Bread-Baking Course Explores Best Baking Practices Using Locally Grown Flours

2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Maegan Crandall Central N.Y. Correspondent

TRUMANSBURG, N.Y. — While basic bread baking hasn’t changed in centuries, most of the bread consumed in the U.S. today is produced using industrial baking processes. Flours are kept consistent using chemical strengtheners, relaxers and bleaches, dough is mixed with high-speed mixers, and loaves are shaped and baked in large tunnel ovens under controlled temperature and moisture levels.

Due to an increase in consumer demand for local products, OGRIN (Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network), and Greenmarket/Grow NYC recently sponsored a short, intensive course on bread making using locally-grown and milled wheat. At the workshop held Jan. 18 and 19, Stefan Senders and David McInnis, owner and partner of Wide Awake Bakery in Trumansburg, N.Y., shared baking insights and techniques that stem from their collaboration with local farmers and a new milling enterprise. A dozen artisan bakers, home bakers, students and farmers were at the event to learn the techniques.

“There are traditional baking techniques that have been around for a long time and a lot of those techniques have gone by the wayside because we haven’t had to do it,” Senders said. “White flours have made things a lot easier for bakers. When you go back to these local flours they are a little more tender and require a bit more care. What we try and do here is try and find out what the best practices are, and then we try and do as many of them as we can as best as we can.”

Although basic bread methods remain the same, according to Senders, baking with local, organic flour can be a bit of a challenge due to the fact that much of the local wheat comes from relatively small farms that can have tremendous differences in micro-climates and soil conditions.

“As a result, the baking quality of wheat can vary markedly from one milling to another. In short, all flour varies in its properties, but flour milled from wheat that has been bred and blended for uniformity is naturally more predictable for the baker,” he said.

However, with a few best-practice baking rules, there are also tremendous advantages to using local flours. A baker’s life can be enriched by exploring different flavors and fermentation characteristics, and money can be kept within the local food economy.

In the simplest terms, Senders describes some of his best baking practices as the following: accurate scaling and division, proper hydration and mixing, full fermentation, gentle but persuasive shaping, considered scoring, a full bake at an appropriate temperature and moisture level, and adequate cooling. With that in mind, there are a few notable differences to remember when using local flour.

First, Farmer Ground flour is a bit different than commercial flour. (Farmer Ground Flour is the company that provides local flours to Wide Awake Bakery.)

“Farmer Ground Flour is all stone-ground or in a hammer mill,” Senders said. “These processes convert the entire kernel into flour, and distribute the vitamins, oils and minerals contained in the wheat germ and in the outermost layer of the seed throughout the flour.”

In comparison to commercial “white” flour, Farmer Ground’s high-extraction flour is darker in color and the particles of bran and germ are plainly visible. The protein level varies from 10 to 12 percent and Farmer Ground flour contains no additives of any kind.

Senders also points out that because Farmer Ground flour is stone-milled and contains wheat germ oil, it is subject to oxidation and rancidity which means it’s best used relatively fresh and benefits from cold storage.

Farmer Ground flour may also ferment differently — often more quickly and vigorously — than the commercial white flour due to being rich in oils and naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.

“For the home baker, these differences will require only slight changes in process. For example, added sugar is rarely, if ever, necessary for good leavening, and the quantity of leaven may have to be reduced,” he said.

Although locally grown flours can contain the same protein level as commercial white flour, Senders points out that it isn’t as “strong” and will require a watchful baker and a gentle hand. Because of this, Wide Awake Bakery doesn’t use any dividing or shaping machines. Senders suggests trying a gradual approach and use local flours in your formulas gradually, starting with five percent of the total flour weight and increasing the proportion over a period of weeks.

Discovering the best baking practices through trial and error has allowed Wide Awake Bakery to be successful using locally sourced flours, said the bakers. These practices — which have been used for many years in bread baking — include scaling, weighing your ingredients, converting to the metric system, scaling your salt separately and precisely, making a few changes with leavening and pre-ferments, paying attention to mixing and hydration, controlling the temperature of your dough, pre-shaping and shaping gently, providing the dough with adequate support during proofing, scoring, baking at the right temperature and moisture level, and waiting to eat the bread until it has cooled.

While most home-bakers measure ingredients by volume, Senders suggests using scales and applying the metric system for the best results — or a ratio system called “baker’s math.”

“Bread formulas are best understood as ratios —for “so much” flour use “so much” water and “so much” salt. Thinking of formulas as ratios makes it easy to make large and small batches from the same formula,” he said.

