Make your own whole wheat bread; why Michael Pollan insists

Mornings are cool now, sometimes even downright chilly. And with this fall weather, I’m ready to start baking again. Turning the oven on during the summer never seemed appealing–except for various pizzas, of course–so meals were often simple, little cooking required. No more. Let’s crank the oven on, pull out some yeast, and fill the house with wonderful smells that may even waft through our open windows. Perhaps we’ll finally meet our new neighbors this way. Cookies worked in college dorms, maybe bread is the secret in the real world.

This loaf had a surprise inside.

One morning this week, after recovering from the previous three-article, 13-hour day at work, I made the most of my time at home before another meeting needed babysitting. That meant making bread, something I’ve been meaning to do more often, thanks to Michael Pollan.

More and more, after reading Pollan’s “Cooked,” I question the lengthy list of ingredients on the plastic wrapper. It’s been quite some time since I’ve even purchased “regular” sandwich bread at the grocery store, instead foregoing sandwiches for other dishes. That’s primarily because I can never even eat my way through a whole loaf before needing to store slices in the (overstuffed) freezer for safe keeping. Soon, maybe my loaves will be eaten more quickly, shared at the table, feeding not just one. Until then, I’ll share bread with friends and my sister, and cram lingering pieces into the freezer.

Pollan explains in the “Air” section of his newest tome that mass-produced bread–like many commercially made food products–is jacked up with additives and unnatural ingredients, witnessed at a California factory.

“I watched flour and water being mixed into the familiar cement-colored slurry–and yet what are all those other ingredients getting added to the mix? The fifty-pound bags labeled simply ‘dough conditioner’? The ethoxylated mono- and digycerides? The four types of sugar (high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, barley-malt extract, and corn syrup solids)? The wheat gluten and ammonium chloride and calcium propionate and sodium stearoyl lactylate and ‘yeast nutrients’? And why would yeasts living in such sweet dough need more nutrients, anyway? To balance their sugary diet?

… By putting vast quantities of yeast to work–as much as 10 percent by weight–Hostess can get the great big belch of C02 needed o raise a whole-grain or super-high-fiber dough in just an hour or two. Indeed, much of the innovation in industrial baking has gone into what has traditionally and perhaps necessarily been a slow process. But time is money. So dough is inoculated with legions of fast-acting yeast to speed its rise; it then gets one set of conditioners so it can withstand rapid handling by machines, and another to speed up (or replace) gluten development, and then it is heavily sweetened, so that even a 100 percent whole-grain loaf will deliver that quick hit of sugar on the tongue the customer has come to expect from white bread. In the end, what has been removed from industrial bread by the addition of so many chemical additives is the ingredient of time.”

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in producing your own food, or learning more about how others around the world and through our history make food–and you’ll likely want to make your own beer, bread and sauerkraut. One of these days, I’ll try his sourdough.

Slow and steady to rise. On a cold day, set the bowl on a warm oven, or turn the oven on just for a minute, flip it off, and set the covered bowl inside.

Though I’ve made other breads, this was the first time with the King Arthur Flour’s Classic 100% Whole Wheat Bread, and the recipe worked wonderfully. The dough rose just as it was supposed to, the loaf didn’t deflate as bread sometimes does under my hand, and the “close-grained” crumb was soft and moist. It’s apparently the company’s most popular recipe for a reason. (I do have to point out that this bread involves more ingredients than maybe the simple, purest form of breads. But I do have to say it’s delicious, easy and still better than what’ available at the store, likely cheaper too. And easy for a beginner bread baker, too. I’ll experiment with other recipes as the weeks go on.)

Making bread doesn’t have to be scary. If a stand mixer does the kneading, it’s actually a very hands-off process, controlled by the yeasts. Just let them do their thing. Give them a little nudge by mixing with the warm water (~110 degrees); foaming means they’re at work and ready to go. You’ll be rewarded a few hours later, as your kitchen smells like home should, your toast will stand to rival your poached farm egg, and your sandwich will be better than you knew possible.

While kneading by hand can be therapeutic, this baby makes quick work of the job.

I’d recommend reading through all the tips listed in the recipe–for instance, replacing some water with orange juice cuts bitterness, and honey yields a lighter, mild loaf. Next time, I’ll try molasses or maple syrup, two of the other suggested sweeteners, or perhaps a mix. The honey flavor blended beautifully with the peanut butter and the blackberry jam that I sandwiched between thin slices of this bread, for our “lunchbox” themed potluck at work. Too bad all my sandwiches aren’t on this bread. Maybe they will be now.

Classic 100% Whole Wheat Bread
From King Arthur Flour; yields 1 loaf

  • 1 to 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water* (King Arthur says: Why the range of water in the dough? A lot depends on the weather, the season, and how you measure flour. You’ll need the lesser amount of water in the summer; or when it’s humid/stormy; if you measure flour by weight; or if you sprinkle your flour into the measuring cup, then level it off. You’ll need the greater amount of water in winter; when it’s dry out, and the humidity is low; or if you measure flour by dipping your cup into the canister, then leveling it off.) Also, replace up to 1/4 cup with orange juice to “tone down whole wheat’s somewhat tannic taste.
  • 1/4 cup (1.75 oz) vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup (3 oz.) honey, molasses, or maple syrup (The liquid sweetener you choose makes a difference. Molasses produces the darkest loaf, one with old-fashioned flavor. Honey yields a lighter, milder loaf. Maple syrup makes a less-sweet loaf — unless you use real maple syrup, in which case it’ll be similar to a loaf made with honey, albeit with a faint hint of maple.
  • 3 1/2 cups (14 oz.) King Arthur Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast, or 1 packet active dry yeast dissolved in 2 tablespoons of the water in the recipe
  • 1/4 cup (1 oz.) Baker’s Special Dry Milk or nonfat dried milk
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1) In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients and stir till the dough starts to leave the sides of the bowl. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased surface, oil your hands, and knead it for 6 to 8 minutes, or until it begins to become smooth and supple. (You may also knead this dough in an electric mixer or food processor, or in a bread machine programmed for “dough” or “manual.”) Note: This dough should be soft, yet still firm enough to knead. Adjust its consistency with additional water or flour, if necessary.

2) Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl or large measuring cup, cover it, and allow the dough to rise till puffy though not necessarily doubled in bulk, about 1 to 2 hours, depending on the warmth of your kitchen.

3) Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled work surface, and shape it into an 8″ log. Place the log in a lightly greased 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pan, cover the pan loosely with lightly greased plastic wrap, and allow the bread to rise for about 1 to 2 hours, or till the center has crowned about 1″ above the rim of the pan. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.

4) Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, tenting it lightly with aluminum foil after 20 minutes to prevent over-browning. The finished loaf will register 190°F on an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center.

5) Remove the bread from the oven, and turn it out of the pan onto a rack to cool. If desired, rub the crust with a stick of butter; this will yield a soft, flavorful crust. Cool completely before slicing. Store the bread in a plastic bag at room temperature.

3 thoughts on “Make your own whole wheat bread; why Michael Pollan insists

  1. katie, I have been loving following your blog and have a bunch of recipes bookmarked, namely those triple chocolate cookies. I read the PW’s post…she is too funny. And I am definitely going to try this bread. We go through SO much bread in this house. Very interesting excerpt from the Pollan book. I am going to order immediately. I can’t believe I haven’t done this yet. I hope all is well! I need to catch up on some of your old posts…did I see you went to Pizzeria Mozza? Very jealous.

    1. Thanks, Ali! You definitely should read his newest book — it’s incredibly interesting, and you may be convinced to try cooking all sorts of things. Hope you’re enjoying NY!

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