A wash or a glaze as it is sometimes called, is a finish that is gently brushed on the proofed loaf just before scoring (if you plan to do so) and sliding it into the oven. In this context, I am not referring to the sweet paste or glaze that we think of with a glazed doughnut or a sweet cinnamon roll; those are often applied after the bread has been removed from the oven. The wash that I am talking about here does not so much add flavor to the loaf, but rather, contributes to a nice golden brown crust and a beautiful sheen. Additionally, a wash will provide a moist finish which will encourage toppings to cling to the surface as it bakes. A wash serves those two functions in bread baking, however a wash is not always desired. There are some beautiful breads that I do not embellish with a shiny crust. For example, I may not want a wash on a large peasant bread. For those, I may prefer to pursue the very dark, crackly appearance found with a very hot steamy oven. So, the first order of business is for the baker to decide if a wash is desired at all. And if so, which one.
A very basic wash can be made by adding 2 – 3 tsp. of water to a lightly beaten egg. Apply the wash with a very soft brush that will not stress a tenderly proofed loaf. Avoid those pastry brushes that can be quite stiff. My favorite brush is made of silicone and is about 2″ wide so that I can quickly cover the loaf with the wash. There have been times when I didn’t take care to cover the entire loaf with the wash, and the result is a rather streaked, less than attractive finish.
There are a few little modifications that can be made with the wash. Milk can be used in place of the water, which will make a somewhat warmer looking finish. If, for some reason, you want a very pale finish, you might use just the egg white and some water for the wash. If you really desire a darker finish, you might add a 1/2 tsp of honey, or even a little brown sugar. Both will darken the crust. Using my imagination a little, I could darken the wash with a bit of water in which raisins were boiled. Or even just a dab of molasses in the wash. That might be great on a loaf of anadama bread which has molasses in the dough already.
If you forgot to apply a wash before baking, you might choose to brush the baked loaf with butter, or with oil, although I prefer the taste of butter, unless the bread is a focaccia in which case, olive oil is the best! Be aware, though, that when you brush the loaf after it has been baked, it will soften the crust a bit, in case that is not what you were going for. Some people brush the bread with milk before baking and again with butter after baking. My mother always brushed her loaves with butter. (Land O’ Lakes butter, to be exact). I have never actually tried the milk and butter washes, but I am thinking that next time I make a batch of dinner rolls, I will try that.
Laurel Robertson suggests the following wash in her Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, for use on rye bread; or on any other bread, for that matter. She says to stir 1/2 tsp. of cornstarch into 1/4 c. cold water on the stove “Boil it for 5 minutes, or until it clears completely.” She suggests that since this is such a small amount, you may wish to double or triple the recipe and keep it in the refrigerator for a week or more. She says to brush the wash on the loaves after baking; return the loaves to the oven for a minute. Or, you can brush them halfway through the bake and again at the end, as above. I have never tried this myself, I think, because I like to sprinkle other toppings on my rye bread.
And now, on to the toppings, which I love to play with. I have a whole shelf of mason jars containing an assortment of goodies (nuts, seeds, bran, oats) which I have scoured from my local Whole Foods Co-op to try out for toppings on my breads. By the way, I have to say that I have been so happy to have a Whole Foods Co-op nearby. It is wonderful to be able to buy just a small amount of something to try out. I have several favorite seeds: raw pumpkin, sunflower, flax, sesame, poppy, caraway and amaranth. (I keep the poppy and sesame seeds in the refrigerator, though.) A woman that I took a bread baking class from, gave me a recipe which I believe came from Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery. Contained within that recipe is the following seed mixture which is awesome! I believe her exact words were, “this is crazy good.” She was right! Mix the following:
Seed Mixture: 2 T. amaranth, 1/2 c. sesame seeds, 3 T. poppy seeds, 3 1/2 T. anise seeds, and 1 T. fennel seeds. Mix these together and spread on a cookie sheet. Batards may be spritzed with water and rolled in the seeds before the final proof. I keep the remainder of the seeds in a mason jar in the fridge for future use. Sometimes I use that same seed mixture on a somewhat milder flavored bread dough by spritzing just the top of the loaf with water and sprinkling with the seed mixture. Also awesome!
I always keep pecans, walnuts and sliced almonds on hand, for the occasional bread that calls out for one of them. Pine nuts need to stay in the fridge. Rolled oats make a nice topping as does wheat bran and flaxseed meal. Sometimes the only “topping” I want is plain flour. That can be beautiful on a loaf that is then scored and popped into the oven to show off its’ inner crust with a lovely oven spring. Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book also recommends choosing an embellishment that “looks” like one would expect the bread to taste. Good common sense, I think. If your guests’ eyes tell her she’s about to eat a piece of cinnamon bread, and then her mouth tastes something like a sour rye bread, the experience won’t be very pleasant, even if the bread is really a good rye.
The next embellishment I will talk about will be scoring. More fun to come! Happy baking!