Category Archives: bread

Sourdough-risen Cheesy Garlic Monkey Bread

the pieces in the middle don't pull apart quite as easily in the savory version because the cheese and herbs bake in more easily than sugar

This is loosely adapted from my friend Linda’s recipe for sourdough-risen cinnamon rolls. When she sent it to me, she mentioned that she’s been using it to make monkey bread because it has a higher goo: dough ratio than the rolls. With that in mind, I’m not sure I’ll ever make the roll version.

What’s With the Silly Name?

For the uninitiated, monkey bread is a pull-apart loaf usually made by pinching off pieces of dough and rolling them in something or other—often butter and cinnamon-sugar, or sometimes a caramel sauce. Raisins and pecans optional. Whatever the coating, you toss all the balls in a pan and as they rise and bake, they come together into a coherent whole. However, the coating prevents them from becoming a completely solid mass, so you can pull the pieces off by hand. You could also slice it, and then you’ll get pieces that are marbled with the coating. But I’ve never seen it served that way. As far as I’m concerned, the entire raison d’etre of monkey bread is how the form seems to dictate the method of consumption: the bubbly exterior practically begs you to tear pieces off, each one coated in flavor.

There are apparently a few theories on the origin of the “monkey bread” name. According to the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (via the Food Timeline), some people claim that it’s named after the monkey puzzle tree (Arucaria araucana). Based on pictures of the tree, that seems plausible—although I’m not sure if the name would have been a reference to the bark, which has deep irregular ridges that do kind of resemble lumps of dough baked together, or because of the interwoven pattern of scale-like leaves, or because of its spherical cones, which might resemble the balls of dough.

monkey puzzle bark monkey puzzle leaves monkey puzzle cones

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan offered another explanation when she provided the recipe to the kitchen staff to prepare for holiday visitors to the White House in 1982: “’Because when you make it, you have to monkey around with it.”

The third possibility is that it’s a reference to the way people consume the bread, not how you prepare it. . From a 2003 New York Times article that accompanied a reprint of Nancy Reagan’s recipe: “Since monkeys are known for gleefully pulling at, well, everything, it makes sense that an audience-participation loaf should be called monkey bread. Formed of balls of dough and baked in a ring mold, monkey bread emerges as golden puffs that are irresistible to both hand and eye. The idea is that you pick it apart like a bunch of . . . that it’s more fun than a barrel of. . . . You get the idea.”

just out of the oven the first piece snagged

  More fun than a barrel of garlic-covered monkeys!

Variations

I was a little surprised to see that Reagan’s recipe and the “original” attributed to actress and cookbook author ZaSu Pitts and Ann King, her African-American cook, are both just a rich, buttery yeast dough cut into pieces coated in more butter and baked. No cinnamon-sugar. No raisins or pecans. Reagan actually calls for hers to be served with jam, which is totally antithetical to the sticky-sweet version I’m most familiar with, which often starts with refrigerated biscuit dough coated in so much butter and sugar that once it’s done, it resembles a giant sticky bun.

But I guess if the essence of monkey bread is that you pull it apart by hand and eat it, there’s no rule saying it has to have cinnamon-sugar goo on it. I decided to try a savory version kind of like this recipe by Sharon123 from Food.com. I reduced the sugar in Linda’s recipe and added some cheese and herbs. Then, I rolled the balls in melted butter mixed with minced garlic and then dipped each one in a mixture of parmesan and herbs.

set-up: dough, garlic butter, topping layer one in the dish

A few other modifications: Linda usually makes a sponge for the first rise, Sandor Katz-style, which is basically all the dough ingredients except about half the flour. You let that sit for 6-8 hours and then add the rest of the flour, knead, and let it rise for another 2-4 hours before shaping, rising again, and baking. Her recipe also calls for 2 cups of water and approximately 2x the other ingredients (3 beaten eggs, about 9 cups of flour total, 1/4 cup honey, 1/4 cup oil). I decided to skip the sponge step and mix all the flour in at the beginning, and I made a smaller amount so it would fit in one pan—I used a large souffle dish, but a 10” bundt or tube pan would probably work just as well or better. Also, instead of giving it a good, long knead, I just kind of smooshed it around in the bowl a bit until it came together as a dough. So basically, this is a much lazier version.

Making a sponge would probably give you more flavor (including a more pronounced sourdough flavor if you wanted it, although you could neutralize that with some baking soda if desired), and kneading the finished dough would give you a more even crumb and perhaps a fluffier rise. But even without all that, it’s still homemade bread coated in delicious, flavorful stuff—hard to go wrong. One change I’ll make next time is to pull out my tube pan or bundt pan—the soufflé dish worked all right, but the very middle was a little dense and doughy and I think having more surface area would help with that as well as providing more toasty golden brown edge pieces.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Garlic Parmesan Monkey Bread (adapted from Linda Wan and Sharon123 on Food.com)

Ingredients:

Dough:

  • 2 cups refreshed 100%-hydration sourdough starter (see note below to substitute packaged yeast)dough ingredients--I didn't have quite enough cheddar and gouda, so I used some parmesan in the dough as well
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 4-5 cups bread flour
  • 3 Tablespoons oil or melted butter
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar, honey, or other sweetener
  • 3 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 8 oz. grated sharp cheese, like cheddar, asiago, or aged gouda
  • 1 Tablespoon dried parsley flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)

Garlic Butter:everything just mixed together, no-knead style

  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced

Topping:

  • 1/2 cup grated hard cheese, like parmesan or romano
  • 2 Tablespoons dried parsley flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

To substitute packaged yeast: increase the water to 1 3/4 cups, heat it to 110 F, dissolve 2 packages or 4 1/2 teaspoons of active dry yeast (regular or rapid-rise) in the warm water along with the sugar and let sit for 10 minutes before adding the remaining dough ingredients. Increase the flour to 5 1/2-6 1/2 cups.

Method:

1. Combine the dough ingredients and stir just until mixed. Cover and let rise for 8-24 hours (1-2 hours if using packaged yeast). The longer you let it rise, the more sour it will taste. If you want to neutralize the sourdough flavor, you can add baking soda—start with 1/2 teaspoon and add more as necessary.

2. Melt the butter and add the minced garlic, and combine the topping ingredients in a separate bowl. Pinch off walnut-sized balls of dough and roll between your palms, roll them in the melted butter, dip in the parmesan mixture and place parmesan-side up in a large tube pan, bundt pan, soufflé dish, or other baking dish.

topping-side up in the dish a big bowl of monkey balls

3. Let rise for another 2-8 hours (1 hour if using packaged yeast) or until nearly doubled in size. I only let it rise for about 3 hours, but would have let it go for 6-8 if I’d had the time, which would have also helped with the dense & doughy center issue.

4. Preheat the oven to 350F at least 20 minutes before baking, and bake until the internal temperature is 190F. Start checking after 45 minutes. A soufflé dish will take longer than the bundt/tube pan—perhaps as long as 75 minutes.

Serve warm, if possible.

Garlic Naan: Smoke Yourself Out of Your Kitchen, Deliciously

hey, January is a great time for your annual smoke detector test, right?

Naan Without a Tandoor

As I’ve written about before, the closest I’ve gotten to recreating the kind of bubbly, poufy flatbread you get at Indian restaurants is by cooking it on cast iron preheated on the stovetop as hot as it will possibly go. That gives you the charred surface and pale, pillowy edges. Oven baking turns the same dough into pita—too done all over, but not blackened anywhere.

The downside is that if you get your cast iron hot enough to cook naan and then brush it with ghee or oil, which you must do to prevent the dough from sticking, you’re going to generate a lot of smoke. So unless you have a miraculous kitchen fan or really like eating in smoky rooms, you might want to save this for a potluck or dinner party that someone else is hosting.

It’s pretty quick once you get cooking, especially if you have a griddle or two pots so you can cook two pieces at a time. The thirty seconds each piece takes to cook on one side is just long enough to roll out the next piece. In less than ten minutes, you can have the whole batch done and be out the door. And hopefully by the time you get home, the smoke will have cleared.

