The “Staff Of Life” May Be Trying To Kill You
I make no secret of the fact that I don't buy bread. Haven't in many, many years. Oh, maybe the very rare “emergency loaf,” but even then I buy it from the supermarket's bakery section. At least it's closer to being bread that way. The plastic-wrapped bread-like substances that inhabit grocery shelves are not welcome in my kitchen. I don't like the taste – or lack thereof. I don't like the gummy, pasty texture. And I really don't care to be embalmed before I'm dead by all the preservatives. The idea that I can buy a loaf of “bread” that will still be “good”.....well.... intact anyway....after several weeks in my breadbox is frankly horrifying. Like the bread my mother made when I was growing up, the bread I make today begins to mold after about a week. Less in really hot, humid weather. And that's what bread is supposed to do. It's not supposed to last until Gabriel's trumpet blows. This store-bought Franken-bread that seems to live forever is just plain unnatural.
And now the word is the stuff can kill you.
A lot of cheap, store-bought breads and other baked goods are often made with bromated flour. That is flour to which potassium bromate has been added. This additive is used to strengthen dough, increase its rise in the oven, and to impart a nice white color to the bread. Tests on lab animals also indicate that it causes significant increases in kidney, thyroid, and other cancers. A recent (2011) study shows that potassium bromate can damage human DNA and cause oxidative stress. Potassium bromate is nephrotoxic in humans, meaning it has a poisonous effect on the kidneys when it’s taken orally. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified the substance as a “potential human carcinogen.” And potassium bromate has long been banned as a food additive by the European Union, the U.K., Canada, and Brazil. Here in the U.S. – where we have the best monitoring agency big corporate money can buy – the FDA allows the stuff to be fed to us, although they do set a limit of seventy-five parts per million. Short of banning potassium bromate outright, as other countries have done, our FDA “urges” bakers to “voluntarily” stop using it. And a lot of the major national bakeries have done just that, opting to use other “safer” additives to achieve the same effect. But many of the smaller, local “mom and pop” bakers still use the stuff because it's cheap and easy. Check your labels. To date, only California requires warnings to be posted on bromated products. Everybody else has to read the fine print.
Watch your flour, too. If you bake at home, beware of bleached and bromated flours. Bleaching and bromating are not the same thing, although they do serve much the same purpose. In bleaching, a chemical like benzoyl peroxide or calcium peroxide is introduced to the flour to aid in gluten development and to make it nice and white. Both of which are entirely unnecessary. And benzoyl peroxide and calcium peroxide are hardly lily white (sorry) when it come to health. The former has many researchers questioning its effects on the human digestive system and the latter, like potassium bromate, has been banned nearly everywhere except in the U.S. Bottom line: buy flour that is clearly labeled as “unbleached” and “unbromated.” I prefer King Arthur and use it exclusively.
Bread has long been called “the staff of life.” How curious and somewhat ironic, then, that modern-day store-bought, conveniently sliced and packaged bread may be trying to kill us. I know that's a bit hyperbolic, but honestly, between the scary preservatives and the possibly carcinogenic additives, it's not far from the truth. All the more reason to make it yourself.
Omar Khayyam waxed rhapsodic about a jug of wine and a loaf of bread. On the subject of bread and "whine," here's my favorite: “I don't have the ti-i-i-i-i-i-i-ime.” Or maybe, “It's too ha-a-a-a-a-ard.” Both are completely specious and bogus excuses. Whether for catering or home use, I bake all my own breads. French baguettes, crusty Italian loaves, pizza crusts, grissini, garlic knots, dinner rolls, sandwich rolls, or just plain old white sandwich bread – I bake 'em all. None take more than a couple of hours and none are at all “ha-a-a-a-a-ard” to make.
One of the easiest and most delicious bread doughs in my repertoire is made up of three ingredients and it doesn't even require kneading. It's a “slack dough” recipe, meaning it produces a very wet dough, and your refrigerator does most of the work. Best of all, the dough keeps in the fridge for up to two weeks. Make up a loaf today and when you use it up, reach into the chill chest, grab another handful of dough, and bake up another loaf. It really is that simple.
A couple of phenomenal bakers, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François, produced a wonderful book, "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day." A lot of other bakers, including yours truly and the skilled artisans at King Arthur, have adopted and adapted their recipe for a delicious “no-knead” crusty artisan bread. You'll never find an easier or more delicious bread than this one.
