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?

The Jerusalem Cookbook


We are late to the Jerusalem party–it came out in 2012 to much acclaim. But maybe you are perpetually out of the loop, like we are. If so please know that we are in mad, passionate love with this cookbook. The authors are Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamim, London restauranteurs and the authors of Plenty and Plenty More. In Jerusalem, they explore the dynamic flavors and cross-cultural influences of their home city. Despite our de-cluttering efforts, this one is a keeper. I’m going to buy a copy when the library pries this copy out of my hands.

Our friend, Kazi, introduced us to Jerusalem. She hosted a wonderful dinner party last week and cooked all of the courses from this book. Now, Kazi is an expert cook, so I’m sure she doesn’t really need a book to put on an good spread, but she assured us that she was experimenting on us: she’d never tried any of the recipes before, and was cooking them straight out of the book as written. The meal was astounding. Of course, her beautiful presentation and the excellent company had much to do with it, but the recipes were consistently fresh and bright and complex without being fussy.

I find that I need a good cookbook every once in a while to inspire me in the kitchen–otherwise I fall into a morass of laziness and we end up eating burritos and “stuff on toast” night after night.  This one is doing the trick. I’m currently fantasizing about what I’ll cook next.

My highest compliment to this book is that I can honestly say I trust it 100%. I fiddle around with most recipes, doubling the spice, halving the sugar, questioning the baking time, etc. These I don’t. This book is well thought out and  tested. The recipes work. I’d highly recommend following them exactly as written.

Jerusalem covers all the bases, from appetizers to dessert. It has lots of meat and fish recipes, but it also has plenty of salad, vegetable, bean and grain recipes, so it’s friendly to both vegetarians and meat eaters. We’re mostly vegetarian, and we feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of the meatless offerings so far. Though there are a lot of veg recipes which use eggs, yogurt and cheese, there are also good vegan-friendly offerings.

To give you a feel for the book, these are the recipes we’ve enjoyed so far. All are excellent:

  • Swiss chard fritters (with feta and nutmeg)
  • Roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad
  • Roasted butternut squash and red onion with tahini and za’atar
  • Acharuli khachapuri (pastry boats filled with soft cheese, topped with a baked egg)
  • Baby spinach salad with dates and almonds (…and fried pita! Erik declares this his new favorite salad ever)
  • Couscous with tomato and onion (cooked to have a crispy bottom)
  • Semolina, coconut and marmalade cake


Poor Man’s Paninni Press


Go ahead, spend your hard earned dollars on an electric paninni press, yet another one of those counter space hogging single-use appliances. But let me tell you what the hip kids do: wrap a brick in aluminum foil, put your sandwich in the pan and plop that brick on top. Turn the sandwich once, and you’ve got paninni.

This kitchen hack will keep you out of trouble with the spouses, partners and housemates who glare at yet more kitchen gadgets. And you’ll still be able to enjoy hot and delicious, horizontally-coerced Italian sandwiches.

lodge cast iron paninni pressBut the hipper kids might have a Lodge cast iron paninni press. For what the aluminum wrapped brick lacks is the ability to make those special paninni grooves across the surface of the bread. Plus you can preheat the Lodge press and avoid having to flip your sandwich. But, you might still face rage from housemates intent on radical decluttering.

I have no personal experience with the Lodge paninni press. Do any of you? Is this something I should order, in a late night Amazon binge, the next time Kelly is visiting relatives?

FlicFloc Flak


My review of the KoMo FlicFloc grain flaker was featured on Cool Tools and, in the comments, got some push back on the price. At $169 USD (from Pleasant Hill Grain or The King’s Roost), it’s a fair objection.

A number of commenters pointed out that you can buy grain crackers such as the one on the right for around $20 to $30 USD. I had one of these crackers for years (it’s headed to the thrift store on account of our recent decluttering). I’ve never liked it. It’s poorly made. The hopper never fit onto the rest of the unit. It must be disassembled to clean.

Most importantly, here’s the difference when flaking oats between my inexpensive grain cracker and the FlicFloc:


On the left are some oats run through the cracker versus oats, on the right, run through the FlicFloc. A cheap cracker is fine for cracking corn for chicken feed or making a course grind of rye for a Scandinavian style bread, but it does not make either flour or truly flaked grains. The FlicFloc flakes oats and cracks wheat and rye and it’s easy to clean.

I’ve never regretted paying more for a tool that will last a lifetime. I have regretted, many times, buying cheap tools. The FlicFloc broke my Grape Nuts addiction. It will pay for itself.

032 Grist and Toll, an urban flour mill

In episode 32 of the Root Simple Podcast I talk with Nan Kohler, owner and miller at Grist & Toll, a mill in Pasadena, California–and the first mill to operate in the L.A. area in the last one hundred years. We discuss varieties of wheat, the health benefits of whole grains, how to work with them and why flavor is important. Kelly is not on this episode but will return to the podcast next week.

Ruth Reichl visits baker Richard Bertinet in England

Joaquin Oro wheat

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

2014, a Year in Comments: Plant Thievery, Loquats, Breakfast Cerial and the Apocalypse


Scene of the crime. Our missing cactus.

