Friday, March 19, 2010

The secret to better bread

I've been on a baking spree lately - determined to bake the perfect loaf. It seemed no matter how many recipes I followed however, or the myriad of techniques, I always ended up with woeful results. Oh sure, it looked like bread, but it tasted like heavy and dense yeast!

Don't believe me? Compare the results for yourselves!! Below is a loaf I made yesterday (right) and a loaf I made today (left).

What did I do differently? Unbleached flour. It actually allows the yeast to do it's job properly, which is lift the dough to twice it's size. Normal flour (although not marked "bleached" in the list of ingredients) will counteract the yeast, and defy the biological reaction required for making bread. That's what bleaching does to flour. It kills off the vital living components needed.

Did you know that unless labeled "unbleached", chances are, the flour listed on the packets ingredients, has been bleached.

Not very good if you're attempting to bake bread as good as the local bakery. But isn't a freshly baked loaf of bread, a thing of beauty when done right?

Figuring out exactly how to get the perfect loaf, can be a bit of a mystery though. I have to let you in on a little secret however. I used to be a bakery assistant many years ago. Surprising? Well, you have to do something for a crust! (*wink-wink*) Seriously though, we used something called "bakers flour" in the bakery, and I always wondered what was so different about it. Something magical must have been in there, because I could never bake things as nice at home, as I could in the bakery.

Being a bakery assistant and not a trade-qualified (TQ) baker however, I didn't understand much of what I was doing. It all just came in bags and I put it together the way the TQ bakers told me to. It all seemed to work exactly how they said it would too. So why-o-why couldn't I get the same results at home?

I'll tell you why. Plain flour. It's actually labeled a flour, but I doubt very little of the whole food required to be classed as one, is present. That's really why two distinct types of flour have emerged. Labeled either, "bakers flour" or, "plain flour". I'm sure you've seen both on your supermarket shelves. Baker's flour is meant to have magical voodoo powers that turn average kitchen cooks into budding professional bakers. Plain flour is for people on a budget. Who would actually know the difference of what goes into them however?

Isn't flour just flour? Well, in our dumbed down, in the name of profit, society, flour is the sole ownership of the flour producing companies. They can put whatever they want in it, and you as the consumer, pay more or less for the kinds of results you want in your kitchen. If you want great bread, pay for the "bakers flour" with the picture of a golden loaf on the front. If you want great pancakes, pay for the "pancake mix" in the convenient plastic pouring bottle.

Have you smelled flour that is alive when you cook with it? It's a thing of beauty. All living things are. But if you've never used whole foods before, you will always fall short of the mark. Bakers flour is just code for real ground wheat that will work as a living product should. And bread is a living product.

I guess I've had the luxury of working in a bakery however, and that really gave me the input to not just make bread, but also feel the tactile pleasure of yeast and flour, wofting smells and finally the satisfaction of a customer as they approached the counter - wanting the freshest loaf you could put in a bag, that didn't burn straight through it.

I felt that same sensation this morning, when both my daughter and I marveled at a magical golden loaf that somehow came out of our oven. There was nothing magical about it's creation however, we've known for centuries how to make bread - but our flour has gone into the hands of professional marketers who want to provide a value added "packet of solutions", that really just comes from less processed foods.

Yet they still sell us the powdery artificial residue (ie: plain flour) at a cheaper price. I wonder why? Make of it what you will. ;)

My advice, next time you're looking for a mid-range but not heavily processed flour option for bread making purposes - look to the very bottom shelves, where you'll see bulk flour often labeled, "unbleached".

I recently purchased 5kg of unbleached bakers flour for $10 (AUD) which works out to about $2 per kilogram. The best flour to use is the stuff you grind yourself, but I think that takes a particular dedication not all of us can adopt. Pricing of grain mills being one major hurtle.

But "I" don't want to kid you either...there's a lot of practice involved in making a good loaf of bread too. Patience is a vital ingredient, and it's free - but you need plenty of it if you are to get anywhere making bread. Just don't necessarily fall for the marketing of "bakers flour", when it's basically just less processed flour with fewer chemical additives. Organic doesn't necessarily mean unbleached either. Make sure it says organic AND unbleached.

The list of ingredients I had on my bulk purchase of flour recently, was unbleached wheaten flour and thiamine. While it sounds so simple, the results speak for themselves.

Makes you wonder why they sell the other stuff? Being cheaper doesn't necessarily mean it works, or even that it can be classed as a proper food group. Now that I've gotten reacquainted with my unbleached bakers flour however, I can see me using it for practically everything. I may even start getting lighter pancakes again!

Can't you just smell it now...?


