The Secret To Making Really Great 100-Percent Whole Grain Bread

published Feb 7, 2013
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

As we’ve said before, it’s hard to make a 100 percent whole grain bread that doesn’t end up dense and heavy. That’s why it’s suggested to mix in all-purpose flour with your whole grain flour. (Emma does a 50:50 blend.) But Mark Bittman set out to make a delicious 100 percent whole grain bread, to find a recipe that brought out the best of whole grains. He got pretty close, and in the process, discovered three secrets that made it possible:

As Bittman writes in this week’s NYT Dining Section, there are three secrets to great whole grain bread: “the food processor, the overnight rise and the sourdough starter.” Greatness in whole grain bread takes time, he stresses. If you don’t have time, you’re going to end up with bread that falls far below its potential.

The first secret he discovered was to ditch the kneading. Kneading dough by hand for 15-20 minutes, as he tells it, was never actually necessary but rather “a requirement of a particular kind of bread made in a relatively hurried fashion using a relatively large amount of domesticated (that is, store-bought) yeast.” That process has been replaced with the food processor, (a “key ingredient”) which can “knead” the dough in as little as 45 seconds, essentially moving and developing the yeast in the same way as an overnight rise.

The overnight rise is the second essential. Fans of

Jim Lahey’s no-knead technique

But perhaps the most important secret to great 100 percent whole grain bread is this: the sourdough starter. In fact, Bittman says that it’s the only way to make a truly 100 percent whole grain bread. (His sourdough recipe uses all whole grain flours, unlike the baguette recipe, which has some all-purpose flour in it.) A whole grain sourdough bread takes time, but again, no kneading. The rye recipe he offers is “the find of a lifetime” for those who like “a dense, chewy, flavorful loaf.”

Here are his three best whole-grain recipes:

Not-Quite-Whole-Grain Baguettes (made with 3/4 cup whole wheat flour, 3 cups all-purpose flour)
Sourdough Rye (mad with 2 cups rye flour, 2 cups whole-wheat, and 1 1/2 cups cracked rye)
Whole-Wheat Focaccia (made with 3 cups whole-wheat flour)

Bittman does admit there is only so much whole grain you can add and still achieve “a light loaf with a crisp, shattering crust and an interior that pulls pleasantly.” Whole grains will never respond to yeast quite the same way white flour does.

Adding something like 10 percent of whole wheat or rye or barley flour to a white dough gives you something like what the French call pain complet, but it’s not complet at all; it’s just white bread with a little whole wheat in it, like the stuff they sell in stores. Adding 20 or 30 percent gives you a distinctive loaf that has the benefits of both, and it has become my standard. Adding 50 percent or more pretty much robs you of the reasons you started with white flour in the first place. If that’s what you want, make sourdough, or cheat.

Do you have a favorite 100 percent whole grain bread recipe? What secrets have you discovered?

Read More: The Wheat Lowdown by Mark Bittman | The New York Times

Related: From Whole Wheat to Multi-Grain Peasant: 10 Homemade Bread Recipes