It’s been 10 days coming, but today I pulled from the oven my first loaf of naturally leavened whole wheat-rye bread, loosely based on the 28-page recipe from Chad Robertson in his book, Tartine Bread. Actually, that recipe is supplemented by another 18 pages of supporting information. It’s a lot to wade through. But that’s not the whole reason it took so long to turn flour and water into bread.
Robertson’s method begins with mixing a 50/50 blend of white and whole wheat flour with water, then setting it aside for a few days to cultivate natural yeast, along with other flavor- and structure-enhancing beasties like lactic and acetic acid. My starter got good and stinky, as it should. But after feeding it once or twice by discarding some of the starter and replacing it with additional flour and water, it looked stagnant. This happens, I know, and is not the kiss of death, but I got nervous. Or possibly impatient. I threw in a couple of halved organic grapes on a whim and in a few hours it took off, bubbling up proudly and smelling gently sweet/sour. I doubt it was the natural yeasts on the grapes that made the difference; they had already been washed. More likely it was their sugar that got things churning. Whatever the reason, the starter developed a lovely aroma and burbled with yeasty excitement. I was on the road to bread.
After feeding the active starter a few days longer, it was time to make the leaven–the mixture that takes the place of commercial yeast in producing the loaves. The idea is that the slow development of natural yeasts from the flour, air, and even your fingers used in mixing the starter builds better bread: more flavor, a beautiful open-hole texture, and longer staying power. (Of course, the better the bread, the less staying power is an issue.)
I ran into the next hurdle when, having mixed the leaven the night before, I headed down to The Pasta Shop in hopes of picking up some uber-local flour from Community Grains. This new company, which grew up right around the corner from me, works with small farmers to locally grow and mill a vareity of whole grain flours. Sadly, the store was all out yesterday and expecting their delivery today. (I’m headed out shortly to pick some up for my next loaves.) So I used what I had on hand, which consisted of only a small bit of King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour, some white whole wheat from Trader Joes, and rye milled in Northern California which had been in the back of my freezer for, well, probably too long.
The bread didn’t rise high (rye is short on gluten). I had some technical difficulties with the baking method, which uses an inverted type of cast iron cooker I don’t have. Instead, I used a large Le Creuset pot, which meant a bit of maneuvering flipping the dough into the pot and scoring it. I also created make-shift raising baskets.
But despite the odds, this was The Best Bread I have ever sunk my teeth into. This is truly slow food, and one bite will remind you of the virtue in taking your time.
I can’t post Chad’s 28-page recipe here, but I can tell you the (approximate) formula I used:
200 grams leaven
850 grams water
600 grams white whole wheat flour
300 grams rye flour
100 grams white flour
20 grams salt
If you make bread, no doubt you’ll do it your own way, anyway.