Bread, My Fickle Mistress

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I’ve been baking all of our family’s bread for the last year, and it has been one roller-coaster of a ride. Every two weeks or so, I bake four loaves of bread.  My husband and oldest son eat a sandwich for lunch every weekday. Sometimes we have toast for breakfast.  Sometimes I just like to eat a piece of bread with butter for a snack.  We like bread.

When I first started the process of grinding all of our wheat and baking all of our bread, I was pretty successful.  I used this recipe, and it proved to be a good one for about the first six months.  Then something happened.  I’m not really sure what it was, but my loaves went from being light and soft to dense and hard.  The gluten didn’t develop, they tasted a little too yeasty and they fell apart easily when you tried to slice them.

But, I soldiered on.  And the boys were troopers – they kept eating their daily sandwiches on this failed bread-like substance.  I tried a variety of things to help remedy the problem – more liquid, less liquid, a different combination of flours (more red wheat, less white wheat, more kamut, some soft white wheat), honey vs. molasses vs. maple syrup vs. sucanat, butter vs. coconut oil – you name it, I tried it.  Every so often, I’d get a good loaf or two, but the next time I tried to replicate what I’d done, it was back to dense bricks.

I could even tell in the mixer that it was going to be a failure.  Instead of long, rubbery strands of gluten, the dough would just come apart in short, stubby wads.  Windowpane test?  Forget it. I was beginning to think that maybe bread and I just weren’t meant to be.

Sigh.

Then the other day, I saw this post for Oatmeal Sandwich Bread over on Art & Lemons.  She described it as “soft” and “pillow-like,”  and I knew I needed to try it.

Her recipe was based on one from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain

Note to self: buy this book.  Soon.

Anyway, the recipe seemed simple enough, and it used a technique I hadn’t tried before – autolysis.  This is where you mix the dry ingredients and liquids together and let them rest for 30 minutes before adding the salt and kneading.  From what I gather, this allows the flour to better absorb the liquid, thereby allowing for more effective gluten development.

The first batch I baked came out perfectly.  Soft, pillow-like loaves with tons of flavor and a beautiful open crumb.

The second batch?  Yea – not so much.  Flat failures.

Bread, why do you hate me so?

But once again, I soldiered on.  I turned to ye olde interwebs to discover the source of my problem, and I think perhaps I’ve been overworking my dough.  It seems, based on a number of sources, that if you over-knead your bread or if you let it over-rise, the gluten strands can break.  Who knew?  I’ve been abusing my bread all this time. Here I was blaming the bread, when all along it was me.

This time, the third time really was the charm.  This bread is kind of spectacular.  I mean, if sandwich bread can be spectacular. I think I’m in love (again).

Whole Grain Sandwich Bread (adapted from this recipe at Art & Lemons)
prep time: 45 minutes
rise time: 2 hours
bake time: 30 minutes
yields: 2 1-lb. loaves

Ingredients

  • 2 cups warm water
  • 3 Tablespoons honey (could also use maple syrup or molasses)
  • 4 Tablespoons cultured butter, melted and cooled (could also use coconut oil)
  • 1 Tablespoon active dry yeast
  • 4 cups freshly ground hard white wheat, sifted
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 tablespoon unrefined sea salt
  1. Combine water, honey, butter and yeast in the bowl of your electric mixer and let sit for 5 minutes so yeast can bloom
  2. Add the flour and oats to the water mixture and stir to combine.  Let rest for 30 minutes.
  3. Add the salt and knead in the mixer, using the dough hook attachment, for 6 minutes.  Dough will be a little sticky and should slap the sides of the bowl as it mixes.  It should be very elastic (long, rubbery strands of gluten) after six minutes.
  4. Remove the bowl from the mixer, cover with a damp towel, and let rise in a warm place for one hour (I usually preheat my oven to 150F, then turn it off and set the bowl in the warmed oven).
  5. After an hour, the dough should have doubled in volume.  Scrape it out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface.
  6. Grease two 1-lb. loaf pans
  7. Divide the dough in half and knead one half a few times, forming it into a loaf-shaped rectangle.  Repeat with the other half
  8. Place the dough in the loaf pans and cover loosely with plastic wrap
  9. Let rise in a warm place for one hour, or until doubled in bulk.
  10. Preheat the oven to 350F
  11. Carefully remove the plastic wrap and transfer the risen loaves to the oven (take care not to deflate them)
  12. Bake for 30 minutes, rotating them after the first 15 minutes to ensure even baking.
  13. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack.  Allow to cool for at least a couple of hours before slicing.
  14. Enjoy!

