Brown bread

10 December 2012

Brown bread: crust Brown bread: crumb I’m told that brown bread is healthier than white bread. White flour is sifted and bolted to remove the bran and the germ of the wheat; as a result wholemeal bread contains more vitamins, minerals, and fibre than white. Personally, I don’t worry about the health aspects too much. I figure that if my diet as a whole is healthy, a slice or two of white bread each day isn’t going to kill me.

In any case, food – and bread in particular – should never be a penance. I think traditional white sourdough is the best general-purpose bread, but brown bread is delicious in its own right. It’s great toasted for breakfast, with sharp cheese, or to soak up the broth from a rustic soup. Wholemeal bread can and should be a pleasure to eat.

But I think we can all agree that the texture of brown bread is usually inferior to that of white. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, white flour (in particular the high grade flour used in bread) contains much more gluten than wholemeal flour. Secondly, the flakes of bran in wholemeal flour are sharp enough that they pop the bubbles of gas that form in the dough before the bubbles are big enough to leaven the bread properly. The bran also absorbs a lot of water that could otherwise aid in gluten development. As a result, brown bread is often dense, crumbly, and dry.

The solution is to add extra gluten to the dough, in the form of gluten flour. This recipe also uses a very wet dough (with a hydration – the ratio between the weights of water and flour – of about 82%) and a very long fermentation. The result is improved gluten development, and better flavour and texture.

  • For one medium loaf:
    500 g wholemeal flour
    25 g gluten flour
    10–12 g salt (to taste)
    ½ tsp instant yeast
    430 ml water
    Extra flour for dusting
  • In a large bowl, thoroughly mix together the dry ingredients, then add the water. Mix until there are no dry lumps. This should happen quickly, because the dough is so wet.
  • Cover the dough tightly and leave it to ferment at room temperature for 12 hours.
  • Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Shape into a ball by gently folding the edges of the dough into the centre, then pinch the folds to form a seam. Try not to push too much gas out of the dough.
  • Cover a smooth tea towel with flour. Put the dough in the middle of the towel, seam side down, and transfer the towel and dough to a bowl that will help the loaf keep its shape.
  • Leave the dough to rise for one hour. This final rise prior to baking is called “proofing”.
  • 30 minutes before the proofing period is up, pre-heat a heavy, heat-proof pot – I use cast iron – in the bottom of your oven at 225°C.
  • When the dough is proofed, you can optionally cut deep slashes into the top. This makes the loaf rise in a more predictable way in the oven, and it looks nice.
  • Carefully take the pot out of the oven, and transfer the dough from the towel into the pot. Bake the bread in the pot, with the lid on, for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for a further 20 minutes. The finished bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
  • Leave the loaf to cool on a wire rack for at least two hours before cutting into it. I know it’s tempting to eat bread hot from the oven, but this step is necessary for the crumb – the inside of the bread – to set. If you don’t let the bread cool completely before slicing, it will turn back into dough!