Oat Bread Revisited

US Food Administration poster from WWI. From U of North Texas collection.

I have been baking bread for a long time, but never with a great amount of intensity (though during one period in the 90s I was baking frequently and had a personal “bread museum” that chronicled my efforts).

In the early years, general cookbooks like The New Laurel’s Kitchen were my teacher, but their basic bread recipes resulted in a lot of brickish loaves. During the “bread museum” period,  I made major progress by following the recipes and techniques in Baking with Julia, which taught me about multi-day breads and how to create a good crust.  I have been enchanted by the spell of sourdough a few times, but the cost/benefit ratio was unfavorable so I gave it up. Lately, I have been most interested in part-whole grain breads that rely on commercial yeast:  I find that the all-white loaves that I bake are a bit dull and a decent amount of whole grain makes it more interesting.

Even with the simpler approach, I still enjoy tinkering with the recipe, trying small tweaks to improve the result. Over the last year or so, I have been tinkering with my “war bread” — a.k.a. the oatmeal bread that was originally published in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. The recipe makes an OK loaf, but one that is a bit too crumbly and dense for my taste.  Attempting to correct these shortcomings, I made three tweaks to the recipe: a poolish, a soaker, and a late addition of the salt.

Tweak 1:  Adding a Pre-Ferment

The first tweak was adding a pre-ferment (in this case, a “poolish”), something I picked up from Emily Buehler’s Bread Science book. A poolish is a mixture of flour, water and yeast that is mixed many hours before the actual fermentation (i.e., rising), hence the “pre” prefix. As the poolish rests, good things happen:  the flour starts to hydrate, flavor-producing fermentation begins, gluten starts to develop (even as the poolish sits still), enzymes called proteases start breaking down the proteins in the flour, and the acidity level increases (this makes mixing easier). More details on these effects are in the Preferments chapter in Bread Science, which also lays out Buehler’s method of adapting existing bread recipes to incorporate a pre-ferment.

Tweak 2: The Soaker

The second tweak is a “soaker” for the whole grain flour, which I learned from one of America’s Test Kitchen bread recipes (I think they got the idea from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads : New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor*, who probably got the idea from someone else). A soaker is a mixture of whole grains, whole grain flour, water, and sometimes salt that is mixed many hours before the dough is prepared (I’ve seen a range of 8-72 hours). It has several purposes, with two of the most important ones being hydration and enzyme activity. Whole grains are trouble for bread because the bran and germ can slice through gluten strands during mixing; a long soak gives water enough time to dull some of the sharp edges. The long soak also initiates enzymatic activity on the flour, which releases sugars and flavors from the whole grain.

Tweak 3:  Autolyze

The third tweak is a late addition of the salt, something I first learned from Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery back when I was excited about sourdough baking. After mixing the dough and kneading by hand for 5 to 7 minutes, she suggests “Autolyze: A Moment of Rest,” where the dough rests for 20 minutes before the salt is added and the kneading is completed. It allows the flour to absorb water and the proteins to relax, which makes the dough easier to handle, helps develop a more porous interior, and improves the crumb color.

The Bread Test

One Sunday I tried a side-by-side test of the simple method (mix everything on the same day) and the complicated method (poolish, soaker, autolyze). The extra trouble was shown to be worthwhile, with the complicated bread being lighter and more flavorful. In the photo on the right, the complicated bread is on the left, the simple one on the right.

Oat Bread

A hearty bread that includes plenty of whole wheat flour, rolled oats, and oat bran. It takes some advance preparation, so be sure to look at the instructions. 



  • 200 grams whole-wheat flour
  • 200 grams water


  • 200 grams white bread flour
  • 200 grams room temperature water
  • 1/8 tsp yeast


  • Poolish recipe above
  • Soaker recipe above
  • 100 grams warm water 105-110 F / 40-43 C
  • 100 grams honey 1/4 c
  • 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast or instant dry yeast
  • 33 grams soft butter or oil 2 T
  • 130 grams rolled oats
  • 80 grams oat or wheat bran
  • 200 grams bread or all-purpose white flour plus a little more if needed
  • 1 tbsp salt 15 g


Make the soaker (12-24 hours before mixing the dough)

  1. Combine the whole-wheat flour and water in a bowl. Stir until well combined. Place in the refrigerator until needed, 12-24 hours.