87 thoughts on “Bread, My Fickle Mistress

  1. Interesting! I have very little bread baking experience, my wife is the one handling that. Well, her and our bread machine. I’m glad you found the problem!

  2. I am full of admiration for you for making all of your family’s bread for the last year–wow, that’s a lot of work and dedication! I imagine occasionally a loaf doesn’t turn out, but that’s still amazing!

  3. I no longer make bread but I always enjoyed the feel of the dough and the physical effort. I know lots of people use machines, but still can’t help feeling they are missing out on the tactile experience and the development of the dough altogether, which is part of the fun and games. Thanks for sharing your solution to the ‘dead bread’ problem and I enjoy very much the way you write. ;)

  4. I love your photographs! Once I’m finished with grad school and my life re-starts, I can’t wait to start making my own bread and preserves. There’s nothing like homemade…

  5. Good for you! I love to bake bread but don’t do it nearly often enough to provide all the bread my family eats–how inspiring! I look forward to trying this recipe.

  6. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. Really good article. I love making bread but don’t often have time to knead etc so I tend to make the no knead “Artisan bread in 5 minutes a Day” which I find turns out a lovely loaf (most of the time, of course there’s always the odd failure).

  7. I’ve always wanted to make my own bread (without a breadmaker–I feel like that’s cheating) but haven’t had the chance to try. Thanks for sharing your experience; I’m not great in the kitchen but your post gives me some confidence.

    Love the title of your post by the way! :)

  8. I love making bread, I make a loaf every Saturday for myself and my boyfriend :) Nothing beats some honey and butter on a slice of fresh baked bread. Thanks for sharing and good luck with you bread-ventures :P

  9. I have had similar experiences! Just over a year ago, I switched everything over to whole wheat/grains. Some bread is great, and some not so great. I think I will try your new recipe! Thanks for sharing!

  10. The problem you discribe only happens if you use a mixer like Kitchen Aid or another stand mixer. If you kneed your dough by hand it is almost impossible to overdo it. If using a mixer try this: I first mix the dough.,then use the dough hook to knead for 3 minutes. I then let my dough rest for 5 minites and finally knead for another 3 minuted. I have never had a dough that was over worked using this method. i have been using a kithcen aid mixer for around 7 years this way. One more thought’ some of the flours you use like Kamut have very little glutin so if you use to great a quanity that will also affect the rise of your dough. I get great results when using flours like kamut just so long as they are paired with other high gluten flours.

    1. Thanks for the tips. I usually use less than 50% kamut, with the the other 50% made up of a mixture of hard red and hard white. I’ve definitely heard that the mixer may be the source of my problem, so I’ve cut the mixing time down by a few minutes. I’ll have to try your technique. Do you knead the second 3 minutes by hand or in the mixer?

      1. I knead with the kitchen aid for the last three minutes, although I always knead a few turns by hand after the dough is out of the miixer. There just isn’t any substitute for knowing how the dough should feel when it’s ready. Try a little less Kamut as well. White wheat might be a nice fit if you’ve never tried it. Also kamut goes great with whole wheat or spelt ( which has more gluten and a nice nutty flavor, plus better than white flour too.

      2. I’ll give your method a try. I usually use a mixture of hard red wheat, hard white wheat and kamut. Right now I’m out of bot kamut and red, so my next few loaves will just be with white – maybe that will make a difference, too.

  11. Looks delicious! I’ve been trying to make the switch over to whole grain and wheat bread, but I bet having freshly made bread would make it a lot easier to do!

  12. And I thought I was the only one who has spotty success with yeast! It’s taken me years to get to the point where I can comfortably tackle a bread recipe with confidence. Of course, I’m doing everything by hand… I think if I started using a mixer with a kneading arm that it’d be like starting all over again!

    Kudos for grinding your own flour and providing your family with bread. It’s quite an ambitious undertaking! I usually bake bread weekly for about 2-3 months and then I taper off, somehow. :-) And then I pick it up again when I realize how much I miss that unmistakable taste and feel of real bread. I’m looking forward to looking back through your posts and hearing more about the whole “grinding your own grain” thing. That’s always been a secret ambition of mine… right behind growing my own grain!

