Monday, October 20, 2014

Whidbey Bread: Whole Grains for the Home Baker, a Bread Lab workshop

Organized jointly by Washington State University (WSU) Extension-Island CountyWSU Mt Vernon Research and Extension Center and the Grain Gathering, Whidbey Bread took place over a day and a half in early September on the bucolic grounds of the Pacific Rim Institute in Coupeville, Washington, drawing participants from thirty-five cities, four States and British Columbia. If you have never been to Whidbey Island, then it's time to go. Come with me and not only will you get a glimpse of a lovely corner of our beautiful Earth but you will get some tips from The Bread Lab on how to bake with local flours.
From Clinton where the Mukilteo ferry lands (Mukilteo is about one hour north of Seattle) to Coupeville where we are headed, the island is a blur of water, forests, prairies, small lakes, fields and farms, not to mention sleepy homes and minuscule villages. On good days, mountain views are everywhere. The occasional deer stares as you drive by then goes back to methodically eating a gardener's tastiest flowers, ferries and other boats glide in and out of the landscape, the air is rich with the smell of the sea.

Once you reach the Institute though, all traces of the ocean vanish and, looking at the tiny test fields, all you can think of is how landscape evolves as men come and go.
First on the land were the Salish Indians who had established permanent homes on Whidbey as early as in the early fourteenth century, living off natural resources such as fish,  shellfish, game, fowl, roots, hazelnuts and berries. Tragically they were decimated in the late eighteenth century by the smallpox and syphilis Euro-American explorers, sailors, hunters and missionaries brought with them when they arrived on the island. Entire villages were wiped out. Tensions were high. There were acts of violence. Many of the Salish survivors moved (were moved?) to a reservation off island in nearby La Conner. (For more on the history of Whidbey Island, you may want to check out this document,  my source for the above info).
White settlers farmed the land, rejoicing in the fertility of the prairie. In 1919, a farmer in nearby Ebey's Prairie set a world record by producing one hundred and seventeen bushels of wheat per acre, using horse-powered machinery. To give you an idea of the magnitude of such yield, according to Dr. Stephen Jones, wheat breeder, professor and Director of WSU extension in Mt Vernon (Steve Jones also runs The Bread Lab), the average yield today in heavily mechanized Kansas is thirty-four bushels. And yet, yet, wheat steadily migrated to the Midwest and although it is trickling back East and West thanks to the efforts of  breeders such as Dr. Jones, of farmers anxious to get more value out of their rotation crops, of bakers working with millers and growers to bring back forgotten local flavors, of consumers choosing to eschew industrial bread, of the sixty millions acres of wheat grown in this country today, only two and a half millions are grown in Washington (all the figures are from Dr. Jones) and Ebey's Landing is now part of the National Historical Reserve for the State of Washington.
One hundred years ago, one hundred thousand acres of wheat were grown across the Sound in nearby Skagit Valley. "That knowledge is gone, the area has lost its grain culture," Dr. Jones says (more on this here). But the Research Center in Mt Vernon is testing more than forty thousand varieties of wheat and The Bread Lab is doing its part to reverse the trend by helping farmers identify varieties that do well under local conditions and whose flavor and functional properties are appealing to bakers.
Steve Lyon, Senior Scientific Assistant at WSU-Research Center in Mt Vernon, took us on a tour of the test plots, demonstrating combine-harvesting...
...and discussing wheat breeding as well as the differences from one variety from another. It was strangely moving to be reminded that the flavors we love and nutrition we crave originate with the humble seed.
As Steve Lyon explained though, all grain isn't created equal and working with local wheats can be a challenge, one that Dr. Jones is happy to take on: "The way we breed wheat now in this country is that we breed for white endosperm and throw the germ away." He has banned white flour - which he calls "dead flour" - from The Bread Lab and advocates using whole-grain across the board, from bread to pastry. "The average plastic bag bread contains twenty to twenty-five ingredients (and almost always vital gluten). Twenty-one of these ingredients are not needed. All you need to make bread is freshly milled flour, salt, water and a starter of some sort." The Bread Lab attracts bakers from all over the country anxious to hone their baking skills on sometimes unpredictable flours that deliver unique flavors and plenty of nutrition. The goal of the workshop is to help home bakers use these flours as well, both in bread and in pastries.
The bread section of the workshop was taught by Jonathan Bethony-McDowell, baker-in-residence at The Bread Lab...
...the pastry section by Wendy Scherer, head baker for Tom Douglas' restaurants in Seattle. Since I am not really a pastry baker, this post covers only bread. Hopefully another blogger will post about Wendy's excellent demo. Wendy was using whole-grain flour from a Washington State hard spring white wheat called Edison.
I didn't get to taste Wendy's pastries or even to see all of them as we left a bit early on Saturday afternoon but judging from my glimpse of the cinnamon rolls, I am pretty sure they were a big hit.

