This crispy goodness came out of my oven. There are many great breads out there. Why bother making my own?

This bread was made with only three ingredients: grain, water and salt. I do not use commercial flour. I buy local grain and grind it in a small mill that sits on my countertop. I do not use commercial yeast. I grow my own using freshly milled flour and water (and bacteria in my home). I do not sift the flour and my mill does not discard any part of the grain during milling. So my flour is truthfully whole, or, like the French say, integral.

White flour is obviously a very different product than the whole-grain kind. In the process of making white flour, most of the grain is discarded. Furthermore, many countries mandate enrichment or fortification of white flour. In Canada, for example, white flour must have at least five other ingredients.

But even if we turn to whole-wheat flour, the kind sold in stores is still very different than freshly milled integral flour. According to Michael Pollan’s research described in his book Cooked, commercial whole-wheat flour is essentially while flour with bran added. If you don’t discard the germ, the flour will go rancid pretty quickly, so truly whole-grain flour, where no part of the grain is discarded, is impractical for commercial distribution and storage. Freshly milled integral flour is possibly healthier than commercial whole-wheat kind. Though I don’t know of studies to back that up (except a study on rats described here), I have certainly noticed for myself that eating my bread does not produce the unpleasant effects, i.e., the rapid expansion of my waist line, that eating commercial whole-grain and white breads does, even if those breads are organic, non-GMO and with no additives.

There is lots of published wisdom on baking wild-yeast breads. Likewise, there are wonderful resources on baking from whole-wheat flour. That said, I have not seen a single source that tells you how to bake (1) from 100% freshly ground flour with no part of the grain discarded, (2) without adding any commercial yeast.

I buy my grain from a local farm Fieldstone Organics. I use their Red Fife wheat and Khorasan (a.k.a. Kamut) wheat for baking. Both are non-GMO and have not been modified from their ancient form. Kamut is believed to have been cultivated since 4000 BC. Red Fife wheat is a Canadian heritage wheat that was brought from Scotland in the 19th century and is believed to be the “mother” of most wheats grown today in the prairies. The type of grain I use is super important for the quality of the final loaf. To get a loaf that rises well and has a strong crumb, I need to use wheat with the high percentage of protein. The grains I use have 15% protein content. I tried baking with Emmer, a low-protein grain with only 10% protein content. The loaf did not rise as well and the crumb looked condensed and “wet”.

I grind the grain using this Komo Fidibus 21 mill that became an integral part of my kitchen décor.

Overview of the bread baking process

Wrapping one’s head around the bread baking process can be a challenge. I’ll summarize the steps first and then will cover each in detail.

Growing wild yeast — 5 days
You perform this step only once. At the end of it you have the seed culture — a piece of dough with lots of yeast in it. You use this seed culture to make the mother starter. The mother starter then lives in your fridge forever. You periodically feed it with with flour and water and use part of it for baking. I refer to the this process as managing the mother starter.

Mixing the dough and proofing — 14 to 24 hours
This process involves combining some mother starter with flour, water and salt to produce the final dough, and then letting it ferment.

Shaping and baking — 2-4 hours
This process involves heating the oven to the right temperature, preparing the right baking vessel, shaping the loaf, controlling the time and temperature during baking, and, finally, resting the baked loaf.

Growing wild yeast

The method for growing yeast is taken almost entirely from Peter Reinhart’s book Whole Grain Breads. The main difference is that I use only integral, freshly milled flour and water, while Peter uses commercial whole-wheat flour and adds things like pineapple juice to his starter. I also use higher hydration and feed the mother starter differently than he suggests.

Hydration of the dough is the ratio of flour to water. Hydration and other quantities in baking are usually expressed using baker’s percentage. Flour is always deemed 100%, and all other ingredients are measured relative to it. So if I use 200g of flour and 160g of water, the flour is 100%, the water is 80%, and the hydration ratio is 80%. Hydration ratio is very important, and I will be referring to it below.

The steps below show how to make the mother starter — a culture of live yeast that lives in a flour-water mix serving as its home and food. I use Red Fife wheat for the mother starter. I always add freshly ground flour with no part of the grain discarded, so in the rest of the text I will skip these qualifiers and just say “flour”.

Making the mother starter requires first making the seed culture. This process takes a few days, but you only have to do this once. Then you use the seed culture to make the mother starter. The latter can live in your fridge forever, as long as you feed it, and you can bake bread from it anytime.