  13. There is nothing that makes a house smell like a home more than fresh baking bread! Well, I guess chocolate chip cookies do come in a close second. This one looks like it ids full of grainy goodness and the photos really do it justice. I will try with some fresh blueberry jam from last fall.

    Thanks

    George

  14. I’m so happy you were Freshly Pressed because now I’ve discovered this blog!

    I’m also with the commenter above, you grind your own wheat? Amazing. I used to make bread when I had a breadmaker, but it’s certainly only the halfway house between fully-handmade like yours, and buying two loaves for $5 at the supermarket.

    1. Thanks – I’m glad, too! Yes – we grind our wheat for just about all of our baked goods. There’s a tremendous difference between freshly ground whole wheat flour and the stuff you buy in bags at the grocery.

      Sometimes I secretly long for a bread maker, but I think I’d miss the process of doing it by hand.

  15. My mom baked nearly all of our bread when I was growing up, and I currently bake about 2/3 of the bread for my household (5 loaves, this week), so I both admire your persistence and sympathize with your trials. Bread is such an essential foodstuff, I always find it interesting to see how other people make it – my version is a cross between my mom’s method and the 5-minute method, and never seems to fail so long as the yeast are alive. Have you ever tried any bread recipes with much longer rise times? They largely develop the gluten on their own and tend to be more flavorful – which I guess could be a plus or a minus, depending on what you’re after.

    1. I’ve tried some other types of breads with longer rise times – like brioche and pannetone. I’ve not tried it with our regular, every day bread (mostly because I’m making it the day or the day before we’re going to need it). I’ll have to look into it, though. Thanks for the tip!

      1. If you’re interested, this is my basic recipe:

        Dissolve about 1/8 tsp yeast, a bit of molasses, and some salt in 1.5 cups of water. Add 3 cups of flour (I usually do half white and half whole wheat, but any combination that’s mostly gluten-containing flour will work) and mix until combined. Cover and leave in a cozy place for about six to eighteen hours, depending on your time constraints.

        It should have approximately doubled by the next step, but the nice thing about starting with so little yeast is it rises very slowly, so you can really come back when it’s convenient for you. Deflate it in the bowl with a rubber spatula and turn it a couple times until it behaves like a Thing instead of like glop. Dump into a greased and cornmealed loaf pan, let rise about another two hours (again, this time is not very particular). Bake at 350 F for 50 minutes. Makes one loaf; scale up as needed. You can plan for a shorter first rising by increasing the yeast.

        I usually mix it all together before I go to bed and put it in pans late in the afternoon the next day, or start it in the morning and finish after dinner. This doesn’t make spectacular bread, but it’s very reliable and eons better than store-bought, and the lack of kneading is pretty necessary for me since I make a lot of it and don’t have a mixer.

      2. I’m curious about the ratio of water to flour – does the loaf have enough structure to rise above the top of the pan? I’ve tried no-knead recipes in the past, and they’ve been rather dense and flat. I always attributed it to the excess moisture, but maybe I just used the wrong recipe. Thanks for sharing – I’ll have to give it a try.

  16. This reminded me of a chapter from “The Man Who Ate Everything.” The Chapter is called “Primal Bread” and walks through his attempts to make the perfect bread. Great Posts…thanks for sharing.

  17. I recommend a little light reading by Jeffrey Hamelman. He has a very informative book on bread that many professional bakers use as a go-to for knowledge. His book does a great job of explaining mixing methods as well as bread formulas for even an inexperienced baker. It’s called Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, and you can find it on Amazon.

  18. Thanks for this great post. I’m about a month-and-a-half into making all of the bread for my husband and myself, and so far, its been going pretty well. But I can’t wait to try this whole wheat sandwich loaf recipe!

  19. My mom has been baking our bread for a while now. She uses only sourdough starter–is this something you have tried? I highly encourage you to. Sourdoughs make the best tasting bread, in my opinion, plus there is something so special about a blend of yeasts that are completely original to you and your setting: it will last forever as long as you feed it. It’s so exciting to hear about other people baking their own bread!

  20. You are not alone. I have a love hate relationship with home made bread. When it comes out great I love it. You might have given me the secret to why my bread comes out so dense and flat. Over kneading is probably the answer. I’m going to try it on the next batch.
    Love you post!

  21. My husband is a baker, and he swears by Jim Lahey’s “No-Knead Bread” featured on the New York Times’ website. (I swear by it, too. I’m totally spoiled now.) Watch the video. Super easy. Give it a try! Cheers, Denise

  22. There is nothing like homemade bread. One of my mentors observed, “Proust had his madeleines; I am devastated by the scent of yeast bread rising.” ~Bert Greene

    I can get cultured butter, but I would be hard pressed to find freshly ground wheat.