Pouf!

Recipe: Garlic Naan (adapted from All Recipes and my sourdough naan recipe)

Ingredients:

  • 1 package (.25 ounce, about 2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry or instant yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (follow temperature directions on the yeast package)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons milk or yogurt
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 t. baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic (I would double or triple this next time—the garlic flavor was pretty subtle)
  • 1/4 cup oil or melted butter
  • 1 t. kalonji/nigella/black onion seeds (optional)

Method:

1. Dissolve the yeast and 1 Tablespoon of the sugar in the water and let stand until frothy (5-10 minutes). If it doesn’t get frothy, the yeast is dead or your water was too hot and you should start over with new yeast.

just after dissolving the sugar and yeast in water after 10 minutes

2. Whisk together 3 cups of the flour with the salt and baking soda. Add that mixture and the rest of the sugar, the milk or yogurt, egg, garlic, and nigella seeds to the proofed yeast and stir until combined. Add as much flour as necessary to make a smooth dough that you can knead without it sticking to you too much.

3. Knead the dough for 10-15 minutes—as with pizza, you need a lot of gluten to make the dough stretchy enough to roll out thinly without tearing.

4. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turn to coat the entire surface in oil, and let rise at least an hour or until doubled in size (you can leave it for much longer if you want—probably up to 24 hours—or refrigerate it for up to a week at this stage; just let it come to room temperature before baking).

just after kneading about 3 hours later--it probably looked like this an hour later too, but I had 3 hours of other stuff to do before I got back to it.

5. Preheat something cast-iron or stone with at flat surface at least 10” in diameter on your stovetop (a skillet, pot, baking stone, etc.) on the hottest setting. Meanwhile, pinch off portions of dough about the size of an egg and roll into smooth rounds (you should have between 12 and 16).

okay, maybe a little bigger than a chicken egg. think duck egg. they'll shrink up a bit after rolling them up, and they'll be delicious whether they look like perfect circles or the state of west virginia

6. One at a time, roll each ball into a circle approximately 1/4” thick, brush the cast iron surface with oil or melted butter/lard/ghee, and place the circle of dough on the grill. Let it cook until deeply browned (anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes depending on how hot your cooking surface is). Brush the raw side with more melted butter or oil, flip it over, and cook for another 30 seconds to 3 minutes, or until it’s cooked through.

Sourdough-risen Buns for Patties or Tubes

I assume fried onions would work about as well as fried shallots, but I've never tried because when you have fried shallots on hand, why would you ever buy fried onions?

Grill, Baby, Grill

Here’s to summer. To putting meat and meat-analogs on metal grates over fire until they have dark, charred lines and taste like smoke and sunburn. To cold lager beer and fresh berries and the smell of tomato vines. To small talk with neighbors over fences and sprinklers and not-small talk with friends over meals cooked and eaten outside. Get it while you can.

Twisting less crucial for tubes, I think. Still fun, though.

You can use just about any bread recipe for buns—just shape the dough into balls or logs and bake them for slightly less time than you would a whole loaf. But in case you’re looking for some additional tips or inspiration, here’s how I like to do it:

Buttery, Half-Whole Wheat, Twisty, and Topped with Shallots

I use a recipe pretty similar to the one I use for challah or dinner rolls, meaning it has a fairly high fat content and some egg in the dough, both of which make the rolls soft and rich (although not quite as buttery and decadent as brioche). I use about 1/2 whole wheat and 1/2 white flour so they have some wholesomeness and chew but still come out light and fluffy. I use milk or whey instead of water if I have either on hand—again for more softness and richness.

I'm not super precious about the shaping--you could probably make them much prettier if you were so inclined.For shaping, I divide the dough into balls the size of lemons and then divide each portion in half, roll those pieces into thin ropes and twist them together. For patties, I make the twist into a circle with one end tucked into the center on the bottom and one tucked into the center on the top. This is not just for aesthetics—it prevents the rolls from being overly thick in the middle. Because there are few things more disappointing in the burgers & brats realm than getting a bite that’s so bready you don’t taste the meat (or whatever else your patty/tube is composed of).

I brush them with an egg wash before baking so they get just a little glossy and brown and to help the toppings stick. My very favorite topping is crispy fried shallots, but sesame seeds or poppy seeds are pretty good, too.

Suggested Uses

Honestly, I prefer most burgers and sausages without a bun. A black bean burger topped with guacamole and tomato slices and a sunny side-up egg is probably one of my favorite meals, but I’d rather eat it with a knife and fork than sandwiched between two pieces of bread, no matter how good the bread is. However, if I had any room left in my belly after that, I might eat one of these for dessert—sliced in half, toasted lightly on the grill, brushed with some butter or mayonnaise or whatever else you got out for the corn on the cob and a sprinkle of salt. And they’re also a great vehicle for saucy braised meats like pulled pork or sloppy joes and summery sandwich fillings like egg salad or grilled veggies and cheese with pesto.

If they touch while baking, you can easily pull them apart. No big deal.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Buns (makes about 20 buns)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups refreshed sourdough starter (1:1 flour: water)*
  • 1 cup milk, whey, or water 
  • 1/4 cup neutral-flavored oil or melted butter
  • 1 egg + 1 egg yolk in dough; 1 egg for brushing
  • 1/2 cup sugar (or other sweetener)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 5-6 cups flour (any combination of white, whole wheat, or multigrain; if using a low-gluten flour like rye add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup)
  • optional: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, fried shallots (or onions or garlic), grated hard cheeses, chopped sundried tomatoes, etc.

*If you want to substitute packaged yeast for the sourdough starter, increase the liquid to 2 1/2 cups and increase flour to 6 1/2-7 cups. Heat the liquid to 110-120F and whisk in 2 packages (4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast and 2 Tablespoons of the sugar. Let sit 10-15 minutes before combining with the remaining ingredients.

Method:

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the starter, liquid, oil or butter, and egg.

2. Add the sugar, salt, and half of the flour and stir until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a dough. Gradually add as much of the remaining flour as needed until the dough becomes too stiff to stir.

dry ingredients added to the wet just starting to knead--a little scrappy and sticky

3. Dust a clean surface with flour and scrape the dough onto it. Begin to knead, adding flour as necessary to prevent the dough from sticking to you. You want to add just enough flour to make the dough workable. If desired, cover the dough with the mixing bowl set upside down and let it rest for 15 minutes to let the flour absorb more of the moisture—that should make it less sticky and easier to knead.

4. Knead for 10-15 minutes, or until you feel like stopping. You don’t the kind of gluten networks that will form a baker’s windowpane for this kind of bread, but kneading it that long or longer wouldn’t hurt anything. The less you knead, the more uneven the crumb will be (you might see a variety of large and small air bubbles in the rolls); the more you knead, the more even it will be.

5. Coat the mixing bowl lightly with oil, place the dough inside and turn so the whole surface is oiled. Cover and let rise 4+ hours or until doubled in size (1-2 hours for active dry or instant yeast). If you want a more pronounced sourdough flavor, let it rise for 8+ hours and/or after rising, put it in a zip-top bag and let it sit in the refrigerator for 24-72 hours before shaping and baking.

kneaded, oiled, ready to rise after an overnight rise--the sugar in the dough makes the yeast go a little crazy but there's no such thing as "over-risen" for the first rise. let it go as long as you want.

6. Punch the risen dough down in the middle and let rest 15 minutes. For regular-sized buns, pinch off balls about the size of a medium lemon or divide into 20 equal pieces (should be about 3.2 oz/90 g each). For smaller, slider-sized buns, pinch off balls about the size of a golf ball or divide into 36 pieces (around 1.75 oz/50 g).

For regular burger buns: shape each piece into a smooth ball,flatten until about 3/4 inches thick.