Wendy Scherer's whole-grain cinnamon rolls
Jonathan starts off his talk by paying tribute to the home bakers who, according to him, often show more enthusiasm and thirst for deep knowledge than professional ones. Indeed, he says, it was Dave Miller, whom he calls "the ultimate home baker," who introduced him to whole grains. The "hidden master" who bakes from his house in the golden hills near Chico, California, was his first big inspiration. Very open, hospitable and knowledgeable, Dave freely shared his method and techniques. His doughs are highly hydrated and the single most important piece of information the young baker took home from his visit is that when baking with whole grain you need to use ten to fifteen percent more water because of the higher fiber content. It is impossible to say with precision how much water a baker is going to need for a specific formula: no two whole-wheat flours are identical. Each has its own flavors and functional properties, depending not only on the variety but also on how the wheat was grown, in what type of soil, etc. The baker has to roll with the challenges. "Watch the dough and adjust for hydration: this is where the journey begins," says Jonathan.

Jonathan likes to mix everything by hand. For the purpose of the workshop, he is making two identical doughs using different whole wheat flours: commercial flour bought in a bag from Camas Country Mills in Oregon and flour that is being milled as he speaks (from Renan wheat - a French cultivar - grown in nearby Skagit Valley.) He will bake both boules and pan bread.

