My Last Loaf

My Last Loaf

When I was in the 4th grade, my mother taught me how to make “butter horn rolls”.  Later, circa 1968, when I was in high school, my father was traveling a good deal, often arriving home about 5 am. I established the routine of having fresh croissants waiting for him, then I would catch the school bus at 6 am. 

More recently, I have been exploring, “Pain de  Campagna”.   In modern baking, that has become white bread with a little whole wheat added, and often made with mix of baker’s yeast and little sourdough.  It is a pale imitation of the real thing.  It is like grilling a block of tofu and calling it a steak.  I like tofu!  However it is not a steak. One can make things from soybeans that are “steak like”,  but tofu is not very like a steak. Modern “Pain de  Campagna” is no more like the real traditional bread than tofu is like a steak.

The problem is that stoneground whole grain flour is hard to handle in industrial scale commerce and large scale baking. It attracts vermin, and it tends to go rancid. Roller milled flour, and roller milled white flour in particular is easier to ship and store,  and thereby much cheaper.  Thus, professional bakers use roller milled white flour to reduce their costs, and increase their production. With more production, they need to advertise to sell more bread.

They tell us that we want white bread. They lobby the FDA and  the USDA to tell us we want white bread. They tell us that white bread is better.  Then, we assume that if white bread is better, we should bake white bread at home.  And, because, baking with white flour is easier, and cheaper, we bake with white flour at home.  

I have experimented with fresh ground flours on and off for 50 years.  And, I have experimented with sourdough off and on since I was a kid. There were periods where I used commercial, roller-milled “whole wheat” flour for a hundred or more in-house baked loaves per night. (Roller-milled whole wheat is not the same as fresh, stoneground whole wheat.) However, I did not really come to understand the  power of 100% fresh stoneground flour leavened with sourdough. That has only dawned on me in the last few years, as baking with all stone ground flour and all sourdough became a routine.

First, sourdough starter, made and nourished with fresh, stoneground flour over a period of months, develops a leaving power not seen in starters fed with white flour.  Starter, built with fresh stoneground flour, used with white flour will produce only “average” results.  White flour does not have the full range of nutrients that a starter built on fresh, stoneground flour expects.  

And, stoneground flour needs more leaving power than a sourdough starter fed with white flour is likely to deliver.  Breads made with fresh stone ground flour and a sourdough starter based on white flour will be no better than average.

My path to a better than average loaf that I want to eat is fresh stone ground flour leavened with a sourdough starter built with fresh stone ground flour.  I keep my starter in a 44F refrigerator, and the morning of the day before the bake, I add a couple of hundred grams of flour and enough water to make a dough just about 75% hydration (by eye), and I leave it on the counter until early evening.  Early evening, I make about a kilo of 70% hydration dough, add in the most of my starter (reserving ~ 60 gm) and let the rough dough sit for a few hours.  Late evening, I use wet hands to knead the dough, and half way though the kneading, I add a little over 2% (BP) salt, and knead to a finished dough. I let it rise overnight on the counter, shape before breakfast, and  bake about lunch time – schedule dependent on ambient temperature. (Folks made good bread centuries before central heat or air conditioning.) 

The size and  shape of the loaves does not matter – and varies with the menu, which varies with the season. Oven temperature varies with the form factor of the bread.

With good, fresh stone ground grain, a good sourdough starter, and enough time to ferment, it does not need oils or fat or dough conditioners to keep for a few days.  Bakers need to show a huge volume of bread for a low price so they need lots of air in their breads – I am not selling bread,  so I do not need a huge volume. I need just enough air in my bread, to allow it to be very pleasant to eat.  The color of the crust will depend on how hot the oven is, and whether I glaze the crust.  Mostly, that is presentation for sale – and only required for average breads.  

Great breads are ranked by taste, texture and how they complement other foods, and not how they look in the shop window.  Yes, I also was taught that “People eat with their eyes.”  However, walking the streets of Europe, from bake shop to bake shop, we discovered that often the best bread in town was not the pretty bread, and the pretty  bread was rarely the best bread in town.  I do not try to bake pretty bread, I try to bake very good bread –  there is a difference.

I am convinced that my last loaf will be fresh stone ground whole grain made as a sourdough.  There is a couple of pounds of white flour in the pantry, and it will be used before it goes stale, but I do not expect to ever buy more white flour, or more baker’s yeast.  On the other hand, I do need to order a new set of grindstones for the grain mill.