Baking


In episode 45, Kelly and Erik discuss whole grain baking, specifically a workshop the Los Angeles Bread Bakers put on featuring the very talented Dave Miller. The picture is of the bread Dave baked in the workshop. Clockwise from upper left: einkorn, sonora wheat, charcoal wheat and spelt/rye. Miller was featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s book Cooked. During the show we mention:

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Three Things I’ve Learned About Baking Bread With Whole Grain

sonora wheat loaf and joachin oro wheat loaf

Sonora wheat loaf on the left, Joachin Oro loaf on the right.

I’ve gone through a number of bread baking conversion experiences over the last 20 years. I began with Nancy Silverton cookbook, moved on to the cult of Chad Robertson and have finally ended up drinking the whole grain cool aid of pro-bakers Craig Ponsford, Dave Miller and Josey Baker. Then I got really crazy and started milling my own flour from heirloom wheat. Here’s three things I’ve learned:

1. Keep it wet. Whole grain flour soaks up much more water than white flour. Bread recipes are a ratio between flour and water. In bread baking parlance this is called a hydration ratio (to get the hydration ratio you divide the water by the flour–the quirk of baker’s math is that the flour is always 100% ). Old school bread recipes, most of which require a lot of kneading, have hydration ratios in the 65% range. Popular no-knead white bread recipes have hydration ratios in the 75% to 80% range. Whole wheat? We’re talking a range between 85% and 110% depending on the type of grain you’re using.

2. Shorten the fermentation time. I use a sourdough starter and, in my experience, whole grain seems to be more active than white flour. Now we’re not talking about the crazy kind of rise that happens with commercial yeast, but I over-proofed many whole wheat sourdough loaves until I figured out that I needed to shorten the first rise (bulk fermentation). The white breads I used to make required a four to five hour bulk fermentation. The whole grain breads I’m baking now seem to do fine with just three hours (depending on the weather, of course). Once I shape my dough, I put it in the fridge to proof overnight. The time in the fridge makes wet dough easier to handle and develops the flavor. And that cold dough can go straight from the fridge and into the oven.

3. The biodiversity of grains and the way they behave as bread has been a astonishing and sometimes frustrating experience (note the difference in the photo above between a loaf made with Sonora wheat and a loaf made with Joachin Oro wheat). Many varieties of  wheat I’ve worked with need to be baked in a loaf pan since they don’t have the gluten to hold their shape as a boule or batard (unless you’re a master like Dave Miller). The Joachin Oro I’ve been getting from my local mill Grist & Toll, on the other hand, yields big and perfect boules. Flours can be blended, of course, and this is the next frontier I plan to explore. And milling your own introduces another variable I’m still getting use to. The fineness of the flour effects the rise of the dough. The convenience and control of home milling has been both life changing and, at times, frustrating.

Have you been baking with whole grains? How has it been going with you?