(Formula yields two large loaves)
  • Mix the levain by hand and place in a warm area for 2-3 hrs. It should appear active and bubbly, though on the young side. You may want to increase this if you plan on saving some to perpetuate your culture.
  • Mix all of the flour and 800 grams of the water together in a large bowl until well incorporated.
  • Let rest for 45 minutes to hydrate.
  • Then add all of the levain, all of the salt and 100 grams more of water to the dough and mix well by squeezing and folding it in on itself.
  • After moderate development, let rest for a 5 - 10 minutes and return to mixing.
  • As you develop more strength into the dough, you can add the rest of the water (up to 250 grams) in two additions, mixing and developing the dough in between. Mix time should take around 20-30 minutes by hand.
  • Let the dough ferment in the bowl for 3 hours. Every 45 minutes, fold the dough in on itself evenly in order to strengthen. Dough should be wet, yet supple and tenacious.
  • Divide in half and shape into boules. Let rest 10 -20 minutes.
  • Final shape into boules or blunt batards and then proof seam side up in well-dusted, linen-lined baskets for 1 hour.
  • Then place into a refrigerator for 8 -14 hrs.
  • Remove from refrigerator and let sit room temp for about a half an hour.
  • Remove from baskets by turning them upside down onto a well dusted peel. You may need to gently loosen the edges before removing.
  • Slash with a sharp razor and bake in hot (500 deg.) hearth oven for around 45 minutes until dark and 212 degrees F in the center.
  • If baking in a non-hearth oven you can also use a pre-heated dutch oven, or any heavy baking container with a lid. Remove the lid in the last 10 minutes of the bake.
  • Let cool for a minimum of 1 hour before slicing. 4 -24 hours is better…
What follows are the notes and photos I took during the demo.
  • Jonathan uses a 100% hydration, 100% whole-wheat starter fed with freshly milled flour and refreshed two or three hours before mixing in order to get a milder taste (as yeast populates before bacteria). 
  • He feeds his starter everyday, sometimes three or four times a day (but you don't have to): "The more regular you are, the more your starter will adjust to you (it is a question of survival for the organisms that live in it)."
  • A white starter goes a lot slower than a whole-grain one, so it is good at slowing things down.
  • All you need to start a starter is flour and water on a one-to-one ratio. Freshly milled whole-grain flour provides more food for the starter than white flour. You can also use whole rye flour (that’s what goes the fastest).
  • A pH between 3.8 and 4.5 is where your levain will be (neutral pH = 7.) The lower the number, the more acidic the starter. Once the pH is below 4.5, yeast and bacteria start to work it out.
Refers to a period of rest after the initial mixing of flour and water (no salt). Gives gluten a chance to develop on its own, cutting down on mixing time, which means the dough heats up less and doesn't oxidize as much.
  • Very important with whole gains because of the bran. The bran needs to get supple and for that, it needs water and time. "But then the best breads need time."
  • When mixing, you need a certain amount of friction to develop strength, so don’t add water all at once. Assess the dough as the flour hydrates, add some of the held back water, let it rest, go back, assess again, etc. 
  • Once water and flour are incorporated, let the dough rest.
  • You can autolyse for a day if you like: more sugars become available, there is more enzymatic activity. The dough will be slacker though. Experiment and see what you like best.
  • Flour out of the bag is really dry and soaks up the water. Moisture contents varies considerably though. Each flour has its own hydration. There is a big difference between fresh flour and stone-milled commercial flour in terms of water absorption: bagged flour takes way more water to yield same consistency as the Renan. In this case,  Jonathan had to up the hydration on the Camas bagged flour dough to close to 100%.
  • Putting levain in the autolyse is optional. It helps with the breakdown even more but the drawback is that you are then on a time frame because fermentation starts.
  • When done with the autolyse, add levain and salt.
  • Jonathan keeps his hands wet when mixing. "Do not add flour. If your hands get sticky, rinse them off."
  • There is no one way to mix. Squeezing works. "It is important to evenly squeeze and make bonds happen."
  • With wetter doughs, more squeezing. "At the beginning, you can also use old school kneading to develop strength."
  • Keep folding dough over on itself before starting to add water.
  • Let it rest for a while, then go back to it. It will have changed.
  • When a dough is very wet, roll and push, then rotate.
  • "You don’t want to be rough with the dough. "Think of it as giving it a massage."
  • Freshly milled dough is way coarser, yielding heartier bread. Finer flour yields a more open crumb.
  • The idea behind folding is to strengthen the dough while it is fermenting. The number of folds depends on the dough.
  • Do not use flour on the table.
  • Do a letter-fold.
  • If folding in bowl, watch out for tearing. Use flat hands, not claws. Make sure the tension remains even over the four sides.
  • If not retarding in the fridge, do a three-hour bulk fermentation at room temperature, followed by a ninety-minute to two-hour proofing. 
  • A short bulk fermentation at room temperature, then a long proof at room temperature make for a tighter crumb.
  • You will get a more irregular crumb by doing a long bulk fermentation followed by a short proof.
  • Sourdough likes 78 to 80 degrees for fermentation (favors both yeast and bacteria equally),
  • If room temperature is colder, use warmer water when mixing or give fermentation more time. Using warm water gives fermentation a little boost.
Pre-shaping and shaping
  • Pre-shaping gives you another chance to tighten a slack dough. By contrast, if the dough is strong, be very gentle and help it relax.
  • If the dough is not very gassy, let it rest in the pre-shape longer whereas if it looks very active, move on to shaping quicker.