According to Senders, the best way to become a better baker is to become a better fermenter.

“One simple way to improve your bread is to use a smaller initial inoculation of leavening. Instead of adding large quantities of yeast, create a “pre-ferment” from the flour you have scaled for your bread, and use the pre-ferment to leaven the final dough. The resulting breads have better flavor and better keeping quality,” Senders said.

Senders also suggests experimenting with different formulas to see what works best and notes that local flours tend to ferment more actively than any commercial flour. Additionally, he points out that if you are not baking regularly, you will want to wake your starter up a few days in advance.

When it comes to mixing, Senders recommends keeping it to a minimum. As mix time increases, flavor and aroma decrease, crumb tightens and color bleaches out.

“Our experience with Farmer Ground flour has taught us that less is more. We opt for extremely short and gentle mixes and mix in two phases, allowing a long rest between mixes. This rest period allows the starches and proteins in the dough to absorb water and it allows the gluten to begin to form coherent strands,” he said.

The rest period in between mixes can be anywhere from 15 minutes to as much as an hour but Senders notes that you shouldn’t go too much longer because once the flour is hydrated the enzymes begin to bread down the wheat starches into sugars and also will begin to break down the proteins.

During the second mix, Senders said to add in the salt and any additional leavening.

“We rarely mix longer than three minutes, and usually our mixes are shorter than that. Longer mixes diminish the quality of the bread,” he said.

Senders points out that his doughs are underdeveloped and that they generally tear before they form a “gluten window” and gain their strength during fermentation, and through a process of turning and folding.

In terms of hydration, Senders stresses that the water should be added in the appropriate amount and at correct temperature and needs to be precise.

“The ratio of flour to water in dough makes a big difference in the quality of the resulting bread. Doughs made with more water generally ferment faster, hold their shape less, spread wider in the oven, and require a higher baking temperature. At the Wide Awake Bakery we have found that most of our Farmer Ground flour breads do best when they are hydrated at levels between 74 and 85 percent,” he said.

Sanders does point out that not all doughs should be hydrated at this level and that moderately hydrated doughs are easier to work with.

In terms of temperature control, Sanders suggests controlling the temperature of your dough as it ferments so that you can control how long fermentation takes. In the process you gain a measure of control over the fermentation and the flavor and profile of the bread. Temperature control is best accomplished through use of colder or warmer water.

In terms of fermentation and folding, Senders suggests bringing your dough to full development and add strength by folding. His bakery accomplishes this through simple bucket-folds and table-folds.

“Folding is easy to do, and it is remarkably effective. With only one or two folds you can give dough the same strength and development as a long mix, but without any of the negative side effects,” he said.

After folding and fermentation, Senders recommends dividing the dough accurately and efficiently and pre-shaping gently.

“Every time you cut the dough, you are severing long gluten chains and these chains are what will become the final crumb of your bread. Shaping is critical for the final loaf because during the shaping process the skin of the dough is pulled tight, forming a membrane that contains the pressure created by the fermentation gasses. If the skin is uneven or broken, the final loaf will likely become misshapen or torn,” he said.

At this stage the dough is allowed to rest, covered, on the table. When the dough is shaped in the next step it is important to remember that local flours are not as strong as commercial white flours.

“As you bring your loaves into their final shape, be sensitive to the way the dough feels, and in particular, be aware of the tension you feel on the dough’s surface. Notice at what point it begins to break or tear. It takes practice,” Senders said.

Again, because of the more delicate nature of farmer-ground flours, Senders suggests supporting the loaves by proofing them in baskets with their bottom — or seam side — facing up and experimenting with proofing times and temperatures.

In the final stages of best practices, Senders suggests keeping in mind how you score your bread, and baking at the right temperature and moisture levels.

“No matter what oven you use, you will need adequate steam. Steam allows bread to spring fully, makes the crust shiny and crisp, and it helps develop crust color and flavor complexity. We also recommend allowing the bread’s internal temperature to get above 200 degrees to be sure that the starches have fully gelled,” Senders said.

Wide Awake Bakery uses several varieties of Farmer Ground’s local flours to create their breads, including high-extraction bread flour, whole wheat, all-purpose flour, spelt and rye. Each flour has distinctive characteristics that require tweaking during the baking process. For instance, all-purpose flour is lower in protein and can be delicate. Spelt is highly absorbent and can lose elasticity during fermentation. Whole wheat ferments quickly and can be extremely flavorful. And, rye behaves differently than wheat and can produce a sticky, dense dough.

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