One quick note: American bakers are the only ones in the world who still use “cups” as a standard of measurement. Everybody else weighs their ingredients. Digital scales are dirt cheap and I use mine for everything. If you're going to get serious about baking (or cooking), rustle up a scale.
For this recipe, you're going to need 907.2 grams (32 ounces; 2 pounds) of unbleached all-purpose flour. Again, I recommend King Arthur, but if you have another preference, just make sure it's unbleached. If you insist on using cups, allow for 6 ½ to 7 ½ cups. The difference is in the method of measuring you use. If you are a “sprinkle and sweeper,” that is, if you kind of fluff up or aerate your flour by scooping it out of the bag and into a cup, then leveling it off, you'll use the greater amount. If you are a “dip and sweeper,” one who dips a cup into the bag, tamps it down and sweeps off the excess, you'll use the lesser amount. If you want to do it right, you'll just weigh it.
You'll also need 3 cups (24 ounces) of lukewarm (about 105°F) water, 1 tablespoon (14 g; ½ oz) salt, and 1 ½ tablespoons (14 g; ½ oz) of instant yeast.
Combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Mix everything together until a very rough, very sticky dough forms. I wouldn't try this one in a bread machine. For one thing, two pounds of flour will overwhelm most of them. Same goes for cheap, low-powered stand mixers. If you don't have a KitchenAid or something of equal power, just mix it by hand using a big wooden paddle or spoon or a dough whisk. If you do have a decent stand mixer, about a minute at medium speed with the beater blade rather than the dough hook will do the job.
Now you just let it rise. My advice would be to invest in a restaurant quality six-quart food grade plastic container. You can get one at a restaurant supply store for five or six bucks. And you can use it for a ton of things besides bread dough. Otherwise, come up with a large sealable plastic container of some sort. You don't have to grease the container, but a shot of Pam will help in the long run. Transfer the dough from the bowl to the prepared container, cover it loosely (don't snap the lid on airtight) and let it sit at room temperature for about two hours. Then stick it in the refrigerator for at least two hours before you try to use it. Overnight is best. The beauty of this is dough is that it can actually live in the fridge for up to two weeks. One week is recommended by some sources, but others say two weeks works. Because of the volume of bread I bake, mine has never lasted more than a week so I don't know from personal experience. The longer you keep it, the more flavor it will develop. Don't be surprised if it tastes a little like sourdough after about a week.
To make bread out of this mass of dough, just reach in there and pull out a big hunk; about ¼ of the dough. If you have a scale, it should weigh in at about one pound, give or take an ounce. You might want to flour your hands a little bit if the dough is really sticky. Hold the dough and dust it with a little flour, then quickly shape it into a ball. Try to get a nice tight surface by stretching the dough around to the bottom on all sides, rotating ¼ turns as you go. Don't worry if it's not perfect.
Place the shaped dough on a parchment lined peel. “Wait a minute,” you ask, “who's got one of those?” Well...I've got two. But a flat, rimless baking sheet works as well. Cover the dough loosely with a towel and let it stand in a warm, draft free place for about one hour or until the dough is slightly puffed up and no longer feels cold.
Thirty minutes before you're ready to bake, place a baking stone on the center oven rack. “Baking stone?” Okay, don't worry about it. Just use the flat baking sheet. And you know that broiler pan that came with your oven that you never use? Time to use it. Stick it on the bottom rack. Now preheat your oven to 450°.
Dust the top of your loaf with a little more flour and, with a very sharp knife, make two or three 1/4-inch deep slashes in the top of the loaf. Then either slide the loaf with the parchment paper onto the baking stone or just slip your parchment lined baking sheet into the oven. Quickly pour a cup of water into the broiler pan (to create steam) and close the oven door.
Bake for thirty minutes or until your loaf is a deep golden brown. If you have an instant read thermometer, your bread should temp at 190° to 200°. But the old “tap it and if it sounds hollow it's done” trick works, too. Cool your boule (that's French for “ball,” which is what you've got) on a wire rack and you've got delicious, nutritious, preservative-free bread. How nutritious? I'll tell you: an average slice contains 80 cal; 0 g total fat; 0 g unsaturated fat; 2.5 g protein; 16.5 g carb; 0 mg cholesterol; 135 mg sodium; .5 g fiber.
There you have it: a killer recipe for bread that won't try to kill you. Enjoy!