For hot-dog buns: rolls into a rope about 3/4 inch thick and 8” long. Slash once down the center or 2-3 times diagonally before baking, if desired

For twisty buns: divide each portion into 2 or 3 equal pieces, shape each piece into a rope about 8” long and twist or braid them and pinch the ends together. For kaiser rolls, make the twist into a circle and pinch the ends underneath.

Let rise again until doubled or almost the desired finished size, 2+ hours (30 min-1 hr if using active dry or instant yeast)

egg washed, topped, ready for the oven

7. Preheat the oven to 375F 30 minutes before baking. Whisk an egg with about 1 Tablespoon of water or milk and brush the tops of the buns. Just before baking, brush with the egg wash again and sprinkle with toppings.

8. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until tops are beginning to brown and the internal temperature is between 190-200F.

Roasted Garlic & Mustard Sourdough Soft Pretzels

thinner ropes = bigger holes, higher ratio of crust: interior, better for noshing with beer & sausage; thinner rope = no holes, better for slicing and making pretzel roll sandwiches

When Improvisation Fails, I Turn to Alton Brown

A few months ago, I tried making pretzel bites to go along with some cheese sauce I took to a Superbowl party, and they were a complete disaster. I thought I could just throw together a batch of no-knead dough, shape it into ropes, cut those into bite-sized pieces, boil them in a baking soda bath & bake them until they were brown. Voila: pretzel bites…right? Uh, no. Turns out, that’s a recipe for ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread.

Raw ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread! Baked ugly lumps of soapy tasting bread!

Ugly Lumps of Soapy-Tasting Bread
(not likely to be a family favorite)

Thank god there was cheese sauce to dip them in, which just barely made them edible.*

I think my primary mistake was using too wet a dough. The no-knead dough depends on moisture to enable gluten formation. Making pretzels that don’t look like turds depends on dough at least stiff enough to hold the shape of a rope. Also, the wetter dough nearly threatened to dissolve in the alkali bath (which gives it the deep brown exterior, more on that below the jump) and absorbed way too much of the baking soda taste. Also also, they were overdone inside before the outside was brown. So by the afternoon of the day I baked them, they were beginning to get stale. Ugly lumps of soapy-tasting stale bread.

I decided to try again, this time using Alton Brown’s recipe for pretzels, which I adapted to use with my sourdough starter. Instead of bites, I made more traditionally-shaped pretzels because they were not designed for dipping, but for nibbling while wandering around at the 2011 World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth. And since I was afraid plain pretzels without anything to dip them in might be a little boring, I decided to add a head of roasted garlic, some garlic powder, mustard powder, and msg to the dough. I was basically going for something like Gardetto’s mustard pretzels in soft pretzel form.

Peeling roasted garlic is kind of a pain. I kind of wish you could just buy it in a tube, like tomato or anchovy paste. Maybe you can? I would be so on board with outsourcing this step to the food industry.        Mashed the garlic up with melted butter. This shows the before & after becasue I made two separate batches to see if I could tell the difference between mustard powder and prepared Dijon. I could not.

Simple roasted garlic: wrap head of garlic in foil, place in 400-500F oven for ~45 minutes

This attempt was far more successful. The dough was stiff enough to hold the desired shape, they took on just enough of the baking soda flavor to taste like pretzels instead of bagels, and had a glossy, chewy crust and soft interior. And the garlic and mustard and msg gave them a slightly tangy, savory flavor.

they split a little while baking, but I think that makes them rustic & attractive.

If you’re the kind of food purist who refuses to eat garlic powder or msg, you can certainly omit those things and they should still be tasty. Or you can add whatever other herbs or spices or cheeses you want in your pretzels. Or leave them plain. The one thing you should NOT do is store them in a plastic bag. They were lovely the night before the Expo when I made them, but after a night in plastic, the crust got soggy and lost its glossy, chewy appeal. By the World Expo, they had transformed into dense and slightly clammy garlic & sourdough-flavored, pretzel-shaped hockey pucks. I should have known better. Alas.

*In case I never get around to posting recipes for the rest of the things I made for my defense: that cheese sauce is now my default for mac & cheese, too; I use the sharpest creamy cheddar I can find (cheddar so sharp it’s crumbly will make the sauce grainy) and two batches of sauce per pound of pasta (e.g. 1 lb pasta = 16 oz cheese and 24 oz. evaporated milk). You can just coat the pasta in the sauce and serve as is if you like your mac & cheese saucy or bake it for 30-40 minutes at 350 F if you prefer it casserole-style. Breadcrumbs optional.

On Browning and Lye

some other time, i'll do a baking soda/ baked baking soda/ lye comparison. Egg wash only, Baking soda bath only, Baking soda bath + Egg wash

Alton Brown’s recipe calls for boiling the pretzels in a baking soda bath and then brushing them with an egg wash. As both of those promote browning, I decided to try a tiny experiment to see how much each step was contributing to the crust. The egg wash-only pretzel was a great illustration of the importance of the alkali bath—it barely browned. The boiled-only pretzel browned nicely, but—although it’s hard to tell from the picture—it had a much more matte finish. So the egg wash is what provides the gloss.

Traditional Bavarian pretzels are dipped in diluted lye before baking (a mixture called Natronlauge which produces a Laugenbretzel). Supposedly, this technique was discovered by accident in 1839 at the Munich Royal Cafe when a baker by the name of Anton Nepomuk Pfanenbrenner was preparing pretzels while the kitchen was being cleaned. He meant to brush them with a sugar water solution, but accidentally used the sodium hydroxide cleaning solution instead. They came out of the oven with a glorious deep brown patina and distinctive, delicious taste.

You can buy food-grade lye online, but it’s a harsh corrosive that must be handled with gloves and lab goggles. If it comes in contact with your skin, it will make you peel and bleed. And I’m not entirely sure it’s safe to boil (lye fumes, anyone?) so the boiling and soaking may become separate steps. But despite the fuss involved (or maybe because of it?) many people swear by lye as the only way to produce “authentic” pretzels. 

When it comes to peeling, bleeding skin, I say screw authenticity. Baking soda will give you results like the ones you see above. If you’re not satisfied with that, you can make a slightly stronger alkali by baking the baking soda. I tried that when I made the pretzel bites, and thought they came out bitter and soapy tasting. Of course, that may have been due to the too-soft dough. I may try that again the next time I make pretzels, but I thought the regular baking soda worked just fine. For more on baked baking soda, see Harold McGee

Recipe: Sourdough Soft Pretzels (adapted from Alton Brown)
for 8 ballpark-sized, 16 medium-sized, or 24 fist-sized soft pretzels

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups refreshed 100% hydration sourdough starter*
  • 3/4 cups warm water (110-114 F)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 7-8 cups bread flour (or more, as needed)
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar (or honey or malt powder or other sweetener)
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast (optional)
  • herbs, spices, etc. (optional. I used 2 heads of roasted garlic, 2 t. garlic powder, 4 t. mustard powder or 2 T. dijon mustard, and 2 t. msg)
  • oil for coating rising bowl(s) and baking sheets
  • 2/3 cup baking soda for every 10 cups of water used in boiling bath
  • 1 egg for egg wash
  • coarse salt for sprinkling

*if you don’t have a sourdough starter, add another package of active dry yeast and 2 1/4 cups more water and flour (a total of 2 packages or 4 1/2 t. yeast, 3 cups of water, and at least 9 1/4 cups of flour)

Method:

1. If using roasted garlic, mash it into the melted butter to form a smooth paste.

2. Whisk together the starter, water, yeast, and garlic-butter mixture, and then add the flour, sugar, salt, and any other seasonings you want.

3. Knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball, adding more flour if necessary to make a stiff dough that does not stick to you. For the chewiest pretzels, knead for 15 minutes until you get a baker’s windowpane.

4. Coat the mixing bowl lightly with oil, place the ball of dough in the bowl, and turn to coat. Cover and let rise for 3-24 hours, or until doubled in size. The longer you let it rise, the more sourdough flavor will develop. However, if you want to wait more than 24 hrs before baking, you may want to refrigerate it to prevent it from becoming too sour & retarding the oven spring.

5. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450 F and bring 10 cups of water to boil with 2/3 cup of baking soda.

6. Divide the dough into as many balls as you want—I used 110 g./3.8 oz portions of dough to make twenty-four pretzels (each about 3 1/2 oz after baking). Shape each ball into a rope by rolling it on a clean surface. Make each rope into a large U, and then fold the long pieces down like crossed arms.

if the dough won't stick to itself, you can use a little egg wash to "glue" the strands togetherlots of theories on the origin of the shape--my favorite is that they were shaped like arms in prayer and given as a reward to children to encourage them to learn their catechism  like the "kosher" bagel, the pretzel was traditionally seen as a lenten food because it is traditionally made with no fat or egg in the dough

Or if you want to do the classic twisted shape, see this guide at The Kitchn. Or cut the ropes into 1” pieces for pretzel bites. Or make circles, like bagels. Or letters. Or whatever.

7. One or two at a time, gently place the pretzels in the boiling baking soda bath. Boil for 30 seconds to a minute, turning halfway through. Using a spatula or slotted spoon, remove to a colander to drain for a few seconds and then transfer to a baking sheet coated in oil or lined with parchment paper.

intially, the pretzels sunk to the bottom and occasionally stuck to the pot; just gently nudge them lose and they'll float to the surface the unboiled guy is hanging out up there in the left corner. I used a reddish kosher salt from somewhere in Utah

8. Whisk a raw egg with a tablespoon or two of water or milk, and brush the tops of the pretzels. Sprinkle with coarse salt.

9. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the crust is a deep, glossy brown and the interiors are 190-200F.

10. Consume immediately, or store in a paper bag. Plastic/airtight containers will destroy the crust.

Sourdough Starter-Risen No-Knead Bread

I can never decide which look I like better... Pizza stone version on the left, Covered pot version on the right

Bread That Takes Time, but Not Your Time

A recent e-mail reminded me that I promised ages ago to share my sourdough version of the Sullivan St. “no knead” bread popularized by Mark Bittman in the NYTimes. Part of the reason I didn’t get around to it sooner is because it’s basically the same as the recipe I posted for crusty, shaped loaves—although that one uses just enough flour to make the dough kneadable. But the no-knead method probably deserves its own post.

Over time, I’ve developed three basic formulas to work with my sourdough starter: slow, medium, and fast. All three, even the “fast” version, work by letting time do the work that kneading normally does. A longer-than-normal rise enables long chains of gluten to form, and gluten is what forms stretchy membranes that trap the gas produced by the yeast, which is what causes bread to rise. The lack of kneading also means the dough can be wetter, because you don’t have to worry about it sticking to you. When that wet dough is baked it in a covered pot, it creates a steamy environment not unlike a professional steam-blasting oven, and that’s what produces the thick, crispy crust people associate with European-style or artisanal bakery bread. However, I’ve also had pretty good success with a baking stone and a splash of water thrown in a preheated dish on the oven floor (which often gets on the oven floor too, but that’s fine—more water in contact with more hot surface at one time = more steam).

The loaves above show the differences between the two methods—the covered pot method rises a little more and has a slightly nicer crust. Using a pizza stone enables you to make different shapes and slash the top in decorative ways. They were baked at the same time like so:

I put a loaf in the pot first, and then slid the rack back into the oven and just slid the second loaf onto the stone on a sheet of parchmentI removed the lid 25 minutes into the baking time, and the internal temp of the pizza stone was 195 F and the dutch oven loaf was 185F. I left the pizza stone loaf in for another 5 minutes, and the dutch oven loaf in for 10, after which they were both around 197-199F.    I couldn’t fit the pizza stone & pot side by side on the rack,
so I used the lid of the small dish to level the pot

The “fast” version takes a minimum of 6 hrs for the first rise. The “slow” version, which is the most similar to the original “no knead” recipe, takes at least 18 hrs for the first rise. However, those are 6-18 (or more) hours during which you don’t have to do a thing. Much like the no-knead pizza dough, this recipe virtually effortless. Five minutes to measure out the ingredients and stir them together, another minute or so to shape it, 30 seconds to throw it in the oven and another 30 seconds to add a splash of water at the beginning or remove the lid of the pot mid-way through baking. Even if it takes another few minutes to refresh the starter, the whole process probably takes less active time than making a trip to a bakery where you could buy something comparable.

And, of course, as with anything you make yourself, you can customize it however you want. Here are a few versions:

This probably had about 1/4 cup whole wheat flour, but no other additions. As you can see, that produces a much taller loaf. The Classic

About 1/4 cup each dried cranberries, dried apricots, and walnut pieces + 4 T. honey. Really nice with sweetened cream cheese. Cranberry, Apricot & Walnut

2 T. tomato paste, 2 t. garlic powder, 2 t. each dried oregano and parsley, and 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese. I didn't use the stone or water with these because I didn't want them to be so crustyGarlic, Tomato, & Herb Knots

I go through phases with slashing patterns--I've been on a seashell kick, but a simple X in the middle or # pattern works too. Multigrain, Flax, & Honey

Choosing Slow, Medium, or Fast

The long rise means it takes a little advance planning—if your starter takes at least 8 hrs to “refresh” (which most do) that means you have to start the process at least 16 hours in advance. So, for example, if you want fresh bread for dinner, you’ll probably want to refresh the starter before going to bed the previous night and make the “fast” version sometime before noon the next day. It’ll be ready to shape and bake that evening. If you want the bread to be done by 7, the dough should be made by 9am. If you want the bread to be fresh and warm for breakfast or a weekend brunch, just shift that all back a little: refresh the starter anytime in the morning or afternoon of the previous day, make the dough in the evening, and it will be ready to shape & bake when you wake up.

You can always let it rise longer than the “minimum”—in fact, the longer you let it rise, the better. So if you have to be out the door by 8am and don’t get home until after 6, you can bake it anytime that night or even the next morning, and it’ll still be great. If I don’t manage to bake it within 24 hours, I usually refrigerate it in a zip-top bag and then let it come to room temperature for 1-2 hrs before shaping and baking it.

Aside from time considerations, which version I use also depends on how much bread I want to make and how much starter I want to use. I usually try to use 2 cups of starter per week—that’s just what works with my starter feeding routine—so if I want one loaf, I make the “fast” version. If I want two loaves, I use the “medium” recipe and double it. If I want a lot of bread or only want to use a little bit of starter (say, if I’m making something else at the same time that already uses a cup or more of starter), then I make the “slow” version.

You can also use cornmeal, wheat bran, or oats to prevent the dough from sticking to the towelThe cracks form because the bread continues rising after the crust begins to harden

Can It Be Moar Sour?

Yes.

The “slow” version produces the most sourdough flavor, despite starting with the least sourdough starter. I assume that’s mostly because the yeast have more time to do their thing, but I’ve never done a “slow” and “medium” loaf side by side to see if they’d be different even if they were allowed to rise for the same amount of time. In general, I get a lot of tang if I let any of the versions rise for 18-24 hours. In warmer weather, as little as 12 hours can be enough to produce a pretty sour loaf.

Probably the best way to maximize the sourness is to let the dough rise for 18-24 hrs and then refrigerate it for 3-4 days. The yeast will keep doing their thing—digesting the starches in the flour and producing acid and alcohol, and the bread will get more and more sour. Eventually, they’ll either run out of food or produce an environment too acidic for them to live in. However, I haven’t run into any problems as long as I bake the dough within a week of making it.

Can It Be More Whatever?

