We have had quite a run on homesteading supplies at the Back to the Land Store since the beginning of the stock market’s giant swings. When folk begin to realize that life as they have known it might not be their future, they often start to purchase items that they never thought necessary before. It seems that the very first thing they want is a non-electric water pump, the second is a wood cook stove and the third is sealed buckets of wheat berries. As I see them leave the store with their new found treasures, I often wonder if they know what to do with that wheat. With the internet close at hand, recipes and techniques are readily available, but bread making is one of those skills that you really “knead to get to get your hands into”. Much of it is technique that only experience will teach, but it surely helps to work closely with someone who has already experienced the glorious triumph of a perfectly baked loaf and the disappointment of a failed one. One “knead” not reinvent that wheel. Let the CAG know when you are interested in attending a bread-making class so that we can schedule it. When I teach bread baking, I usually start with quick breads like biscuits, cornbread and popovers and then move on the yeast breads and sourdough. Each type has its own chemistry and techniques which are surely worthy to learn, but, times being as they are, I think learning to make sourdough bread is the most practical skill to learn. To explain why I chose sourdough, I knead (there it is again) to point out that the characteristics that separate the types of breads are the types of grains and the types of leavening agents. While quick breads are simpler and easier to make, most depend on baking powder, a combination of baking soda and cream of tartar. Baking powder is inexpensive and easy to use. However, it has a relatively short shelf life. It should last 6 months after opening and longer if not opened, but it loses its potency over time. Packaged dry yeast will also lose its potency as it ages. Keeping it in the freezer helps, but it also has a finite life span. Sourdough cultures, on the other hand, can survive forever with very little care. Now, pay attention! I am not talking about what the Amish call sourdough or what was called Friendship Bread when it was all the rage in the 80’s. That bread, although “friendly” to the palate, will drive you crazy. It has to be fed well and often. Potato flakes are usually used to keep it going and unless you have a lot of friends and cousins with whom to share a cup of kindness, you find yourself having to discard a quantity of your stash every week - not to mention the stress of having to remember to feed the baby and bake every week whether you want to or not. I am talking about the kind of culture originally derived from the combination of flour, water and wild yeasts that are present in the air. In older times bakers kept their culture alive by adding some of the dough from an earlier batch to a new batch of bread and thus the culture stayed alive and active. Although they didn’t understand the chemistry behind it, the old timers knew that it worked. Today we can start with a dehydrated, dormant version of an ancient culture, turn it into an active culture and keep it long enough to pass it on in our wills. If the word “sustainable” did not generate such negative feelings in me, I would use it to describe sourdough bread. Establishing a culture and learning to make artisan bread from stored wheat can assure that you and your family will always be stocked with bread without having to visit the grocery store. Artisan Sourdough Bread 1 cup sourdough culture 6-8 cups all purpose flour, divided (depends on the flour) 4 ½ cups water, divided 1 ½ Tablespoon sea salt The process looks like this. The night before you intend to bake, remove your saved culture from the refrigerator.
- Take out 1 cup of your stash and combine it with 3 cups flour and 3 cups water. Mix and cover to “work” for about 12 hours. Add a cup each of flour and water to your stash and put it back in the refrigerator for the next baking.
- The next morning add 1 ½ cups each flour and water to the mix and allow to rest for an hour.
- Add more flour and salt until a soft dough is formed. I use a stand mixer. When the dough cleans the sides of the bowl, I have added enough flour. Knead for 10 minutes on medium speed or by hand, if you prefer. Sourdough will be slightly softer dough than those made with yeast, but it should hold its shape without slumping.
- Place the dough in a large, covered straight sided container which has been sprayed with cooking spray. I use a semi-transparent bucket with measurements so I can calculate how much the dough has risen.
- After it has doubled in size, gently punch it down and divide evenly. Round it. Rounding is a technique that forms the smooth “cloak” on the outside. Place the loaf on parchment paper that has been sprinkle with coarse cornmeal or grits. Believe me, this is the easiest way to handle it. I have tried all the other methods just so you won’t have to.
- Allow to rise about an hour depending on the temperature in the room. Sourdough may not double in size. About 40 minutes before baking, set your oven to 450 degrees. If you have a baking stone, place it on the middle shelf and a jellyroll pan on the bottom shelf.
- With a razor blade, slash the tops in some artistic design, but be sure to make the slashes deep enough to allow the loaf to open up and all the way down to the bottom. Otherwise, it will bulge out in places that you did not plan. Paint the loaves with an egg-wash made by beating one egg with 1 tablespoon water.
- I use a peel (like the pizza man) to transfer the loaves to the baking stone. Not only does it keep me away from the oven and support the loaves, it makes me look like I know what I’m doing. As soon as the loaves are in, pour one cup of water into the pan on the bottom and quickly close the oven door. Steam is sourdough’s friend.
- Bake 30 minutes or until a thermometer reads 200 degrees. Cool completely on a rack.
There is a lot more to making bread than mixing some four, yeast and water then tossing it in an oven. As Al over at CAGmain says, "We can provide you the 80% solution on the internet, the other 20% requires hands on experience, otherwise, it's all just theory."
I hope you enjoyed my first article in this collaboration between The Back to the Land Store and the Crisis Application Group. We look forward to developing this relationship as a training and education venue that one might call a "Readiness University".