Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Cracking the code for perfect multi-grain bread

Fulfilling my desire for fresh, moist, chewy, multigrain bread with a good crust has not been easy these past 6 years. My efforts have been thwarted by multiple limitations in our local reality. Even though Niterói is a pretty big city (about 500,000 people) and we sit just across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, the variety of fresh breads found in local bakeries is pretty limited. None of the bakeries near me are making anything like what I have in mind.

The typical Brazilian so-called French style “pãozinho” (little bread) and its cousin the longer baguette are wonderful if you like pure white flour, super light and airy interiors with a thin, delicate outer crust. Many bakeries do an outstanding job of making these little, delicately crusted, bread clouds – and they are very popular.  Forgive me if I prefer a heartier, whole wheat chew in my bread. And when I desire white flour bread I prefer it more Italian-style with a firm texture and a thick, almost burnt crust.

Finding satisfying bread has been a bit of a conundrum.

Back in the early 1980s I lived in a hip(py) vegetarian housing co-op in Lansing, Michigan. We made all our own bread (and yogurt, and tempeh, and granola). So I am no stranger to making bread. I understand that bread dough is alive and must be kept that way, treated with kindness, until placed in the oven. Unlike the precise chemistry in cake baking, I know there is some room to play with the proportions of ingredients in breads, and that gluten is generally your friend (apologies to those who are intolerant).

Just after college, during that year of wondering what came next, I worked the night shift in a family-owned Italian bakery. We made hundreds of dozens of dinner rolls, baguettes, various loaves and various specialty breads nightly.

These are the experiences, both personal and professional, that I have brought to my task of unlocking the secrets of successfully making bread in my home here in Brazil.

Bread making with locally available ingredients and in my little Easy-Bake Oven, however, has been a journey.

In my experience, the obstacles to success pretty much come down to two things: the flour here has a low protein count (which means it is low in gluten) and a typical, basic, household oven cannot muster up the necessary heat to get a good crusty crust. But I have finally overcome these obstacles and am sharing my “solutions” in this post.

A note on my oven: we have your basic stove appliance found all over the country in typical homes. It heats with gas and sells for about R$600. It is a four burner, so some would see it as an “apartment” size stove and strive for a 5 or 6 burner model for larger families. But in reality, most families are stone broke, so this is about as much stove as they can afford.

Here's my oven, with some dough put to rise. Note I use a hang-on thermometer. The oven dial does not include temperature markings (not that I would trust them anyway).

As is true with so many things here, while it may not be fancy, it does the job. Well, in this case, the job of boiling or frying on the stovetop. But it just doesn't get hot enough in the oven to make things like a toasted, blistered pizza crust or a crispy bread loaf. There are definitely more robust options on the market, but they tend to be much larger in size (thus not fitting in our kitchen) and have larger price tags (thus not fitting in our budget). As it stands, I am set on developing strategies for making our oven work rather than living beyond our means.

Join me down here in regular people Brazil-land for some tips on getting a decent sandwich loaf of multi-grain wheat bread from your run of the mill oven. I think I have worked it out.

So the two things I want in my breads (correlated to the above mentioned obstacles) is a good texture/shape and a crispy crust.

The way I have worked out the crispy crust thing is to (wait for it) just let it go. It’s not gonna happen. I can force a hard baked crust, but only by over cooking the loaf. I've tried splashing water into an iron pan pre-heated on the bottom of the oven when putting the bread in. But the steam it creates that is supposed to moisten and then crisp the crust just manages to extinguish the oven flame and cut the heat altogether. Spritzing water onto the surface of the loaf to coax a crust just produces a soggy mess that eventually cooks, but never crusts. The oven is never hot enough. Ah well – I’m just letting go… no homemade crispy crust bread out of my oven. Sigh. Moving on…

I have figured out the whole texture and “structural integrity” thing; the gluten problem. The texture of my multi-grain bread rocks!

