Know that ad on Indian TV where Bipasha Basu tells that you’re eating all-purpose flour in the name of a biscuit? Well it’s pretty much the same with white bread or even a lot of the so called brown bread of the supermarket variety. Even the more expensive supposedly “real” whole wheat breads with a bit of bran sprinkled on the top, a mix of a little whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour. The brown colour in these “pretender” whole wheat loaves more often than not comes from the addition of caramel to the bread dough!
So what’s wrong with all-purpose flour? Nothing much really except that it’s nutritionally just carbohydrates and little else. And that’s just fine if one uses all-purpose flour sparingly. However, though whole wheat flour is richer in fibre and other nutrients, the truth of the matter really is the whole wheat is not very easily digested by human beings and I’m not talking about the gluten intolerant or those suffering from Celiac Disease.
I learned about the school of thought that if you soak your whole grain flours overnight, especially whole wheat flour, it breaks down the phytates in them, aids mineral absorption and makes them softer and more digestible.
A 100% whole wheat bread is not very warmly received in my home, though I quite like it occasionally. The major reason for this unpopularity is that whole wheat breads tend to be dense so whenever I do bake what my family calls my “healthy” breads, I tend to use a 50-50 combination of whole wheat and all-purpose flours. This makes my bread nutritionally better and somewhat satisfies the demand for softer bread.
To pass my family’s test for “good bread” this whole wheat bread would have to look and taste pretty close to a well risen white bread. Some people might tell you that it’s the knowledge that you’re eating what’s good for you that matters but we all know that argument does not cut it with most families.
I have however wanted to try making a soft 100% whole wheat bread (if that was possible) for some time now and a while back I came across rave reviews about Peter Reinhart’s recipe for such a bread. I had promised myself I would try making it and it was recent request from one of my fellow bakers in our We Knead To Bake group that had actually get down to it.
Peter Reinhart’s recipe uses a soaking procedure and the Biga/ sponge and that is the secret to the softness and texture of this bread. Other than that, it is important to knead the dough well to develop whatever little gluten there is in the whole wheat flour. Also be careful while shaping the dough into a loaf and make sure that you do not tear the risen dough as this will tear the gluten “cloak” that would have developed. Do see this video which gives you an idea on how to shape bread loaves.
This bread is not really difficult to make though it requires a little bit of planning as the Soaker (at room temperature) and the Biga/ Sponge (refrigerated) have to be made and rested for at least 12 hours. After this they can be kept refrigerated for about 2 days before baking them into bread.
I have made this bread a couple of times now. The first loaf I made was using the original recipe without any changes and I got pretty good results. I still kept feeling that I could get better results so I made some changes.
The first change was to use water to make my Soaker instead of milk because I wasn’t comfortable leaving dough mixed with milk on the kitchen counter overnight because it might spoil in my tropical temperatures. However, milk contributes to the softness of bread, so I used milk instead of water in my Biga/ Sponge which would be refrigerated and so be safe.
Then I added a little vinegar to the Soaker and the Biga/ Sponge. Vinegar tends to increase the acidity of the dough which, within limits, helps gluten development and contributes to the “bready” texture. I also added a bit of Vital Wheat Gluten, but not too much (see further down in this post), and some oil. All these helped to make a 100% whole wheat loaf which I felt was better and softer in texture.
Just in case you’re not keen on making an all whole wheat loaf (I know many people don’t), I have made this using 1 cup all-purpose flour and 3/4 cup whole wheat flour for the Soaker and for the Biga, and the bread has been excellent. Of course it rises a bit more than an all whole wheat bread so you would need to use a slightly larger loaf tin (or 2 smaller ones)
About which whole wheat flour to use, we don’t have much choice in this matter in India. If you can find it, use fine milled whole wheat flour, the real “Chakki” ground Atta and not the packaged stuff. Packaged Atta doesn’t give the best results for whole wheat bread but when one has to work with whatever is available, you can use it and bake a fairly decent whole wheat bread with it. I used the Aashirvaad brand of whole wheat flour which I use to make chappathis, to make this bread.
Vital Wheat Gluten (VWG) is protein which is extracted from wheat and sold separately to be added to low protein flours to increase the protein content. So if you add VWG to all-purpose flour you can make your own bread flour. Whole wheat flour is very low in gluten/ wheat protein which is extremely important in bread as it gives bread its characteristic texture/ chewiness and rise. So many bakers tend to add a little VWG to whole wheat flour especially when baking 100% whole wheat breads.
You can make this bread without VWG as the Soaker, the Biga/ Sponge and the honey and milk are all supposed to make it soft and give it a really good texture. I have made it both with and without and while adding a little bit of VWG does make for a slightly higher and softer bread, the one without is also pretty good. If using VWG, the rule of the thumb measurement in most cases is suggested as 1 tbsp of VWG for every 2 to 3 cups. Remember to put the VGW in the measuring cup and then top up with whole wheat flour.
If you’re interested, here’s an episode of TedTalk where Peter Reinhart talks about Whole Grain Bread
100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread.
(Adapted from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads)