When I was growing up on a dairy farm, my mom baked bread each week. She made 11 loaves of bread which the family (7 children, 1 grandma and 2 parents) handily devoured by the time the next baking day came around. She used a big old aluminum wash basin to mix up that huge amount of dough; she was very efficient and her bread rarely produced a “flub” as she would call something that wasn’t up to her standards. It had nice “oven spring” (the last bit of rising that the bread does when it first hits the hot air in the oven) and a very nice even “crumb” (the texture on the inside of the bread that you see when you slice into it). We slathered that fresh bread with butter (courtesy of our cows who provided milk for Land O’ Lakes butter, not that they really had a say in the matter) and jams. I didn’t realize until after I left home for college, just how much I loved those generous slices of homemade bread.
My mom used very traditional bread making techniques just as our grandma who lived with us had done. She started early in the morning and by late afternoon, we had 11 fresh loaves of heavenly smelling bread cooling on the counter. This new method of delayed fermentation that Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads uses in many of his recipes actually occurs over the course of 2 days, or even longer if your schedule prevents you from completing the bread the following day. Before you say “Humph” and abandon the idea of baking bread this way, I want to assure you that the actual hands-on time you spend with the dough is no greater and often less than you would spend using the more traditional methods.
The basic technique or method involves mixing up two separate doughs (he calls them pre-doughs) on the first day and then allowing them to rest overnight. The relatively long period of rest time reduces the amount of time that you have to spend kneading, AND most importantly, that is what produces a very flavorful bread. One of the pre-doughs contains just a little bit of commercial instant yeast, and that one he refers to as the starter, or biga. The other is a soaker. The main purpose of the soaker is to soften up grains that are coarsely ground by hydrating them in water overnight. The other important thing the soaker does is to give the dough time to release its’ flavor. I will leave it to Peter Reinhart to explain the chemical changes that occur to make that happen. The biga must be refrigerated for at least 8 hours and up to 3 days. The soaker should be left at room temperature if it will be used within the next 24 hours. If not, refrigerate the soaker too.
The next day (or 2 to 3 days later) you can bring the biga and soaker to room temperature, mix them together along with the remainder of the final dough ingredients and proceed with making the bread. This process fits into a busy schedule actually somewhat better than a traditional method for me. (I have returned to work, by the way). When I’ve refrigerated both the biga and soaker, with plans to make the bread two days later, I will remove them from the refrigerator before going to work on baking day, so that they will have come to room temperature by the time I get home. Peter says to allow two hours for the pre-doughs to come to room temperature, but my kitchen is probably cooler than many during the winter months (~68 F) so things warm up very slowly. It works for me to just put the two bowls under a big towel in the coolest part of the kitchen for several hours. I’m not worried about the soaker being out for several hours–there’s no yeast in it. If I’m worried about the biga warming too much, I can cover the biga bowl with a plate, place a small ice pack on the plate and cover with a second plate turned upside down (like a flying saucer). Throw the big towel over the whole thing. The ice pack will slowly thaw over a few hours and delay the biga warming up to room temperature until later in the day. In the summer though, I would put the dough in our basement, which is significantly cooler than the rest of the house. Take care to avoid leaving the bowls in direct sunlight in any case. When I use the above method, I can be ready to bake the bread about 3 1/2 hours after getting home from work.
The hardest thing about baking bread before bed is keeping the other residents in your house from cutting into the warm loaf, which, by the way, is contraindicated anyhow. A loaf needs to cool for at least an hour before cutting into it. That allows the internal heat of the loaf to finish baking the bread on the rack. Further, the full flavor of the bread will not be evident until after it has cooled. You just gotta trust me on this. I know it’s tempting to eat warm bread, but really, just wait at least an hour.
Next time I have to throw out a couple great recipes for special butters to spread on this awesome whole grain bread.