Monday, April 15, 2013

100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread

As I'm still a novice bread baker, I was hopeful when I came across King Arthur Flour's recipe for 100% whole wheat sandwich bread that claimed to be just as good, if not better, than the sandwich bread you find in the grocery store. After a few failed attempts, I'm very pleased with the results and the knowledge I've gained from said failures. There are few things more satisfying than retrieving a perfectly baked loaf of bread from the oven. That being said, for anyone who's made bread at home, there are often a lot of factors that go into making the perfect loaf. 

A bread made from whole wheat flour is often notorious for not rising, or at least not rising like the idea of the perfect loaf you have in your head. This is due to the low level of gluten in whole wheat flour; it goes with the territory. The types of flour (this includes brands of flour) you use will dramatically affect the outcome of your bread's rise. Different types of flours will contain varying levels of gluten. Gluten is the natural protein found in flour and is what gives structure to baked goods. Unlike white flour, whole wheat flour contains the germ and bran of the wheat kernel. The germ and bran "cut" the gluten strands inhibiting gluten development and reducing its ability to trap carbon dioxide created by the yeast. For this reason, yeast breads made with whole wheat flour can often be quite dense (I've made many loaves that resemble bricks or cinder blocks to prove it). 

To remedy this, many people replace a portion of whole wheat flour with bread flour (bread flour has a higher gluten content than whole wheat flour, around 13 to 14 percent protein). Initially I replaced 1/4 cup (1 oz.) whole wheat flour with 1/4 cup (1 oz.) bread flour. While the loaf rose more than without bread flour, it was still too dense. The more bread flour I added, the more the taste of the bread suffered. I really wanted to create a loaf made entirely of whole wheat. 

Then I discovered vital wheat gluten. Vital wheat gluten is used by professional bakers and is often added to yeast bread recipes to boost their gluten level, improving their texture and overall rise. I was skeptical at first, until I learned vital wheat gluten contains anywhere from 65 to 75 percent protein, depending on the brand. This well exceeded the protein percentage in bread flour and finally created the sainted version of the perfect loaf I had in my head. Vital wheat gluten, my new best friend.

Another important factor often skipped in many whole wheat recipes, is letting the dough rest for a short period before kneading. The fancy term for this is autolyse. This resting period allows the flour to absorb enough water for gluten development to begin. The gluten is able to "relax", without the agitation of kneading immediately after the dough comes together. This gives the gluten greater extensibility, helping the final loaf rise even more. 

If you take a gander at the recipe below, you'll see it includes "baker's dry milk." While I'm not usually fond of ingredients I have to go searching for, I find it makes a big difference (though not necessary to achieve a good loaf). The natural enzymes found in milk break down the gluten structure in bread dough. Baker's dry milk has been heated at high temperatures to destroy these unwanted enzymes in the dough. Used in many commercial breads, the result is a lighter, fluffier dough. Baker's dry milk is not the same thing as nonfat dry milk you find in the grocery store. It can be found online or in specialty bake shops (a 12 oz. bag will yield 12 loaves of bread, so I usually buy two at a time). 

Lastly, a note on weather. Weather will have a big effect on the outcome of your bread. You'll likely need less water in the summer, or when it's humid or stormy, and more water in the winter when the humidity is low and it's dry out. Regardless of the weather, I always start with the minimum amount of water and add more if seems like the dough is too dry. Furthermore, if your kitchen is cold, particularly in the winter, your dough will take longer to rise; in the summer the dough will rise faster. I like to put my rising dough in the oven or other draft-free environment. If you have a pilot light in your oven, turning this on will generate enough heat for your dough to rise faster. I don't have a pilot light in mine so I like to turn my oven on for a second and shut it off, but an even temperature is ideal. A pan of boiling water on the bottom of the oven works well too.

Science aside, I'm absolutely in love with this bread. To me, it's the quintessential sandwich bread. It's nutty and sweet; perfect for pb&j's, grilled cheese, and your everyday sandwich. The smell of freshly baked bread wafting throughout your home is unlike anything else. Not that I plan to make this bread on a weekly basis, but it's a simple and straightforward recipe, that once you have the right ingredients, is a breeze to make. Yes, it takes patience for the bread to rise, but it takes under 15 minutes to mix and knead the dough, after thatit's just waiting. To me, the results are always worth it. 

Adapted from a King Arthur Flour recipe 

13 oz. (3 1/4 cups) 100% whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur Flour brand)
1 oz. (1/4 cup) vital wheat gluten
1 oz. (1/4 cup) baker's dry milk (optional)
2 1/2 tsp. instant yeast (or 1 packet active dry yeast dissolved in 2 tbsp. of the water in the recipe)
1 to 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water 
1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil
1/4 cup honey
1 1/4 tsp. salt

In a large bowl, combine the whole wheat flour, vital wheat gluten, baker's dry milk (if using), and yeast. Whisk to blend. Pour in 1 cup of water, the oil, and honey. Use a wooden spoon and vigorously stir the wet and dry ingredients together until the dough begins to form and clears the sides of the bowl (if the dough seems too dry add the remaining water a little at a time until the desired consistency is reached). Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel or plastic wrap and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled work surface. Lightly oil your hands and knead the dough for about a minute (the dough should feel slightly tacky, but not excessively stick to your work surface). Place the salt on your work surface and gradually knead it into the dough, continue kneading for 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased glass bowl or large measuring cup, turning it over once to coat with the oil. Cover with a clean tea towel or a lightly greased sheet of plastic wrap and allow to rise in a draft-free place for 1 to 2 hours (my first rise took 1 1/2 hours).

Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled work surface and shape the dough into a log. Place the log in a greased 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" loaf pan. Cover the pan loosely with a piece of lightly oiled sheet of plastic wrap or tea towel. Allow 1 to 2 hours for the second rise (my second rise took the full 2 hours). The center of the dough should crown at least 1-inch above the pan. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Bake the bread for 30 to 35 minutes, tenting with a sheet of foil after 20 minutes to prevent over-browning. Remove the bread from the oven and turn out onto a cooling rack. Rub the top of the crust with a stick of butter, if desired (this will create a soft and flavorful crust). Allow the bread to cool completely before slicing. Store the bread in a plastic zip-top bag at room temperature for up to a week.

Yield: 1 loaf 

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