Yes. Just add whatever. Prefer whole wheat? Fine. To make it 100% whole wheat, you’ll need a starter made with whole wheat flour. If you don’t care about the percentage, you can use whole wheat flour with a starter made with white flour. It will be denser than the white wheat version, but will still rise and be tasty. Prefer not to use sugar? Fine. The original doesn’t, but I find that a little sugar improves the oven spring a lot, probably by speeding up yeast activity. Two teaspoons isn’t enough to make it taste sweet—most of it probably gets eaten by the yeast and transformed into gas, acid, & alcohol—so if you want a sweet-tasting bread, add more sugar (or maple syrup or honey or malt syrup or brown rice syrup, you get the idea).

interior shot of the fruit & nut bread, which also had a high proportion of whole wheat, thus the denser crumbI almost never make the “basic” recipe. I usually use at least 1/4-1/2 cup whole wheat flour and add some oats and sunflower seeds. Other possible additions include olive oil or melted butter, honey, grated hard cheeses, diced cooked or cured meats, herbs, tomato paste, chopped sundried tomatoes, dried fruits, nuts, flax meal, fried shallots, garlic powder or paste, wheat germ, and oat bran. Probably not all at once. Diced pepperoni, olive oil, tomato paste, shredded sharp cheddar or aged gouda, fried shallots, and oregano is a killer combination—like pizza in bread form. Fresh rosemary, swiss cheese and pine nuts are pretty great together, too. It works best if you whisk semi-liquid ingredients like honey, olive oil, or tomato paste into the starter (and water, if using) before adding the dry ingredients so they get evenly distributed.

See the recipe below for suggested amounts of additions, or just improvise. I also included the recipe below for the version pictured at the top, which I made this week. Instead of white bread flour, I used a multigrain flour made by Westwind Milling Co. that contains hard winter wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and corn (available at By the Pound if you’re in the Ann Arbor area). I whisked some gluten into the flour before adding it to the starter because many of those grains have a lower gluten content than wheat. I also threw in some whole rolled oats, flax meal, sunflower seeds, and honey. I used the “medium” version of the recipe, doubled for two loaves, and let it rise for 24 hrs. The result was sour and nutty and chewy and complex and just slightly sweet. It’s denser than the classic white flour loaf, but something about cold weather makes me crave that kind of heartiness. I’ve been loving it slathered with butter and topped with sprinkle of coarse salt or dipped in runny egg yolks.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen No Knead Bread
see this post for advice about making a sourdough starter

FAST (min. rise 6 hrs)

  • after risen, the dough will be airy and have a vast network of bubbles2 c. refreshed starter (1:1 flour:water)
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 2 1/4 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar (optional—improves oven spring)

MEDIUM (min. rise 12 hrs)

  • 1 c. refreshed starter
  • 1 c. water
  • 3 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar 

SLOW (min. rise 18 hrs)

  • 1/3 c. refreshed starter
  • 1 1/2 c. water
  • 3 1/2 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar

for lack of a towel, I've used old pillowcases before. not recommended if you have any doubts about the colorfastness of the fabric dyeequipment: a kitchen towel (not terrycloth) and baking stone or covered pot
extras: more flour, cornmeal, wheat bran, or oats for dusting the flour
substitutions: any flour can be used in place of the bread flour—add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of lower-gluten flour; you can use whey or water used to soak dried tomatoes or fruit in place of the water; you can use any kind of sweetener in place of the sugar or leave it out
additions (per loaf): 1/2 cup rolled oats, grated cheese, or dried fruit; 1/4 cup sunflower seeds, nuts, diced cured meat like pepperoni, sundried tomatoes; 2 T. olive oil or any other oil or melted solid fat, tomato paste, honey or maple syrup, fried shallots or garlic, flax seeds or flax meal, wheat germ, oat bran, or fresh herbs; 2 t. dried herbs, garlic powder, or other spices.

1. Whisk liquids & semi-liquids together (starter, water, honey or tomato paste, etc.). If adding gluten, whisk that into the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.

2. Combine all the ingredients and stir just until the flour is moistened—usually about a minute. The dough should be sticky and shaggy. If you can knead it without it sticking to you, add more water 2 T. at a time until it’s too sticky to knead. If it’s so wet it’s more like batter than dough, add flour until it can be shaped into a ball that won’t immediately flatten into a pancake. Getting the consistency right may involve some trial & error, but even too-dry or too-wet doughs will probably produce tasty bread.

it's hard to communicate texture in visual form--you can see how it sticks to the spatula. And yet it's stiff enough to pull away from the bowl a little.

3. Cover and let rise for 6-24 hrs. The dough is ready when it has more than doubled. There may be fat bubbles on top, and the dough should be full of air—see the honeycomb texture in the picture next to the ingredient list. The less fiber in the flour and the more sugar in the dough, the more it will rise.

4. Optional step I usually skip: Flour a work surface and scrape the dough out onto it. Fold it over itself once or twice. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest 15 min. I assume that’s meant to make it easier to shape. I usually just shape it in the bowl:

5. Flour your hands enough to keep the dough from sticking to you, scrape the dough out of the bowl and form it into a ball. Dust a cotton towel with flour (or cornmeal or wheat bran or rolled oats) and put the ball seam-side up in the towel. Dust with more flour, gather the ends of the towel, twist and pile on top of the loaf. Let rise for 1-2 hrs—longer is better, but 1 hr is sufficient. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look like it has risen much, it will rise more in the oven.

it's so wet there's not really a "seam," but there will probably be one side that's not as smooth; that side goes up in the towel becasue it will be inverted into the pot or onto the baking tile.

twisted up and ready for the second rise 6. 30 min before baking, preheat the oven at 450F with a covered oven-safe pot inside (like a Dutch oven or Le Creuset) including the lid OR a baking stone and a baking dish on the oven floor. I think this makes it look kind of like a sand-dollar; Brian thinks it looks kind of like a marijuana leaf. Kind of like a Rorschach test.When ready to bake, carefully turn the dough into the pot and cover OR turn onto a piece of parchment paper, slash with a sharp knife if desired, and slide onto the stone. If using the baking stone, pour 1/2 cup water ino the preheated dish on the oven floor. 

7. Bake 25-30 minutes, and then remove the lid or turn the loaf for even browning. Bake another 5-25 minutes until the crust is browned on top and the internal temperature of the loaf is between 190-200F. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can check for doneness by tapping the bottom of the loaf. When it’s done, it will sound hollow.

Recipe: Multigrain Bread with Sunflower Seeds, Flax Meal, and Honey
(2 loaves)

  • 2 cups refreshed starter (1:1 flour:water)
  • 2 cups water
  • 5 3/4 cups multigrain flour (like the Westwind Milling Multigrain Bread Flour, which contains hard winter wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and corn)
  • 1/4 cup vital wheat gluten
  • 1/4 c. flax meal
  • 1 cup oats
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 T. honey
  • 1 T. kosher salt

Follow the same method outlined above. Divide in half and rise in two separate bowls if your mixing bowl isn’t large enough to hold the dough once it’s more than doubled.

Before rising8 hrs probably would have been enough; I let it go 24.

Soft Pull-Apart Wheat Rolls with Sourdough-Starter and/or Active Dry Yeast

the whole sheet of rolls can be turned out onto a cooling rack, and when cool, can be stored in a 2-gallon "jumbo" zip-top plastic bag for up to 3 days before serving

Classic Do-Ahead Dinner Rolls

Here’s what I want from dinner rolls: They should be slightly sweet, perhaps with a hint of honey. They should be a little wholesome—not like a fiber supplement, but not as cake-like as brioche or challah. And they should be pillowy soft. Also, I want to be able to bake them a day or two in advance. Especially for elaborate meals like Thanksgiving, there are always more important things to do on the day of whether you’re travelling or hosting. Bread is something you ought to be able to make ahead of time.