After some serious searching, plus the repeated education of a local natural foods store manager encouraging him to sell gluten, I can now buy “farinha de gluten” (gluten flour, or ‘vital gluten’) to then add to my locally available flours to increase the gluten content sufficient to create the texture I need. I have never seen so-called “bread flour” on the shelves here at grocery stores.

There is a nearby Italian bakery/sandwich/dessert shop that sells imported “type 00” flour, which is essentially bread flour with a higher protein content – perfect for pizza dough – but it is a bit expensive. If you can find this imported “type 00” flour in your area, it is a solution in and of itself if you are just using it (with little to no whole wheat or other flours added).

So to make that perfect loaf here’s what you do. First, get your hands on farinha de gluten (not “farinha com gluten” that is just regular flour with a kick of gluten added - not the same). You will be adding about 5 – 6 teaspoons of gluten to the flour of each loaf (4 teaspoons if you’re just using white flour). Second, and just as important, is to add an “autolyse” step into your mixing process.

An autolyse (in bread making) refers to a resting period just after the initial mixing of water and flour (and in our case the added gluten) that gives the mixture time to hydrate. This step ramps up the development of gluten (which depends on water) as well as allows time for the flours to “self-digest” (break down a bit), making the whole-grain dough less tacky to work with and ultimately light and chewy rather than tough.

The solution is in the biology and chemistry. Yay science!

Enough already – here is the recipe.

Multi-grain Sandwich Bread
This recipe is a modified version of one perfected by the cooks/food scientists over at Cooks Illustrated. It was by reading their materials that I learned about the value of an autolyse process, for which I am grateful.

Makes one large loaf. Feel free to double the recipe – I cut the original recipe in half because Luiz and I rarely have use for two large loaves at any one time.

¾ cup (150 g) multi-grain mix (explained below)
1 cup (200 ml) warm water
1 ½ cups (225 g) white flour
¾ cup (100 g) whole wheat flour
5 teaspoons gluten (vital gluten or trigo de gluten)
3 Tablespoons molasses (melaço or “melado”) or honey (mel)
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (or you can use canola or soy oil)
2 teaspoons (5 g) active dry yeast (fermento biológico seco instantâneo)
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup seeds, like sunflower or sesame (optional)


To make the multi-grain mix I use a couple of tablespoons each: pearled barley (cevada, or “cevadinha”), wheat berries (trigo em grão), whole oats (aveia) and bulgur/cracked wheat (trigo para kibe). You can use whatever grains you like. (If I could find them I would use soy grits and buckwheat groats rather than the barley and cracked wheat. But I have not seen these here.) Boil the wheat berries and barley for about 35 minutes, or until tender. Then add the oats for a couple minutes, then the cracked wheat. Remove from heat and let it sit a few minutes. It should be a cooked but chewy mix. Measure out your ¾ cup portion. Eat the rest with yogurt and a banana for breakfast. J

Place the prepared grain mix, water, sweetener and oil in the mixing bowl of your Kitchen Aid [I hope you have one. Or any strong stand mixer. Luckily I brought my 25 year old workhorse from the States. Without a machine to help you, prepare to knead by hand a good 15 minutes or longer. Longer kneading is also part of the success.]. Be sure it is not too hot. Then stir in the yeast and let sit for 5 – 8 minutes until the awakened yeast is foamy.

Meanwhile, sift together your flours and gluten. Feel free to experiment with other tasty flours you have been missing since you moved here. Do NOT add the salt just yet. It retards the yeast, so we will add it later.

When the wet mixture is nice an foamy, using the dough hook, slowly mix in the flour mixture. Mix it up until well combined, about 2 minutes, but don’t lean in to the kneading process. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap (I just wrap a tea towel around the stand mixer) and let it sit for 20 minutes. This is the autolyse step I described earlier. Don’t rush this. Let it do its magic.

