April ABODE: What makes good bread better

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(File photo)

Bread is made from grain, liquid, leavener, and love. Laugh if you will at the last ingredient, but without love in bread, you may find yourself in the bread aisle of the supermarket, attempting to choose between Limp Insipid (made with high fructose corn syrup) and Limp Insipid with Added Fiber (also made with high fructose corn syrup).

Travel to the bakery department of the same supermarket, and (while the packaging and the shapes may advertise variety) in reality all the breads are practically the same. In addition to stabilizers, substitutes, and preservatives, these breads are composed of flour that is splintered, denatured, bleached, and then enriched and mixed with water, salt substitutes, and high fructose corn syrup.

Let’s back up for a moment.

Almost any grain can be made into bread. Not coincidentally, almost any grain can be made into porridge of some sort. What’s bread got that porridge doesn’t have? Well, one can carry it and share it with others, and a nice crusty bread will stay fresh on the inside for a couple of days.

Grains are seeds, so within them are contained all of the necessary elements to sprout and sustain life—protein, fat, and carbohydrate. When grains are ground into flour, the fat and protein is removed from its protective coating of carbohydrate and exposed to air and moisture, signaling the seed to sprout. If conditions aren’t conducive to sprouting, the protein will begin to decay and the fat will go rancid (typically in a matter of months).

RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Croutons
Nothing could be simpler than making croutons from fresh bread. Begin with a delicious bread that has oil content, fat content, and flavor, and your crouton-making becomes as simple as cubing the bread and leaving it at room temperature for eight hours or so. Fresh croutons like these will be perfect in a salad dressed in vinaigrette or a light creamy dressing, because they are still somewhat absorbent and yet crunchy enough to complement lettuces.
For true homemade croutons, cube the bread and let it stale for a day, then toss it in olive oil, salt and pepper (try dribbling the olive oil down the sides of the bowl as you toss the cubes—better distribution, and the trick works for popcorn as well). Should you be inclined to include fresh herbs, chop them and then add them to the croutons when they come out of the oven, tossing again to distribute.

If you are following a recipe for stuffing, consider that
your high quality bread will be “thirstier” than the White Won-
der, and adjust the quantity of broth or water for moistening.—L.R.

It is the carbohydrate component (separated from the other two) that has excellent capacity for longer-term storage, but it is the fat and the protein that balance absorption of the carbohydrates within the human system—remove them and you have removed much of the nutrition and all of the character of the flour.

Breads can be made from whole grains that are freshly ground. They will have a toothier texture, a stronger aroma, and likely be more aggressively seasoned so that the full flavor of the whole grain flour is balanced by other strong flavors. In general, whole grain doughs require more liquid and a lower, slower cooking time.

Water is the most common liquid component, but breads are also crafted from dough moistened with beer and milk. The liquid component serves to link together long chains of carbohydrates, and in the case of wheat flours, “develop” the texture and integrity of the loaf. As the dough expands in the heat of the oven, it is rich gluten development that allows it to puff up, solidify, and hold its splendid shape.

The most common leavener in bread is yeast, which is actually a living organism that exhales bubbles of lighter-than-air carbon dioxide. A well-developed crust encapsulates these bubbles and allows the crumb of the bread to expand; it also “catches” it when the temperature comes back down and the yeast is no longer active. Other leaveners include butter, eggs and cream (the fat expands as the temperature rises), plus the magical (chemical) combination of baking soda and baking powder.

The responsibility of bread craftsmanship is a weighty matter, and always requires physical labor, attention to detail, and the ability to adjust for environmental changes in temperature and humidity. That’s where the love comes in. A great bread is an outgrowth of its place and its people—Middle Eastern flatbreads for scooping stews on communal plates, the crusty French baguette strapped onto a bicycle like firewood, soft dinner rolls at Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving.

It is comforting to know that here among our neighbors are professional Makers of Bread, and that the dough is rising even now. Local bakeries and home bakers abound here in Central Virginia, so treat yourself to a few loaves of great bread (ask for freezing guidance!) and then play with them in the kitchen. Charlottesville City Market begins again this month (hooray!) and handmade breads, sweets, and even bagels and donuts are there for the eating.

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