One of the reasons I prefer blogging to writing books is feedback in the form of comments. The subject matter we write about attracts thoughtful and compassionate people interested in making the world a better place. And I appreciate discussion and constructive criticism (We’re thankful too, that no trolls live under the Root Simple bridge). As an only child prone to ex cathedra statements, it’s good to have accountability in the form of reader feedback. With this in mind, I thought I’d review the most commented upon posts in 2015.

One curious phenomenon is that the number of comments a particular blog post gets is often inversely proportional to the amount of time it took to write. Kelly and I will sometimes spend hours agonizing over a blog post that gets just a few comments. Other times, a post dashed off in ten minutes will touch off a spirited discussion. This is not to say that a post that gets comments is any better or more popular than one that does not. Some posts, I suppose, are just more worthy of commenting. And we’re aware that many people read and never comment.

Here’s the five most commented upon Root Simple posts of 2015:

1. Plant Thievery. Back in April three barrel cacti disappeared from our front yard. It was a thorny, premeditated crime that prompted many readers to share their loss of plants. Later in the year I heard about two women who stole a lawn in England. And in local plant thievery news, a Los Angeles bakery lost most of its outdoor patio plants and the Episcopal Cathedral had an entire orange tree disappear. I like to think of these crimes from the plant’s perspective. Assuming they survive, the plant probably enjoys being able to travel and spread genetic material. Many plants, after all, evolve ingenious ways of, for instance, getting birds to eat seeds and poop them out over the landscape. Appealing to our lesser instincts could be yet another devious genetic strategy on the part of team plant.

2. Loquat Season is Here. Second to ways to avoid traffic, one of the great questions of life in Los Angeles is what to do with all those damn loquats. As the loquat is not frost tolerant, this is not a question for folks in the antipodal extremes.  And there’s great variation in loquat quality. Some taste, well, almost as good as an apricot (I know this sounds like faint praise). Others are just a thin, watery pulp surrounding huge, inedible seeds. I suspect part of Kelly’s motivation for writing this post was her skepticism of my loquat fruit leather recipe. I considered it the equivalent of discovering the loquat northwest passage. Despite Kelly’s brave stab at understanding the loquat, I don’t think we have a definitive answer on the subject. Perhaps we need to construct a kind of loquat Hadron Collider to solve this problem. Hey, that sounds like our first Kickstarter!

3. A Year After the Age of Limits: 5 Responses to the End Times. While Kelly may not have nailed the lid on the loquat coffin, she did write an eloquent essay on the pitfalls of apocalyptic thinking that was prompted by our attendance to the 2013 Age of Limits Conference. It took us and our friend John, who went with us, an entire year to process this disturbing weekend. Kelly and I recorded a long interview for our podcast with John about his experience that we never used. It’s well past time for me to revisit that recording. Thanks to KMO’s always excellent C-Realm Podcast, I heard that this year’s conference was different, perhaps due to the absence of the near term extinction crowd.

4. The Hugelkultur Question. Popularized by Sepp Holzer and many other permaculturalists, this practice of mounding logs in a hill of organic matter has been making the rounds of the avant-horticulture scene for the past few years. Like many 21st century radical home ec practices, evaluating Hugelkultur takes us to the messy collision point of systems theory and reductionism. This is not to even get into the problem of climate, which I pondered in another much commented upon post, Hugelkultur in Dry Climates. One thing to come out of researching the issue was discovering the Garden Professor’s Facebook page, wherein brainy horticulture types engage in a dialog on newfangled ideas. Use the search function on that page to find the subject you’re interested in. Who would have guessed that Facebook is useful for more than sharing cat photos and speculating about caftans?

5. Non-GMO Versions of Grape Nuts and Cheerios Less Nutritious Than GMO Versions. This may seem to be a post about the GMO debate (I’m not a fan of GMOs in most cases), but it’s really a stealthy realization that my Grape Nuts habit needed to end. Thankfully I discovered the Higgs bosen of breakfast cereals thanks to the KoMo FlicFloc. Which, to cram way too many physics metaphors in one blog post, really is the Hadron Collider of kitchen gadgets.

What controversial and comment worthy subjects would you like us to take up in 2015?

The KoMo FlicFloc

Kelly hates it when I write a post packed with hyperbole. But I really feel today like I’ve discovered a sort of breakfast unified field theory. And it’s all thanks to an impulse purchase at an awesome new homesteading supply shop in our neighborhood, The King’s Roost. My credit card discharged from my pocket like ectoplasm at a 19th century seance when I spotted the KoMo FlicFloc.

The FlicFloc manually flakes oats, wheat, rye, barley, millet, spelt, rice, sesame, flax seed, poppy and spices. The breakfast possibility it opened to me? Fresh muesli is thy name. Finally a filling and healthy alternative to my Grape Nuts addiction.

The FlicFloc is elegant and simple. There’s not much to say about it. You put grain in the top, turn the handle and deliciousness discharges into a glass, thoughtfully provided. I’ve owned a KoMo grain mill for a year now and it’s been a life changer in the kitchen. I really like having access to freshly milled whole grains when I need them. It eliminates waste as ground grains spoil. And whole grain, including oats, get bitter if they sit around too long.