  1. I can smell it! I can practically taste it too! LOL!
    I couldn't believe the difference in your two loaves. Its almost as if they were two different recipes, but I know better:)
    I'd have to go dig out my notes on flour but like yourself, I avoid bleached flour altogether. I'm thinking that its a difference between what is available in the U.S versus Australia, but I believe that some flours also have more of a protein content (the unbleached having higher content) and that also contributes to success.It didn't occur to me that bleached would actually interfere with yeast though so thanks for pointing it out to me. One more thing to add to the notes.

    I wish you and yours more happy loaves of lofty lovely healthy bread. Your daughter must of been thrilled with the results.

  2. I had a light bulb moment when reading the start of your post. Wish I had have known that years ago when we were baking our own bread.

    BTW last time I checked, 5kg of flour at $20 a bag would make it $4 a kg.

  3. Ha-ha, rebel, my family could actually eat this one, without feeling like it was pound cake. ;)

    It's no surprise people get confused about what's in their flour though. I mean, flour companies have pretty clever product labelling. For example, they don't label their highly processed and cheap flours, "bleached".

    It's sounds much nicer when you can say "plain" flour instead. That way they can save the "unbleached" labelling to impress the more fanatical consumers like us. ;)

    The flour companies say that bleaching gets rid of impurities, but when it comes to baking bread, those "impurities" (otherwise known as natural food released from milled grain) actually gives the yeast it's ability to ferment vigorously.

    And vigorous fermenting makes for better bread, LOL.

    But you're right about protein too. Ironcially, they're also naturally occuring in milled grains, until they're bleached out.

    I'm experimenting with a sourdough starter at the moment, which I hope will teach me more about the way naturally occuring yeast works. I want to be able to kick the store bought yeast altogether.

    Reckon I've got a lot of baking ahead of me though.

    Doh! *pun intended* ;)

  4. Hi geoff, thanks for visting and leaving your comments. :)

    You're absolutely right about the math. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

    When I go shopping again, I'll have to check the lable on the shelf. Now I've either gotten it confused with $2 per 100grams, as opposed to $2 per kilogram. OR, I actually paid $10 for 5kgs.

    I lost my shopping docket (first time this year - we're actually saving them too) so I'll be back to clarify where I got the maths confused.

    Thanks for the heads up! :)

  5. Chris, you could always pave the sidewalk with the dense loaves! LOL!

    In the U.S. the bleached flour is actually labeled as such. The other kind is labeled as unbleached. I know the term "plain flour" to mean white flour or else it is applied when pastry flour is recommended but that is usually in cookbooks, not on the shelves. And then we have cake flour which I have never used and is also labeled. I make my cakes with regular old flour:)

    Most of my bread books talk about the superiority of French flour which has the best protein content but we also have more reputable companies that have blends of
    bread flours that are said to be that good.

    Good luck on the sourdough thing! Its easy to do but my problem is that once I stick the starter in the fridge, it might as well be dead! I forget about it completely after a week or so and then find it months later and don't like what I see! LOL! My tip is to keep it in the front of the fridge and treat it like a goldfish. Admire it, feed it but don't worry that much about it. Just don't forget it!!!!!

  6. Very interesting read:) I cheat, I use a bread maker and bread flour.

  7. I can smell it!!!

    I tried making some bread in my friend's breadmaker but it always falls apart - I used a spelt recipe and a rye recipe and it happened to both!!

  8. nice loaf :o)
    i also use the unbleached flour, mix it in the bread maker to save time & bake it in the oven. think ill make a loaf to go with the giant turkey legs i got from the butcher yesterday. baked dinner mmmmm

  9. It's great to see so many people interested in baking their own bread. :)

    FT, spelt and rye are heavier bread mixes. I haven't tried them myself yet (a future project) but I'm sure there must be a few simple secrets to the perfect heavy loaf.

    My experiments with sourdough recently, has demonstrated the vast difference between fresh yeast (sourdough culture) and dried yeast. Now that I've had a chance to work with fresh yeast, it's much more forgiving to bread recipes. Anything I baked with dried yeast, had the tendency to fall apart or basically lack the texture of soft, fluffy bread.

    Maybe the secret to a good heavy loaf, is a fresh yeast culture? I'm definitely going to have to experiment with that one. :)

    I also found out I got the price wrong on my supermarket shelf. I'll have to edit my original post to reflect it, but I actually paid $10 for 5kgs unbleached bakers flour.

    I got it confused with the 20kg bag I was also eyeing off at the time, that was $20. Sorry for the confusion.

    Once again however, it's great to see so many people baking their own bread. May all your loaves in future, be fresh ones. ;)


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