Now add the salt and knead on medium speed until the still-wet dough clears the sides of the bowl, about 4 minutes. You will surely need to add more flour to help stiffen the dough, but don’t go crazy. I like to keep the dough a little more sticky than seems intuitive. But you may find yourself adding a bunch of flour (a little at a time). Just go for it and try not to overdo it.

When the dough seems about right (still sticky looking) continue to knead for 5 more minutes. Depending on the random turning motion of your dough ball in the mixer you may want to stop and rearrange the dough a couple of times just to be sure you are getting a thorough kneading. Add a bit more flour as needed (so to speak).

Once everything is perfect, transfer the dough to a floured surface and carefully knead in the seeds. Remember the dough is still alive and relying on you to treat it with care until you place it into the oven. Do not force yourself on it, tearing up the dough. Be gentle, but firm.

Form the dough into a taut ball and place it into a large slightly oiled bowl. Cover lightly and allow to rise, away from any drafts, until doubled in size; about an hour.

Go do other stuff: make the bed, check your Facebook, do the laundry, lay in a hammock and listen to Yo-Yo Ma on your iPod, whatever… Good bread takes time.

Adjust your oven rack to the middle position. Heat oven to 375 degrees F (180 C). If you are using a bread pan, grease it slightly. If you are going for the country-style big round loaf I suggest you put a pizza stone or a super large clay pot into the oven and preheat it along with the oven itself. The stone/clay helpers MUST be preheated. Do not pre-soak the clay pot as you might have read in regards to other recipes. That’s a different thing. Here we are using the pot to not just help create a dry crisp bottom on the loaf, but also to help preserve the heat in the oven when you open it to put the loaf in. Every degree counts!

If you are going with the big clay pot, prepare a large sheet of parchment (papel manteiga) on a cooking tray, dusted with cornmeal (fuba). Set aside. No need for the parchment if you are using a flat pizza stone. Just dust a pan to rest the dough on to rise.

Transfer your risen dough to a lightly floured surface and punch it down (gently). If you are going with the loaf pan, fold it over itself (in thirds) and pat it into a rectangle suitable in size to fit into the pan.  (At this point you can also roll the dough in oats for that all-over oats look. But I find the oats I get are too tough.) Gently place it into the pan, cover lightly and let it rise again until almost doubled, maybe 30+ minutes.

For the round loaf gently fold the dough over and then shape it into a ball, tucking the sides under and pressing up into the center. Pull into a firm ball but take care not to rip the dough. Place the ball onto the center of the prepared, dusted parchment paper. Cover and let rise until almost doubled.

This second rising is critical, but you also do not want to “over proof” the dough, so even though you may get hypnotized by the magic of your rising loaf, don’t let it rise for an hour or longer. It will reach for the sky, but also probably over reach and then collapse when you handle it or when it gets placed into the oven. You want height AND firm structural integrity. It should be big, but not squishy - puffy - fragile.

Now either place your pan into the oven or carefully transfer your dough onto the pizza stone, or gently lift your parchment carpet with even tension and place it into the preheated clay pot – quickly placing it in the oven. Keep that Easy-Bake Oven door closed as much as possible so as not to lose valuable heat.

Bake until internal temperature registers 200 degrees F (about 95 C), about 30 - 40 minutes. You should have a nice brown crust. Do not over bake. Longer might get you a darker crust, but it will also get you a thicker crust and a dryer loaf. Remove from pan/pot and cool on a wire rack before slicing.

This bread has such terrific texture you can slice really thin slices and it holds together nicely.

It works for me. Let me know how it goes for you. Your advice and tips are appreciated.


Unknown said...

R$600 oven and a R$2500 mixer. Go figure.... :)

Jim said...

hahaha - yeah, the magic of bringing your kitchen appliances with you when you move to Brazil. I got that mixer as a graduation gift from my parents when I completed graduate school in 1989. It probably retailed for about US$200 back then. It has been a workhorse all these years and is still going strong. (knock wood)

Turkey Tours said...

Thanks for sharing his..this bread looks good.