Adapted from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads

Day 1: Mix 28g of flour and 56g of water. Cover loosely and leave alone at room temperature for 48 hours. After two days, bubbles will form in the mixture. If they don’t, leave the mixture alone for another 24 hours. I prefer to keep the culture in a glass container, so I can easily check for the presence of bubbles by looking through the glass.

Day 3: Add to the mixture 14g of freshly ground flour and 28g of water. Mix everything well, cover loosely and leave at room temperature for another 1–2 days. When the mixture becomes bubbly again, proceed to the next step.

Day 4 or 5: Add 42g or flour and 42g of water to the mixture. Cover loosely and leave at room temperature for another 24 hours or until it becomes bubbly.

Day 5 or 6: Use half of the mixture we have so far (discard or give away the rest) and add to it 56g of flour and 42g of water. Leave on the counter top (covered loosely) until it becomes bubbly again.

At this point we have the seed culture. Here is how to turn it into the mother starter:

Take 100g of the seed culture. Add to it 290g of flour and 235g of water (about 81% hydration). Mix everything well and leave in on the counter (covered loosely) for a few hours. At this point I have a bit more than 600g of the mother starter. I will use 400g to bake one loaf, and put the rest in the fridge in a tightly covered container. I will use it later (e.g., within 3 days) to make more starter and to bake my next loaf.

Before explaining how I bake the bread, I will explain how I manage the starter, so that I never run out and never throw any away.

In the previous step I ended up with 200g of the mother starter sitting in the fridge. After about 3 days, when I am ready to bake again, I feed that starter such that I have enough to bake a new loaf and to keep some for later:

1. I take the entire 200g of the starter and add to it 240g of new flour (again, the Red Fife wheat) and 160g of water. This gives me roughly 66% hydration, though when I mix the dough I wet my hand and more water migrates into the dough as I mix, so the real hydration is probably around 70%. Peter Reinhart recommends 75% hydration, just for reference. After the feeding, I have about 600g of freshly fed starter.

2. Within 8–10 hours I will use some of this starter to make the final dough. Now, I have two options for where to keep the starter during these 8–10 hours: (1) in the fridge or (2) on the counter. I prefer to keep the starter in the fridge, because this gives me a loaf that rises better. Sometimes I let the starter sit on the counter for a couple hours before putting it in the fridge.

3. After the 8–12 hours have elapsed, I will take 400g of the recently fed starter for the final dough (as I explain below), and put the remaining 200g in the fridge to wait for the next feeding and baking. In a few days, when I am ready to bake again, I repeat these steps.

As a result, I always have some starter handy and I never through anything away. This works if I bake every 2–3 days.

Mixing the dough and proofing

The recipe of the dough closely resembles that of Peter Reinhart’s. The difference is that I don’t use commercial yeast or other ingredients and my hydration ratio and other proportions are slightly different.

The proofing and shaping techniques are my own: the methods suggested in Peter’s book and in Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread (an excellent book!) did not work at all for my high-hydration dough and were not suitable for my schedule. My method allows leaving the dough unattended during proofing (so I can go to work or sleep) and allows handling this very wet dough without ruining the loaf.

I will describe the recipe assuming that I begin mixing the dough in the evening before going to bed, do a little extra mixing in the morning (e.g., before going to work) and then bake in the late afternoon. You can obviously adjust these steps for any other scheduling constraints, such as if you want to have a loaf ready for breakfast.

The fermentation times are reported based on the ambient temperature in my kitchen. Time and temperature are crucial to the flavour and structure of the loaf. I report the times that worked for me, but longer or shorter fermentation times might be needed for colder or warmer ambient temperatures. That said, I don’t worry too much if I left the bread fermenting a couple of hours longer than planned. It may not rise as high, but the flavour will still be delicious.

The night before baking. I feed the mother starter as described above, so I have a total of 600g. I tightly cover the container and put it in the fridge until I am ready to mix the final dough, usually the next morning.

Then I prepare a soaker (a term used by Peter Reinhart), which is simply a mix of water and flour that you prepare about 8 hours before mixing the final dough. Peter recommends soaking whole-wheat flours to soften the bran so as to develop stronger gluten.

Soaker: Into a clean bowl, I grind 240g of Kamut wheat, and add 5/8 tsp of sea salt and 160g of water. As I mix everything together, I keep wetting my hand under the stream of running water to prevent the flour from sticking. So I probably end up with a slightly higher hydration ratio than the 66% that the 240/160 flour-water ratio suggests. I put my soaker in a container, cover it tightly with a lid so it doesn’t develop a crust, and let it sit on the counter overnight.

