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.
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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Place the kneaded dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover. Let rise for about 1 hour or until doubled.
- Grease two standard-size bread loaf pans (5" x 9").
Second Rise and Baking
- 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.
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).
- Make 2-3 cross-slashes or one longitudinal slash on the loaf just before baking.
Place the loaf pans on the rack or on the pizza stone or bricks,
Bake for about 45 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking to provide even heat.
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)
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
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.