A couple of years ago, I made the mistake of taking Rose Levy Beranbaum’s sacarduros to Thanksgiving. Sacaduros are made by wrapping small pieces of her “hearth bread” dough—which makes a rustic, crusty, free-form loaf—around tiny pieces of butter and a sprinkle of coarse salt. You gather the ends loosely together on top so they unfold a bit while they’re baking like petals, and when you rip them open, you reveal the salty, buttery core. Fresh out of the oven, they’re lovely. But like most kinds of crusty bread, they’re best the day they’re made. If you leave them out very long, they’ll get stale and if you store them in an air-tight container, the crust gets soggy so instead of being crisp and appealing, it’s so chewy it’s hard to eat. Also, when they’re cold, you lose the hot buttered roll effect and instead they just seem unevenly risen and peculiarly salty inside.

after the second rise they're often just barely touching, but they'll rise more in the oven This year, I used Martha Stewart’s “Everything Thanksgiving” rolls. They’re placed in a 9×13 pan to rise and bake, so they form two big continuous sheets. The reduced surface area means they stay fresher longer. You can pull them apart just before serving or let guests pull them apart themselves. I modified the recipe for my sourdough starter and my other dinner roll preferences—honey instead of sugar, approximately 1/3 whole wheat flour, and half canola oil instead of all butter (to help keep them soft).

These were everything I want from a dinner roll—soft and slightly sweet. They’re rich enough to eat plain, but even better with butter, and they’re perfect for mopping up extra gravy. I made two batches on Wednesday, stored them in “jumbo” two gallon zip-top bags, and they still seemed fresh and soft when we were tearing into the second batch on Friday.

See Stewart’s original recipe or the note at the asterisk if you want to use active dry yeast instead of a sourdough starter. Or, if you want to use a sourdough starter but don’t have time to wait for two rises of 3-12 hrs each, you can use both starter and active dry yeast. The starter will give the rolls a little more flavor, like using old dough, but the active dry yeast will do most of the leavening and each rise will only take a little over an hour.

Recipe: Soft Wheat Rolls (adapted from Martha Stewart)
Makes 30 rolls

Ingredients:a double-batch for 60 rolls required 2 bowls

  • 1 cup refreshed 100%-hydration sourdough starter*
  • 1 cup warm milk (100-110F)
  • 1 T. sugar (only necessary if using active dry yeast)
  • 3 cups all-purpose or bread flour
  • 2 1/3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3 t. kosher salt
  • 1/3 c. honey
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more for coating bowl
  • 1-2 t. butter for greasing pan
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten plus 1 egg for brushing
  • 2 packages, or 4 1/2 t. active dry yeast (optional)

*If you don’t have a sourdough starter, increase the milk to 1 1/2 cups and increase the all-purpose/bread flour to 3 2/3 cups. Use the active dry yeast.

1. Heat the milk in the microwave or saucepan. If you don’t have a thermometer, test it by dabbing a bit on your wrist—it should feel hot to the touch, but not like burning. Whisk in the sugar and yeast, if using, and let sit 5-10 minutes or until frothy.

after whisking together the warm milk, yeast, and sugar, the surface will be smooth after 5-10 min it should be frothy. if not, the yeast is probably dead

2. Combine all of the ingredients except for the oil/butter and egg reserved for later, and stir until the dough begins to come together. Scrape onto a lightly-floured surface.

3. Knead for 10-15 minutes. If the dough is too sticky to knead, let it rest for 10 minutes underneath the mixing bowl and continue, adding bread flour 1/4 cup at a time until it sticks to itself more than it sticks to you.

4. Coat a mixing bowl with oil. Place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover the bowl and let rise for 1 1/4 hrs (active dry yeast) or 4-12 hrs (sourdough starter).

once most of the flour is moistened, kneaded until it's a smooth ball of dough

double-batch, ready to rise you can tell when it's risen if you can make a small depression in the dough and it doesn't "heal" automatically

5. Butter two 9×13 pans.

6. Divide dough into two equal pieces. Divide each piece into 15 equal pieces, each of which should be 50-55 grams (1.75-2.00 oz). Cover with a piece of plastic wrap to prevent them from drying as you shape them.

7. Press each piece of dough into a disc, gather the edges and pinch them together. Place each ball pinched-edge down in the prepared pans, 3 x 5.

if you want to know exactly how big each ball should be, weigh the whole ball of dough and divide by 30the pinched together disc method makes a smoother ball than just rolling a lump of dough in your hands

before the second rise after the second rise

8. Cover the pans and let rise for another 1 1/4 hrs (instant yeast) or 3-9 hrs (sourdough starter).

9. Preheat the oven to 375 for 20 minutes. Before placing the rolls in the oven, brush the tops of the rolls with beaten egg. Bake for 20 min, or until the tops are golden brown and the interiors are 190-200F.

10. Let cool on wire racks for 5 minutes. Turn out of pans and serve or let cool completely (approx. 3 hrs) and store in a an airtight container.

uh...something martha stewartish. "home is calling"?

Sourdough-risen Sandwich Bread

Does anything look homier than homemade bread?

My first, My last, My all the times in between

This is the first recipe I made with my (primary) sourdough starter. It’s the recipe I lean on when I don’t have any other bread ambitions, like bagels or naan or challah. It’s the recipe for the loaf in the banner, and the only recipe featured on the #1 google hit for “sourdough starter recipe” (a page originally written in 1997 by S. John Ross that has apparently attracted so many questions over the years that he eventually declared it a “closed topic” and ends every sourdough question in the FAQ with “A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.”) John Lennon's 70th birthday edition screenshot

It’s the recipe I think of as the most “basic” bread in my repertoire, even though I rarely make it “as is.” Most of the time, I use a cup or two of whole wheat flour, melted butter for the fat, 2 T. honey for the sugar, and depending on what I have on hand, 1/2 cup rolled oats, about 1/4 cup flax meal, and/or 1/4 cup sunflower seeds for extra flavor and texture. That makes a mildly sweet and nutty honey-oat bread that’s perfect for sopping up runny egg yolks or classic PB&Js (my favorite is sunflower butter + apricot preserves) or basically anything else you ever use wheat bread for.

another classic: deli turkey and tomato with Hellmann's and romaine

Variations

The recipe is also a great base for all kinds of other additions—for sundried tomato bread, use about 1/4 cup finely minced sundried tomatoes; if using oil-packed tomatoes, reserve the oil when you drain them and substitute that for the oil or butter in the dough or soak the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 minutes or more and then use the soaking liquid for some of the water. You could also add some chopped fresh herbs, a few tablespoons of pesto or tomato paste, diced up pepperoni or salami, and/or 1/2 cup finely shredded cheddar or gruyere. You can also add any combination of dried fruits and nuts. I especially like finely diced figs and toasted almond slices (about 1/2 cup of each per loaf) with just a little extra sugar than normal (about 1/3 cup per loaf). For cinnamon-swirl bread, shape the dough by rolling it into an 8” x 18” rectangle and then sprinkle it with 1/3 cup brown sugar mixed with 3 t. ground cinnamon and 1/4 cup raisins (if desired), leaving a 1/2” border all around. Roll the rectangle up jelly-roll style starting with one of the short ends, pinch the edges to seal, and bake it seam-side-down in a loaf pan. You can also do that with any other sweet or savory filling, like spiced pumpkin puree, which is great with chopped walnuts, spinach-artichoke dip, or a paste of softened butter mixed with garlic and herbs and a little Dijon mustard.

Sammich Season

tomato slices directly on the generous mayonnaise layer, always, so the juice and mayo mingle and drip onto the plate, making a delicious sour-salty sauce to be sopped up with the crustsThe variations tend to turn the bread into more of a star, but sometimes bread is just meant to be a supporting player. This loaf was designed to be a platform for the last BLTs of the 2010 tomato season. Frost has been threatening, so even though it hit 80F this weekend, I decided it was time to pull all the tomatoes out of the jungle, ripe or no. The green ones will eventually get dipped in egg and seasoned cornmeal and pan-fried, or chopped and baked in a tomato mincemeat pie, but they’ll last for a while yet on the counter. This week, we feast on the last of the ripe ones.

I leaned again on my old stand-by, using 1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour, butter, and honey. I didn’t have any oats on hand, though I would have used them if I did. I did add 1/4 cup flax meal, and 1/4 cup sunflower seeds. The result is soft enough that it won’t cut up your mouth but stable enough that it won’t fall apart. The whole wheat flour and sunflower seeds give it lots of flavor and texture, but there’s still enough white flour and gluten to get a good rise and prevent it from being a dense brick. The honey adds just a little sweetness and I let it rise long enough to have just a little sourdough tang. 