And cancel the Neflix–here’s KoMo’s Austrian/German design team demonstrating their products. All this video needs is Werner Herzog to narrate the English language version. Note the solar powered manufacturing facility and German breakfast porn. Also note the mouthwatering array of whole grain baked goods.

Who Killed the Non-Electric Toaster?

pyramid non-electric toaster
I don’t regret my unsuccessful attempt this Sunday to fix our broken toaster. It made me remember designer Thomas Thwaites’ attempt to build a toaster from scratch and how well that project showed the complex, interconnecting supply chain involved in manufacturing even the simplest electronic device.

The failure of our toaster was caused by a break in the heating wire. Following these instructions, I attempted to mend the break, but it was in an awkward location and, like most objects these days, the toaster was not built to be fixed.

Disassembling the toaster laid bare the flaws in the design of all toasters. The heating wire (called nichrome wire–short for nickel-chromium) is fragile and extremely vulnerable to an errant bread crust.

I vowed to find an alternative and remembered seeing non-electric toasters that people used to use back in the 1920s when our house was built. These types of toasters have not died out entirely. Most non-electric toaster designs look like the one above. Some Googling  also led us to an innovative looking non-electric toaster called the DeltaToast.

Counter-intuitively, all of these simple stove top toasters coast about twice as much as electric toaster, at least in the US. This leads me to my question for you, our dear readers. Have you used a non-electric toaster? How do they compare to electric toasters?

Note from Kelly:

I noticed that the stove-top or pyramid toaster seems to live on in Australia and New Zealand, judging by the number of businesses I found selling them there. The toasters were also much more reasonably priced than they are here– but shipping to the US was crazy expensive, scudding that possibility entirely. So I’m particularly interested in responses from readers in these countries. Who is buying and using them?

Also, there are many antique stove-top toasters available on Etsy for about ten to twelve bucks, but they’re all rusty and worse for wear.

Pizza Dough in a Pan Recipe


Renaissance flatbread (this skillet method dates back!). Via

I’m spending the month of December developing some classes for the Meetup group I co-founded, the Los Angeles Bread Bakers. I’m going to put the recipes on the blog starting with this pizza dough, which is based on Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread recipe. If you try this recipe, please send me some feedback.

A note on flours
My favorite flour for pizza is the Italian 00. This will give you a Neapolitan style thin and crispy crust. If you want a Chicago style pizza with a bread-like texture, go with a high gluten bread flour. You can add a small amount of whole wheat flour but I would not exceed 10%. Pizza is not a health food. It’s a special occasion food and I think it tastes better with white flour.

A note on sourdough starter

This recipe requires sourdough starter. If you’d like to make one, check out our how-to video.

Digital scale (always use a scale!)
11-inch cast iron skillet or other oven proof skillet

Pizza Dough Recipe

Makes four small pizzas

  • 100 grams sourdough starter
  • 500 grams Double 00 or high gluten bread flour
  • 375 grams 80° F water
  • 10 grams (1 1/2 teaspoons) sea salt

1. In lidded plastic container, stir the starter into the 80 degree water until dissolved. Mix all the ingredients with your hands or a dough scraper until water and flour are incorporated. There is no need to knead, just combine the water and flour. Put the lid on the container.

2. Bulk fermentation: 4 to 5 hours. Let the dough sit in your covered container at room temperature. Each hour, stretch and fold the dough pulling the right edge to meet the left and then pulling the left side to meet the right. You can do this stretch and fold without removing the dough from your container.

3. At this point you have a choice. You can divide the dough into 220 gram sections, shape them into balls and then use them to make pizza in another hour or two. I prefer to shape the dough into balls and put them in the the refrigerator, in a sealed container, and use it the next day or even the day after that. A longer, slower fermentation will give you a nice sour taste. Dough can come straight out of the fridge and be shaped into pizzas. You do not need to let it come up to room temperature.

4. Stretching your dough: you can do this by hand, but I prefer to cheat. If you want to do it by hand Peter Reinhart has video here. It’s heresy to admit this, but I use a rolling pin. Stretching by hand is better but using a rolling pin is easier. Your choice.

5. Preheat a frying pan on high heat. Add a teaspoon of oil to your pan. Stretch your dough and put the dough in the frying pan. You have a generous three minutes to add your toppings while the bottom of the crust cooks in the pan. A note on toppings: do not use too much sauce and toppings! Around two tablespoons of sauce will be enough. Too much sauce results in soggy crusts! Start by brushing on some olive oil and then add your toppings. Finish with some salt and/or pepper.

6. After three minutes put the pizza under the broiler until done, probably an additional three minutes. Watch for burning. Remove and place on a rack for a minute or so to cool, then slice and enjoy.

Suggested toppings:

  • Classic Margarita: tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil.
  • Crème fraîche and caramelized onions
  • Feta, figs (dried or fresh), olive oil
  • Pistachio pesto: pistachios, garlic, Manchego cheese, ground in a food processor
  • Eggs: crack two eggs and top with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, salt and pepper.