Make the poolish (12-24 hours before mixing the dough)

  1. Combine the poolish ingredients in the mixing bowl that you will use for the final dough (e.g., the bowl of a stand mixer) and mix with a spoon until thoroughly combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours.

De-chill the soaker (2 hours before mixing the dough)

  1. Some time before you are ready to mix the dough, take the soaker out of the refrigerator so it can warm up. Every now and then, give the soaker turn and stir so that different parts contact the outside surface of the container (and therefore warm up faster). If you are in a hurry, put the soaker in a metal bowl and put the bowl into warm water.

Mix the dough

  1. If you are using instant yeast (the kind that doesn't need to be dissolved in liquid), you will add it with the first batch of dry ingredients. If you are using regular active dry yeast, you will rehydrate it in some warm water before adding with the water, honey and oil.
  2. Cut the soaker into unshelled walnut-sized pieces and add to the poolish. Add the water, honey, butter or oil (and non-instant yeast and its rehydrating water). If using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment to mix these gooey ingredients together. If mixing by hand, use a wooden spoon.
  3. Add the rolled oats and bran (and instant yeast). Salt will be added later. Switch to the dough hook, mix on low speed until thoroughly combined.
  4. Add the white flour, and knead on medium for 4 to 5 minutes. The dough should be a little sticky, but hold together as a mass. Add a little more flour if it is really sticking to the walls of the bowl.


  1. Now it is time for the autolyze, a short resting period that helps build gluten. Cover the bowl and let the dough sit for 10 minutes.

Finish Mixing

  1. Uncover the bowl, turn on the mixer to low, and add the salt a little bit at a time. Increase the speed to medium and continue mixing for a few more minutes to fully incorporate the salt and build structure.

First Rise

  1. Place the kneaded dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover. Let rise for about 1 hour or until doubled.

Pan preparation

  1. Grease two standard-size bread loaf pans (5" x 9").

Second Rise and Baking

  1. Punch down the dough, divide in half and shape into two loaves. Place in the prepared loaf pans. Cover and let rise for 45-60 minutes.
  2. During the last 30 minutes of the second rise (or 45 minutes if using a pizza stone or bricks), preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C).

  3. Make 2-3 cross-slashes or one longitudinal slash on the loaf just before baking.
  4. Place the loaf pans on the rack or on the pizza stone or bricks,

  5. Bake for about 45 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking to provide even heat.

Recipe Notes

A Basic Overview of the Recipe

  • 12-24 hours before baking: make the soaker and poolish.
  • 2 hours before mixing: de-chill the soaker
  • Mix and knead the dough, leaving out the salt
  • Let rest for 10 minutes, add the salt, continue kneading
  • First rise (main fermentation)
  • Shape and put into loaf pans
  • Second rise (proof)
  • Bake

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison, with help from Bread Science by Emily Buehler, Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads by Peter Reinhart, and Breads from La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton

Image Credit
Eat more…Eat less poster from the United States Food Administration, ca. 1917, public domain.  Downloaded from the University of North Texas Digital Library.  Link

Emily Buehler, Bread Science, link to author’s page
Nancy Silverton, Bread from La Brea Bakery
Peter Reinhart, Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads : New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor

* To clarify the role of the soaker I checked out Reinhart’s book from the library. The book a revelation and might need to enter my cookbook collection sometime this year. I discovered that Reinhart’s treatment of the pre-ferment and soaker are quite different than mine.  The pre-ferment in the “Transitional Whole Wheat Sandwich Loaf” (a loaf with some white flour and some whole wheat flour) has two major differences: 1) a ratio of 62-75 parts water to 100 parts flour by weight (62% to 75% hydration), while mine has equal weights and 2) it is aged in the refrigerator. The soaker has two major differences: 1) A little bit of salt to moderate the enzymatic activity, 2) it ages at room temperature for 8-24 hours before mixing (or in the refrigerator for 24-72 hours). I tried the master recipe twice, once with yogurt in the soaker (recommended by the recipe) and once with water in the soaker (not recommended).  Both of the 100% whole wheat loaves turned out well, but I thought the yogurt-soaker bread was a bit too sour.  The water-soaker version was a great success, undoubtedly my best ever 100% whole wheat bread.