No elaborate history or etymology or personal story today, just a simple recipe for sandwich bread, which anyone with a sourdough starter ought to have. There’s a note about how to substitute active dry yeast if you don’t have a starter, and I’ve included the ratios for both one and two-loaf versions using 2 cups of starter. If you only have 1 cup of starter to use, halve the 2-loaf version. Slashing didn't seem to affect the rise at all, so it's basically an aesthetic choice.

Recipe: One loaf of sourdough-risen sandwich breadclockswise from the empty bowl: refreshed starter, honey, melted butter, dry ingredients

  • 2 cups refreshed sourdough starter (100% hydration)*
  • 3 cups flour (all-purpose or bread flour or a combination of flours)**
  • 2 t. kosher salt (1.5 t. regular)
  • 2 T. liquid fat (oil or melted butter or lard)
  • 2t-2T sugar or honey (2 t. for savory breads, up to 2 T. for sweeter breads)

Recipe: Two loaves of sourdough-risen sandwich bread

  • 2 cups refreshed sourdough starter (100% hydration)*
  • 2 cups water
  • 6 cups flour (all-purpose or bread flour or a combination of flours)**
  • 4 T. liquid fat (oil or melted butter or lard)
  • 2 t. kosher salt (or 1.5 t. regular)
  • 1-4 T sugar or honey (1 T. for savory breads, up to 4 T. for sweeter breads)

*or substitute 1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 t.) per loaf and 1 1/3 cups flour and 1 1/3 cups water; if you want to mimic the sourdough flavor, add 1-2 t. apple cider vinegar per loaf; if you have time, make a “sponge” by combining the yeast with 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup warm water (110-120F) and letting it sit for 5-10 minutes before adding the rest of the ingredients
**if using a low-gluten flour like rye, you may wish to add ~1 T. vital wheat gluten per 1/2 cup of flour, whisked into the dry ingredients before mixing them with the wet ingredients or it may not rise well or turn out a little crumbly

Optional additions, amount recommended per loaf:
1/2 cup
rolled oats, shredded or crumbled cheese, chopped nuts, or dried fruit
1/4 cup flax meal, wheat germ or bran, oat bran, sunflower or sesame seeds, minced sundried tomatoes, bits of cured meat (especially pepperoni), fried onion or shallot, minced roasted garlic, finely chopped crystallized ginger, or chopped olives
2 T. pesto, tomato paste, tapenade, chopped fresh herbs, or caraway or fennel seed
cinnamon-swirl bread filling: 1/3 cup brown sugar + 3 t. cinnamon with 1/4 cup raisins (optional)

Method:

1. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and stir until most of the flour is moistened and it begins to form a dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

2. Scrape the dough onto a rolling mat or lightly-floured surface and knead, adding more flour if necessary to prevent it from sticking to you too much. If it’s very sticky, let it rest for 10-15 minutes, which allows the flour to absorb more moisture, and then continue kneading. Knead for 10-15 minutes total, or until the dough forms a smooth ball with a taut surface and a small piece of dough stretched between your fingers forms a membrane that you can see light through(i.e. a “baker’s windowpane”).ingredients just combined, shaggy and stickyscraped onto a rolling mat with a little extra flourafter 10-15 minutes of kneading, surface of the ball should be smooth and tautcoated in olive oil, ready to rise

3. Place in lightly-oiled bowl, turn to coat, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 3+ hours, or until doubled in volume. Rising time will vary based on your sourdough starter. I often just let it rise overnight, although if you don’t want any sourdough flavor, you might want to limit it to 5-6 hrs. One way to test if it’s risen enough: if you make an indentation in the risen dough with your finger, it should take more than a minute to “heal.”

the next morning, overflowing the bowl4. Punch the dough down to deflate it, turn it onto a clean surface and knead a few times. Then, shape in free-form loaves or place in loaf pans greased or lined with parchment paper. Let rise another 2-3 hours, or until doubled again. If using loaf pans, it should be rising above the rim of the pan.

5. Preheat the oven at 350F for 15-20 min before baking. Slash the risen loaf down the middle with a sharp knife, if desired. Bake 35 min or until crust is golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when knocked on the bottom.

6. Cool on wire racks. The bread will be easier to slice once it’s completely cooled, but then you don’t get to eat it warm from the oven. Your call.

I usually shape them sort of like footballs, with a pinched seam down one side, and then put them seam-side down into the pansready for rise #2

  

after about 3 hours

if you want the slash, just make a vertical cut about 1/4" deep with a very sharp knife

Sourdough-risen Baguettes, Regular and Whole-Wheat

not quite as long as traditional baguettes, because my oven isn't as long as commercial ovens

A “French” Bread from Austria

There are conflicting accounts about the origins of the baguette—the thin rod of bread with a crisp and chewy crust and soft, yielding inside with large, irregular holes that most Americans associate primarily with France. Indeed, baguettes or at least something baguette-shaped is usually what English-speaking people have in mind when they refer to “French bread.” Nonetheless, according to The Food Timeline and Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1979), the baguette actually originated in Vienna, where steam ovens were invented in the 19th C. “True French bread,” according to David, is “the old round or cylindrical hand-shaped ‘pain de campagne’ [country bread] or pain de menage’ [bread of the household, or common bread], plump, and crossed with cuts so that when baked the crust is of many different shades, gradations and textures and the crumb rather open and coarse.” That explains why in France, and still occasionally elsewhere, things that look very like baguettes are called “Vienna bread.”

large-ish, irregular holesHowever, baguette-shaped loaves were common in France nearly a century before Viennese steam-blasting ovens were adopted. According to Jim Chevallier, the author of a self-published book on the croissant, by the 18th C. “the default shape [for bread] was already long and narrow, and Malouin refers to the round shape as how ‘bread was shaped in former times’.”

Both David and Chevallier suggest that the shift from round balls to long batons was caused not by the steam oven, but instead by the increasing use of soft doughs (molle or batarde, meaning in-between or “bastard”), which relied on two inventions: a more refined flour sifted to remove most of the the fibrous bran and germ and the use of brewer’s barm or dried yeast. The resulting breads were much softer and lighter than the older style of bread made with whole grain flour and leavened with old dough (levain, which is basically a kind of sourdough starter). The older styles, called pâte briée or pâte broyée, were so dense and coarse that they were traditionally kneaded with the feet or pounded with long iron sticks.

the whole grain version has fewer large holes and is just slightly denser, but still soft in the middle, crusty on the outside, and flavorful and pleasantThe shift from hard, whole grain dough to soft, refined-flour dough also prompted a proliferation of interest in crust. Before the 18th C., the crust was considered the least desirable part of a loaf and often grated off and sold separately as bread crumbs. But the lighter loaves, when not burned by the uneven wood-burning ovens of the day, developed a golden-brown exterior with a rich, toasted flavor that was still soft enough to  chew. Instead of getting rid of the crust, bakers started to develop ways to maximize it, including new shapes and slashing techniques, like the fluted pain long, which if not a “baguette” proper certainly looked a lot like one.

Ultimately, whether we believe David that the baguette is a 19th C. invention or Chevaillier that it dates to the 18th C. may come down to the definition of “baguette." If you take the name “baguette” to refer primarily to the shape of the loaf, it seems clear that it pre-dated the Industrial Revolution and Viennese steam-blasting oven. However, if you think “baguette” refers only to the specific kind of baton that’s 2-3’ long and about 2” in diameter with barely-there insides and the kind of crust you can only achieve by blasting it with steam periodically during the baking process, then it’s a far more recent invention.

I No Can Haz Steam-Blasting Oven, Oh Noes!

seriously, how French does this kid look? I mean, he *is* French, but does he have to be SO FRENCH? From Salut! by Stacey in France, click for sourceSo, as suggested above, it’s true that the kind of baguettes that instantly make anyone holding one look impossibly-French get their characteristic crustiness from steam-blasting ovens. I’ve discussed this issue before.