Next morning. Final dough: I take the container with the starter from the fridge, take 400g of the starter out, and put the container with the remaining 200g back into the fridge. At this pointer, the starter smells like fresh apples, or, if you are a wine geek, like Viognier. I add the 400g of starter I took out and all the soaker into a bowl, along with 5/8 tsp of sea salt. I mix for a few minutes, wetting the hand if necessary to avoid sticking, but taking care not to wet it too much, to avoid significantly increasing the dough’s hydration.

Getting hydration “just right” is crucial if I want a loaf that rises well. If the dough is too hydrated, the loaf will be flat (like focaccia). If it’s not wet enough, it’ll be too dense, and while won’t be flat, it’ll have trouble rising to its highest potential. Even though I measure out my water in grams, when I add it to the dough, ambient temperature and humidity will affect how much water remains in the starter and soaker as they proof overnight, so adjusting the hydration via the hand-wetting method is necessary. Through trial and error, I determined how the properly hydrated dough should “feels like”.

Unless the starter is overfermented, the dough feels very strong, and I need to rip it apart in pieces to make sure the different wheat types mix very well. Good mixing is crucial for a good crumb. That said, mixing never takes a long time. I mix for a couple of minutes, and as I feel the dough beginning to resist, I let it rest on the counter for a few. Then I mix again, and let it rest again. When I mix for the third time, the dough usually fees supple and soft, yet strong. This is when I form it into a ball.

I take a clean bowl, a piece of parchment paper and line the bowl with it. The parchment must be longer than the bowl, like on this picture:

I will be using that parchment to pull the dough out of the bowl when it’s time to bake. The dough is very wet, so it’ll be hard to take it out of the bowl by hand without de-gassing it and ruining the shape of the final loaf. Hence I need this prop. I oil the paper and the sides of the bowl that are not covered by the paper, so the dough slides out of the bowl and off the paper more easily.

I tried proofing my dough in a proofing basket lined with a floured kitchen towel, as suggested by professional bakers, but that did not work. My dough was so wet that no matter how much flour I’d put on the towel, it would still stick to it, giving me a disfigured flat loaf. I also tried proofing the loaf in the same container that I used for baking. That produced a loaf with no crust on the bottom and on the sides, and with a somewhat imploded top — not appetizing. After much trial and much more error I invented this oily-parchment-paper method that produces beautiful loafs.

I roll the dough into a ball and put it into the bowl on the parchment paper. If there are any seams on the dough, I place the ball seamless side down, as this will be the top of the baked loaf.

I usually perform the above steps in the morning and leave the dough to ferment on the counter for a few hours. I don’t touch the dough at all during fermentation. In my current environment (Vancouver winter, home temperature 20 C), a 6 hour fermentation time seems to be ideal. That said, the ambient temperature and humidity will affect fermentation time. During very hot days in the summer letting the dough ferment for 6 hours will cause over-fermentation and a suboptimally risen loaf. The taste would still be good, but the appearance less than perfect. After baking many loafs, you’ll know when the loaf is optimally fermented — the size of the dough and the appearance of bubbles on the surface will speak for themselves. The idea is for the loaf to reach its highest point (le pointage), but not go beyond this. If the dough began to collapse after having risen — you know it’s too late.

A perfectly fermented dough will feel supple and airy, yet strong. Over-fermented dough will feel airy when you begin handling it, but promptly collapse as you try to fold it, feeling like an old rag rather than a new springy sponge.

That said, if I miss my pointage, the point of pinnacle, I don’t worry too much. Longer fermentation time makes the bread taste a bit more sour (in a good way), and look a bit more brown and “crackly”, though it won’t rise as high.

Usually bakers distinguish between two fermentation periods: bulk fermentation, which is the first period of fermentation after mixing the final dough, and the final rise, which is the second period of fermentation after shaping the loaf. My wet (66% hydration) dough did not retain the shape until the time of baking if I shaped it after bulk fermentation, so I gave up that technique. Instead I just let the dough ferment in one go (for 5–6 hours) and shape it just before baking as described below.

Shaping and baking

The bulk of the method is taken out of Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, but I made several adjustments essential for my integral flour and wet dough.

