Did I mention I love to cook? And bake? Well, I do. I’m a crunchy granola type from way back. Shut up! I heard that! Now, listen, I’ve got a lot of fond memories of childhood, but right up there among the best is getting a slice of my Mom’s whole wheat bread, right out of the oven, slathered with butter. The heel is the best part. So when, as an adult, our bread machine finally let us down, after years of reliable service, I thought I’d get back to doing it the old fashioned way.
Here’s the thing about bread machines: They are freakin’ awesome in many ways. In five minutes you can load the thing up with ingredients before bed, and awake to a fresh loaf in the morning. Many people poo-poo them because they are “cheating”. Well fuck that. To them I said, “How many times a week do you have fresh, home-made bread in your house?” In our house it has been once or twice a week for several years. We loved our bread machine. But it never quite had that taste I remember. Oh, sure, I tinkered with the recipe. I tried to get it close to the good ol’ Beard on Bread whole wheat. But it just never was quite right. And then there’s the big gaping hole in the bottom of the loaf from where the paddle tears out. And the fact that it always lets the dough rise the exact same amount of time, regardless of how active the yeast is, or how warm the room is, which means sometimes you’d get these big puffy loafs (always puffier at the top) that crumble when you slice them, or little bricks that are shorter than they are wide.
Still, our daughter developed a taste for home-made bread early, and absolutely refuses to eat store-bought bread. Except the fancy hearth style, which is referred to simply as “white bread” in our home. So when the paddle shaft blew a gasket and started oozing oogy black grease onto the dough (and we’d already replaced the pan/paddle combo once), we decided it was time to move on. Which brought me to you, dear internet, in search of that perfect whole wheat bread recipe.
I found one that was reasonably close, and tinkered with it until I got it closer. Two things an old baker friend taught me about whole wheat bread: use barley malt for a rich, earthy flavor, and oats for a moister loaf. So here’s what I’m working with, to the satisfaction of me and my daughter (my wife and son still prefer store-bought, bless their hearts!):
1 Tbsp. active dry yeast
2 c. warm water
1/4 c. vegetable oil
3/8 c. barley malt
1 tsp. salt
5 c. flour mixture*
Mix water and yeast thoroughly. In a large mixing bowl, combine oil, barley malt and salt and mix well. Add yeast/water mixture to this, and mix well. Add flour mixture a little at a time. Knead on a floured surface for 8-10 minutes. (Critical step! Don’t under- or over-knead!) Grease the mixing bowl and put the dough ball back in there, and cover it up with a tea towel. Let it rise until it doubles in size. Rising time will vary widely based on the quality of yeast, temperature, etc. Be patient. When it’s really double in size, punch it down and give it a few minutes to rest. Grease two bread pans, then shape the dough into two loaves. Cover with the tea towel and let it rise again. Be patient! It will take at least an hour in the best of conditions to rise to it’s full size, even more this time of year in Portland. When it has risen into what look like loaves of bread (what you see is basically what you’re going to get!), bake at 375 for 35 minutes.
*Flour mixture: I started with 3 cups of whole wheat and 2 cups of white. That’s the basic proportion. Then I replaced about a half cup of flour with oats. If you want more whole wheat and less white, you might want to add wheat gluten to make sure it can rise. If you want 100% whole wheat, you definitely want to use some gluten (even though it’s not technically whole wheat then, is it?). You can try 100% whole wheat without gluten, but you’re going to get a pretty flat loaf.
While the whole production takes basically all day, most of that time the yeast is doing the real work. It takes me about 15 minutes on Sunday mornings to mix and knead. Then I’m free to do household chores, do the shopping or hang out with the family. Later, it’s just a few minutes to punch down and shape into loaves, and then you just have to come back in a few hours to throw it into the oven. I throw one loaf in the freezer (after it cools) and keep the other loaf ready for my daughter’s lunch Monday morning.
The best secret about baking bread is this: It really ain’t all that difficult. All you have to do is commit to being around the house for a day. And boy howdy is it worth it!