  • To shape wet dough, fold it four ways as you do when strengthening it (see Fermenting), then roll it.
  • Once you are done, just drag the loaf slighlty with your pinkies underneath. Do not wind it on the table (it makes for a denser crumb).
  • Let it rest a moment on the table before putting it in a basket.
  • Dredge it in flour.
  • Use a scraper to pick up the shaped dough.
  • For really wet dough, best to use a linen-lined wicker basket. Dust the basket with flour (Jonathan sticks to whole wheat flour). Try not to get too much flour at bottom of basket, mostly flour the sides. At this stage it is better to err on the side of too much flour than not enough. Also dredge the loaf in flour before putting it in basket.
  • If using a pan, spray it with oil. If using semolina to dust baskets, mix it with fifty-percent whole wheat flour.
  • When putting your loaf in the pan, don’t fill the pan till the ends. A wet dough will expand. (Different from drier dough).
  • Pay attention to details. The more you pay attention, the more you learn. Bread baking eaches patience and handling skills. "It is a holistic system: it teaches you how to handle those whom you care about."
  • For a boule, make a parcel, flip it over so that the weak spot is at the bottom and there will be no need to score.
  • For a pan bread, dust the shaped pullman with a little flour, then score.
  • As it is easier to cut when the dough is tauter, you can do more ornate cuts when you score after shaping and before proofing. 
  • You want a deep cut (¼ to ⅓ of an inch)
  • Another good technique is to take scissors and go down the middle (after proofing)
  • If you want an ear to form, score at a 45° angle to get a flap. If you cut straight in, the scoring will open wide.
  • Wet dough: use the fridge to chill it just before you bake it (after proofing it almost all the way for about 30 min at room temperature or cold overnight): it makes it easier to score and easier to get out of the basket.
  • A good technique for home bakers is to use a Dutch oven.
  • Or use steam: Bob Bryan, a serious home baker who lives on Whidbey and is Jonathan's assistant for the workshop, uses a steam machine, covering the glass in the door of the oven with a towel when he sprays the water into a restaurant pan holding lava stones.
  • Use whatever steaming technique works for you.
  • For whole-grain bread, bake 20 min at 500°F  (white bread at 75% hydration should be baked at 460°F).
  • Remove the top of the Dutch oven after the first twenty minutes. Bake another thirty minutes. Check for doneness by tapping the bottom of the loaf with your knuckles. It should make a hollow sound. If it doesn't, put it back in the oven for another few minutes.
The bread came out beautiful. The taste of the grain shone through. I wish I had written down the difference in flavor (if any) between the bagged flour from Oregon and the freshly milled one because to save my live, I can't remember if one bread was tastier than the other. What I do remember clearly however is thinking that no matter how interesting the workshop and demos were, in practical terms, they weren't much help to the home baker if access to local wheat was an issue. And for most of us, it is.
In Washington State, I lived close to a chain of natural food stores that carried local flours and within easy driving distance from a mill and farms selling flours milled from the grains they grew. Where I am now in California, my options are pretty much limited to supermarket flours unless I order online or travel to a big city where more choices are available, albeit at a price that makes home baking an expensive proposition. Even on Whidbey Island, close to grain-growing Skagit Valley, a show of hands makes it clear that access to most of the wheats Jonathan is talking about remains very limited. The closest most of us can get to a local wheat is by ordering online from Camas Country Mills. So I would say the first order of business is to get local flours out to the home baker! One possibility for us home bakers across the country could be to follow the example of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, to get organized geographically and to bulk-order from farmers or millers in our state or region. Meetup anyone? Let's start the ball rolling! Until then, to quote Steve Jones, we might be be stuck to baking with roller-milled "soul-less, nameless wheat."
I couldn't possibly close the post without mentioning that, on the second day of the workshop, Gerry Betz and Larry Lowary, my friends from Tree-Top Baking down in South Whidbey, brought in an amazing array of whole-grain breakfast treats. These pastries were a most persuasive introduction to Wendy's demo if it needed one!
Tree-Top Baking's Spelt-Apricot Scones (100% whole-grain)

Tree-Top Baking's Cardamom Rolls (50% whole-grain)
Even though I do not have much of a sweet tooth, I fell really hard for the spelt-apricot scones and Larry kindly gave me permission to post the formula. Thanks, Larry!


  1. Combine dry ingredients.
  2. Cut in butter.
  3. Add water. 
  4. When baked 3/4 way, remove from oven, create indent and fill with jam/filling of choice.
  5. Bake in pre-heated 400° F oven.


  1. Hi MC,
    As always, thank you for all of the above. I love reading about these people who are plugging away together at a monumental task. All about passion and caring. Would be great if they could sell to homemakers as you mentioned at the end. The woman I buy my grains from has a business run out of her garage and she buys from local farms as well as from growers in Montana, Kansas, Nebraska and, as far away as Canada. She is already 'established' so maybe some day….
    Thanks again for sharing and I loved the history too. Never knew that about Washington. History is so important in getting people more involved in their communities where they can actually make a change.
    Take Care, JanetH

  2. Hi, thanks for sharing this. It was very informative and inspirational. Bluebird Grain Farms in the Methow Valley, Washington State grow Emmer Farro and Einka among other grains. They also mill flour to order. Again thanks for sharing this with us.



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