Step 1. I bake my bread in a tajine, so before turning on the oven I put the tajine inside. Chad Robertson recommends using a Dutch oven. Baking the bread in a covered vessel traps the steam generated by the dough as it bakes, producing a fantastic crust.

I bake my bread in this famine

Step 2. Put the baking vessel in the oven. Your baking vessel must have a lid, if you care about a crust, anyway. Make sure the lid is sitting tightly over the vessel, without any holes letting out the heat forming inside as the oven heats. Pre-heat the oven to 550 F. The temperatures indicated here need to be adjusted depending on the oven. Like grills, each oven has its personality, and 550 F in one oven is not the same as 550 F in another. Go figure! To get a good shiny crust in my oven, I like to wait for another 20–30 minutes after the oven says it’s pre-heated.

Step 3. As soon as the oven has pre-heated, I shape my loaf. I take the dough out of the proofing bowl by pulling the long ends of the parchment paper, as if the dough were lying on the stretcher, and put it on a board. The dough will look like a large thick pancake once taken out:

After I pull the wet dough out of the proofing bowl, it looks like a large pancake.

Step 4. The next step is very important to get the bread to rise. The dough is rather wet, so if I put it into the oven just as is, it’ll come out flat, like a ciabatta. I use the following trick to produce a nice looking bulky loaf. I carefully lift the right and left sides of the dough and fold them over as if making a package. Then I do the same by folding over the top and bottom edges. I do this very carefully, trying to not de-gas the dough. Just be careful not to de-gas the dough too much.

The same method is used by Chad Robertson, but he folds his dough before the final rise, which did not work for my wet dough. The picture below shows how the dough looks after folding.

This is how the dough looks after the two folds

This very important folding technique accomplishes two crucial objectives. First, it wraps the dough into a tight coil, so when the heat of the oven prompts it to expand it has the strength to rise. Second, it ever so slightly damages the top surface of the loaf, so that as it rises you get the coveted “ears” — cracks in the bread surface. The traditional ear-creating method, scoring, does not work for this wet dough, as I explain below.

Step 5. As soon as I have made my final fold, I transfer the bread into the baking vessel. I take the tajine out of the oven, but leave the lid inside. I lift the parchment paper with the dough and carefully flip the dough over into the tajine, such that the folded part is at the bottom of the tajine and what used to be the bottom is now the top. Then, using the kitchen scissors prepared in advance I make a tiny 1cm incision at the center of the loaf to encourage the “ear” to form at that location. I immediately put the tajine with the dough back into the oven and close the lid.

I don’t bother scoring the loaf in a traditional way. I did try, but the dough is so wet that scoring simply creates a round blob in the middle of the loaf.

Step 6. Once I put the loaf into the oven, I immediately lower the temperature to 500F. Then I bake the loaf covered for 20 minutes. Make sure the lid is tight over the baking vessel, so no steam escapes.

Step 7. After 20 minutes I lift the lid and bake it uncovered for another 10 minutes.

Step 8. Next I lower the temperature to 450 degrees and bake it for another ~7 minutes. Some books tell you to check that the internal temperature is 200 F and that the bread sounds hollow if you knock on it. After a few baking sessions, you’ll know when your bread is done just by looking at it. This final baking interval might take shorter or longer, depending on your oven.

Step 9. My goal is to let the bread cool for 2 hours before cutting it. If I cut into the loaf too early, the crumb becomes denser and wetter, and the loaf appears undercooked. That said, my family rarely has the patience to wait that long, so the loaf is usually cracked before it properly cools. If I want to serve the bread the next day, I simply put it for 5 minutes into a 500F pre-heated oven.

Here is the resulting crumb. It is dense, as one might expect from a whole-grain integral bread. I have not seen any integral loafs (in books or in life) with large holes typical of white country breads.

The taste of this bread is deep, rich and slightly, but not sour. This bread makes a statement and stands on its own, as opposed to simply being a vessel for condiments. If I bake a loaf for dinner with friends, the loaf is usually gone by the end of the dinner. Though if you happen to not finish the loaf on the same day that it was baked, pre-heat the oven to 500 F and pop the bread in it for five minutes before you eat it the following day. It will soften inside and crisp up on the outside.

Sommeliers say that sourdough breads and wine don’t work together, but I discovered that this bread is fantastic with brut Champagne or cava. The yeasts in the wine complement the yeasts in the bread, resulting in a match made in heaven. Cheers!

I research computer systems, raise young scientists and consult in the area of systems performance. I am a professor at the University of British Columbia.