    1. You could use regular store-bought flour, but you’d probably want to try a mixture of AP and Whole Wheat since the WW flour you find in most grocery stores tends to be dryer and heavier. Also, sifting it helps. If you can find a resource for freshly ground, though, I highly recommend it.

  23. Congrats on being freshly pressed! Your post inspires me to make my own bread. I tried once but it was a daunting task. I am inspired enough to give it a go! I really enjoyed your writing.

  24. I am referring my daughter to your marvellous blog, she is a budding baker and bread is not her friend, I must admit, I don’t cook if I can help it, but i think all you wonder hands are just that – wonderful.

  25. I love breadmaking, it’s meditative. Have you tried a wild yeast starter yet? Obsessive to say the least. Yes autolyse is important but so is every step of the way, all important, all necessary to good bread. It’s the zen of breadmaking!

  26. Sadly I have the sagging pot belly to proof I grew up in a bakery … it was hard work and I think Nick was sitting on my shoulder the whole day … for burning my for arms with the heavy trays was a given …

  27. I’ve been going through a bread revolution myself, thanks for the inspiration! you know it in the dough, but you still have to go through with baking it,…bittersweet, but a lovely craft. Awesome feeling, literally, providing bread for your family. awesome. !

  28. If I weren’t gluten intolerant, I’d jump all over this recipe. You are that good of a salesperson and writer. Thank you for an articulate, informative and entertaining post.

  29. I like to bake (cookies, cakes, biscuits, etc) but yeast sounds complicated. I have never baked anything that required it. Well, your post has tempted me to try some yeast recipes. I am going to try a loaf of bread and see what happens.

    Congrats on the FP

  30. I’m going to give this recipe a spin in my bread machine and see how it turns out. I’ll let you know – I’ve found the bread machine so far to be “my fickle mistress” :)

  31. I’m forwarding this to my husband who has been OBSESSED with making the perfect sourdough. I think it’s a masochistic thing. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

  32. Any baking that requires yeast intimidates me, so I’ve never really tried making bread before. I’ve also never been sure how to know whether you’ve kneaded enough or too much. It seems full of pitfalls, so I’m in awe that you’ve been baking your own bread for a whole year!

  33. this is the first of your posts that i’ve read and i’m hooked to your blog!! i just love it! can’t wait to make the bread too! :)

  34. Hey there, I just found your blog through freshly pressed, looking through earlier ones, and I thought it was funny because I too have been trying to perfect making whole wheat bread and even wrote a blog about it! Although I didn’t use freshly ground grain (although I want to get to that point someday!), I do feel healthier eating my own baked bread. AND the aroma that fills the house is quite nice, not to mention the price! Anyways, enjoyed your article. Now I understand why bread can be so fickle! Love your title, it’s so appropriate…

    Have a good day and happy blogging!
    Court :)

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. If you have any questions or need more information about grinding your own grain, this is a really good resource:

      http://info.breadbeckers.com/story/

      I buy all of my wheat from them, and even if you don’t live near their store, they have a number of co-ops around the country that might be convenient. It’s great that you’ve started baking your own bread – there really isn’t much better than the smell of fresh-baked bread!

  35. If you are interested, I wrote a post about bread and what each ingredient does and why it works. I’ve been grinding my own grain and ww making bread for over 35 years. I’ve had businesses off and on on the side too, so you may see something in my explanation that may help. I tagged it bread in my cloud on the side. Good luck!

  36. I love bread too, infact I could do a whole ‘ode to bread’, lol.
    Nice informative post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it :)

  37. Oooh, I have a love-hate relationship with bread! It’s my all-time favorite comfort food. Toast and tea with a good book any day!
    I’m impressed with your bread-making capabilities! I don’t think I’d have the patience!

  38. uh, I think it’s actually hard to overknead the dough without noticing it. The more you mix the more gluten develop, and the dough gets more elastic, which is what you want—unless it gets to a point that it”breaks”, which means it can no longer be stretched out–and you’ll likely to know it right away.
    Have you tried using bread flour? It has more protein(gluten) and can absorb more liquid, which will produce fluffy bread! I’m curious about your freshly grind wheat flour—sounds so healthy and full-of-flavor! Thanks for sharing!:)

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