  1. Thanks for posting this!
    I'm trying your bread today. Following the recipe completely, except I didn't have 12-24 hours so I'm doing the soaker at room temperature for 9 hours. Will bake tonight, fingers crossed!

    However, eventually I would like to use steel cut oat instead of rolled oat, to have more chewiness (and perhaps some grainy texture) in the bread. I was thinking that it would then make sense to add the steel cut oat to the soaker, with a bit more water (reducing the water added in the final mixing). What do you think? Would that make sense?
    And should I increase the total amount of water or not?
    Anything else I should adjust in your opinion if using steel cut oat?

    Thank in advance

  2. Replacing the rolled oats with steel-cut oats could lead to a great loaf of bread.

    Coincidentally, earlier today I was preparing to bake my first ever batch of Multigrain Struan from Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads. The soaker recipe calls for a 170 grams liquid (milk, buttermilk, yogurt, soy milk or rice milk), 57 grams of whole wheat flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 170 grams of "any combination of cooked and uncooked grains." In a commentary box on the bottom of the page, Reinhart writes "Large kernals, like brown rice and steel-cut oats, should always be cooked to the point of softness. In volume measurements, most grains require 2 1/2 parts water to 1 part grain…Simmer the grain in a covered pot until the water is completely absorbed." Based on the language in this recipe, my guess is that you weigh the cooked grains when mixing up the soaker. This brings some extra uncertainty into the mixture, since the cooked grains contain water while uncooked grains are dry. So perhaps my dough will be a little wetter and I'll need to add more flour when mixing tomorrow.

    As for substituting steel-cut oats for rolled oats in the recipe I posted, I would definitely pre-cook the oats to soften and hydrate them. If I was attempting the replacement, I would try the following actions: 1) weigh out 130 grams of steel cut oats to directly replace the rolled oats, 2) cook the steel-cut oats in water until tender, being sure to measure how much water you added, 3) let the oats cool to room temperature, 4) omit the 100 g water from the final part of the recipe. Add more water or flour as needed when mixing.

    Good luck! I hope you can report back in comments. If I try the replacement, I'll add a new comment.

  3. Marc, thanks very much for the extra information! Coincidentally, after starting your recipe yesterday I came across the Multigrain Struan one, and marked it to try next (plan to use oat, quinoa and cracked green wheat). I did not have the information from the commentary box, this will be very useful. I hope you will publish your results!

    I'm new to bread-making – started in late fall and have done it about 15 times so far (it takes me a week to get through a loaf!) – and I'm not very gifted, so I know it will be hard for me to adjust the water or flour at the end. But I will try what you suggest and see what happens – at least the flavour will be good.

    FYI, my loaves last night didn't look too good (but flavour is great). I think I over-proofed them, or the gluten wasn't strong enough, and they collapsed. Next time I won't let the loaves rise quite as much to see if it makes a difference.



  4. I ended up making the Struan Bread from Reinhart's whole grain book during President's Day Weekend, and although it didn't go exactly according to the recipe, the end result was very good and I'll certainly be making it again (due to my misreading of the recipe, I ended up with three times more cooked grain — cracked rye and steel-cut oats — than I needed, so there are two packets in the freezer for future loaves. I hope one will be used up this weekend.).

    The dough was quite wet and I didn't want to risk 'brickifying' by adding too much flour. Perhaps the grains were overly hydrated, or the moisture level of the flour was high, or something else was going on. And so the dough was almost pourable, so I used my stand mixer for all of the mixing and kneading (the recipe calls for a bunch of hand kneading after an initial machine mix), and later there was no possibility of shaping it into a loaf. Instead I scraped it into the greased pan. The first time I encountered this situation I was a little freaked out, but didn't feel like messing around with the recipe. In the end, however, ultrawet doughs have worked out for me: good structure, excellent moistness (just don't overfill the bread pan or you might have overflow as the dough expands).

    The easily fixed problem referred to above was improperly greasing the loaf pan, so the bottom crust stuck and peeled off as I took the loaf out of the pan. That won't happen next time…

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