Wheat breeder Dr. Steve Jones, the director of the WSU Mt. Vernon research station, gave a talk recently on small scale grain growing, harvesting and threshing at Inspiration Farm. It was standing room only, and the packed house included a broad spectrum of farmers, the young and pierced, the middle-aged hippies, the boys from long time family farms in Lynden. Steve's message was that there is a resurgence in small grain growing in communities all over the country. We have lost the infrastructure of local grain growing: the experience, the small threshers and combines and balers, the mills, the markets, the local distributors and the wide commercial availability of locally adapted varieties of seed grain. Communities all over the country are scrambling to rebuild our heritage. Currently, growing calorie crops (grains, edible legumes and potatoes) in U.S. is specialized by region. Washington grows soft white wheat for pastry flour. High protein hard red spring wheat growing, for bread flour, is centered in the Dakotas. Potatoes come from Idaho (and the seed potatoes for Idaho come from Whatcom County.) Steve talked about the small, medium and large western Washington businesses that are having to import Canadian grains for organic oatmeal, flour and feed production.
Modern high protein wheat was developed for industrial bread production. Add modern yeast, developed for its speed of growth, to high protein flour, water and a little sugar, and the stuff takes off and produces a fluffy loaf in a few hours. Turns out those great artisan European breads can be made with a low protein heritage wheat because they use the sourdough method. I have heard from other sources that there is speculation that the sudden surge in cases of wheat intolerance is due to sensitivity to modern wheat strains.
So here are two recipes for bread: fast bread and slow bread. Like all cooking, it's mostly about the ingredients, so I recommend using good stuff.
Fast bread (well, sort of fast.) I start the sponge in the morning before work and finish up the loaves when I get home:
Sponge: two cups water, two teaspoons yeast, two tablespoons sugar or other sweetener, two cups whole wheat flour. Mix it all up in a large bowl, cover with a cloth and go about your business for the day.
Loaves: Add a pinch of salt, two tablespoons oil, optional one or two eggs, optional another quarter cup of sweetener, and stir. Then knead in 5-6 cups unbleached flour, a half cup at a time. At some point the dough will get too hard to handle in the bowl. Turn it out on a floured board and keep kneading. When it has absorbed all the flour, it should be starting to form the elastic texture that holds the carbon dioxide as it rises. Allow to sit for an hour, covered, and then knead briefly (it may need a little more flour) and form into loaves. The second kneading will have a much smoother texture. Allow loaves to rise for a half hour and pop into a preheated 375 degree oven for 35 minutes.
Instant bread yeast, the best commercial yeast for fast bread, is sold at Cash and Carry in 1 lb. packages for a very modest price. Drop the whole package in a ziplock baggie and it will keep in the fridge for a long time (Mine is marked with the purchase date, 11/08, and still fine.) That yeast in the little envelopes, sitting in the supermarket dying, that's hard to use.
Commercial bread makers often use barley malt syrup in place of sugar as the sweetener. In fact some of the flour sold for bread making has a percentage of barley flour already added, for the nice texture that it gives the dough. Organic barley malt syrup is available at Terra Organica and the Co-op, or you can be cheap like me and buy bulk regular malt syrup from Robert at the Fourth Corner Brewing Supply. Bring your own plastic tub.
Slow bread starts with a sourdough starter. This can be obtained from a friend, purchased over the internet or made yourself. To make your own starter, soak organic raisins or unwashed organic grapes in water. The hardest part is getting chlorine-free water. Let a pitcher of city water sit around for a day to boil off the chlorine or bum a jug of well water off a friend in the county. Mix a cup of the soaking water with a cup of whole wheat flour in a ceramic bowl, cover with a cloth and let sit on the counter.
The next day, add a half cup flour and a half cup of water. Repeat three more days. By now, it should be bubbling and smell faintly sour. If it grows anything Technicolor, that didn't work; pitch it and start over. Now, add two cups of flour and a cup of water for the sponge. After the sponge sits for at least 8 hours, remove a cup of sponge and put it in a glass quart jar. Stir in a half cup of flour and a cup of water. Store it in the fridge. This is your starter for next time. Only add flour and water to the starter. After you have saved your starter for next time, add the remaining ingredients as for fast bread, with more water as required. Sourdough bread needs all day or overnight for the first rising and 2-4 hours rising after the loaves are formed. Bake 35 minutes at 375 degrees in a preheated oven.
The next time you are ready to make bread, pull out your starter, dump it into a ceramic bowl, and wake it up. Add two cups flour and two cups water, cover with a cloth and letting sit 8 hours. Save a potion of the starter as above. The starter keeps getting better as it is used.
The sourdough method uses time, handling and the enzymatic action of the yeast to develop the protein in the flour. The sourdough method is traditionally used for rye bread. Sourdough bread will absorb all kinds of low protein ingredients: leftover oatmeal, multigrain cereal, barley and millet flours, heritage flours such as spelt, emmer and kamut, for example. Just add them when you make the sponge into bread dough. Some of these are best formed into thin flat breads, as they make an overly dense loaf. Barley malt syrup is particularly good in sourdough bread.
With an established starter and some practice, it is possible to get sourdough bread making down to a day and half. I am generally not that organized, so I appreciate bread that just gets better when I leave the sponge or dough stage sitting around for 24 hours.
There are a gazillion books on baking in the library system. Most of them do not have any advice on baking with a sourdough starter. Notable exceptions are The Bread Bakers Apprentice and Sandor Katz, who wrote a book on fermentation which is so useful that you may find yourself actually buying it.