I can’t create quite the same dramatic seam-splitting and crustiness in my standard dry-heat oven, and I imagine the best home results probably rely on a specially-shaped lidded ceramic baking dish like this La Cloche, which traps the moisture from the dough just like the covered pot used in Jim Leahy’s no-knead method. However, I have not been disappointed with the results I get from overnight refrigeration, a pizza stone, a cast iron pot, and a spray bottle. Mine turn out a little breadier than a traditional baguette, but they also last a bit longer without getting stale and still have a nice crisp, chewy crust.

Further blasphemy: even though the baguette was created specifically for the special characteristics of refined flour—the quick-rising, seam-splitting, ethereal insides and shattering outsides that depend on the dough being composed almost exclusively of easily-digestible starches and not a lot of indigestible fiber, I think I get pretty good results even using almost-entirely whole wheat flour as long as I add a little more gluten and sugar. Sure, my whole wheat loaves are a little denser and a little chewier, but not, I think, unpleasantly so. As you can tell from the pictures, they rise almost as much as their refined-flour counterparts, although the crumb isn’t quite as open and irregular. They still seem unmistakably baguette-ish to me.

What follows should be in no way construed as a “traditional” baguette recipe—if anything, it’s probably closer to the 18th C. predecessors than the modern baguette. Nevertheless, it is shaped like a baton, crusty on the outside, soft and flavorful on the inside, and just right for serving alongside a few wedges of cheese or slicing on a bias and topping however you like for canapés.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Baguette (makes 2 loaves about 2’ long) both batches of dough mixed and ready to knead; I let them rest in the bowl instead of turning them out onto my silpat, so that's always an option too

  • 1 cup refreshed 100% hydration sourdough starter
  • 1 cup water
  • 3-4 cups bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 1 t. white sugar
  • extras: 1/4 to 1/2 cup more flour, wheat germ, cornmeal, rolled oats, seeds, fried shallots or garlic, salt, or a combination

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Whole Wheat Baguette (approximately .78-.83 whole grain)

  • 1 cup refreshed 100% hydration sourdough starter
  • 1 cup water
  • 3-4 cups whole wheat flour
  • 4 T. vital wheat gluten
  • 1 T. malt extract or maple syrup or honey or any other sweetener
  • 1 T. white sugar
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • extras: 1/4 to 1/2 cup more flour, wheat germ, cornmeal, rolled oats, seeds, fried shallots or garlic, salt, or a combination

Instant yeast adaptation: Instead of the sourdough starter, use 1 package (about 2 1/4 teaspoons) Active Dry or Rapid Rise yeast. Add an additional 2/3 cup flour and 2/3 cup water. The first rise should only take about one hour, and you can take it out of the refrigerator just 30 minutes before baking.

Method

ingredients in, ready to mix1. Combine all ingredients except the “extras,” using the smallest amount of flour called for, and stir with a large spoon or spatula just until it comes together and starts to pull away from the bowl. If using whole wheat flour and added gluten, whisk the gluten into the flour before adding it to the moist ingredients.

2. Turn onto a lightly-floured surface, cover with the mixing bowl, and let sit for 5-15 minutes to let the flour absorb as much moisture as possible.

3. Knead for 10-15 minutes, adding as much of the additional cup of flour as needed to prevent the dough from being too sticky to work with. It should be sticky, just not so sticky that it sticks to you more than it sticks to itself.

4. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size (2-12 hrs, depending on your starter; 1 hr if using instant yeast)

before rising 5-6 hours later

5. Generously dust a kitchen towel with flour or whatever else you want to use to coat the loaf—you must use something, or it will become permanently adhered to the towel and when you try to unroll it onto the pan, you’ll completely destroy the shape and be stuck trying to scrape the dough off with your fingernails. Sometimes when I’m dusting it with something coarser than flour, I still dust the towel with a layer of flour first just to be sure it won’t stick. Sticking is very bad.

towel generously dusted, dough rolled out; you can see it sticking to the silpat; imagine trying to get it off something other than silicone

hard to see here, but I did dust the towel with flour before sprinkling it with oats

6. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a long rectangle and then roll up, jelly-roll style, into a long tube. Place on the prepared towel and dust the top side with whatever you’re using to prevent the loaf from sticking to the towel.

7. Roll the loaf in the towel, place on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or up to a week. ready to be rolledall wrapped up and ready to spend the night in the refrigerator

8. Take the loaf/ves out of the refrigerator 1 1/2 hrs before you want to bake it/them. 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450F with a baking tile on one of the racks and a cast iron pot on the oven floor.

9. Just before baking, gently unroll the loaf onto a piece of parchment paper, and slash diagonally every 3”-4”.

if you wanted, you could just bake one at a time. in fact, if you made up a double-batch of dough on the weekend, you could have a freshly-baked baguette 4 days of the week the oats are a little harder to cut through; a super-sharp knife is invaluable for this

10. Slide the loaf, parchment and all, onto the baking tile and quickly pour 1/4 cup water into the cast iron pot and close the oven. Another optional step that will create even more steam (and thus a crisper crust) is to spritz the walls of the oven 3-4 times using a spray bottle full of water.

11. Bake for a total of 20-30 minutes or until the crust is golden-brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. After 5 minutes and 10 minutes in the oven, add another 1/4 cup water to the pot and/or spritz the oven walls again to create more steam.

does this make my blog look impossibly-French? no? bummer

Sourdough starter-risen American pumpernickel and starter maintenance options

"red-headed stepchild" on the right split while rising and that seemed to obviate the need for slashing; "favorite child" on the left obviously got a little better shape and rise 

Devil’s Fart Bread

“Pumpernickel” has the best etymology in baking (sorry, bagel). “Pumpern” was New High German slang for flatulence, and “Nickel” or just “Nick” was a common name for Satan (e.g. “Old Nick”) as well as other off-brand goblins, demons, rascals, and bastards. So the name of the bread literally means “farting devil” or “farting bastard.” Seriously, this etymology is accepted by German philologist Johann Christoph Adelung, Merriam-Webster, the Snopes Language Database, the publisher Random House, and the Kluge, which from what I can tell is basically the German OED.

It apparently got its name because, especially in its original form, it is extraordinarily dense and full of indigestible fiber. Traditional German pumpernickel is made from un-bolted rye flour and whole rye berries, which move through the digestive system like Metamucil (which I will forever associate with Black History Month). The other reason traditional pumpernickel is so dense is that rye contains very little gluten. No matter how much yeast is in the dough, it won’t rise very much because much of the gas just escapes.

from Wikimedia commonsRye flour also absorbs a lot more moisture than wheat flour and has to be very wet in order to rise at all. A 100% rye flour that’s dry enough to be kneaded or shaped by hand will be a dense, unpleasant brick. Instead, traditional pumpernickel is made with a dough that’s almost like a batter and very sticky. It’s stirred instead of kneaded and poured into loaf pans to rise and bake. The gluten network isn’t strong or extensive enough to create the rounded top you get from wheat breads or American rye risen in loaf pans. That’s is why the German-style pumpernickel (100% rye) that you can buy at the store is perfectly square—it can only rise as high as the sides of the loaf pan.

American Deli-style Pumpernickel

The almost-black color of traditional pumpernickel is due to an incredibly long baking time (16-24 hours at 250F), which apparently causes Maillard reaction browning throughout the entire loaf. Maillard reaction is the same thing that makes toast brown, so traditional pumpernickel is sort of like bread that’s been entirely toasted from the inside-out, which gives it a deep roasted flavor reminiscent of chocolate and roasted coffee.

American bakers who didn’t want to spend the time and resources on that kind of baking process found they could mimic the color and flavor produced by a long stay in a low-heat oven using cocoa, molasses, and/or instant coffee granules. As packaged dry yeast became more widely available, that was substituted for the sourdough starter to shorten the rising time, and vinegar was often added to mimic the traditional tang. Additionally, American bakers used a high proportion of wheat flour to rye flour, which gave their version enough gluten to be shaped by hand and rise like other wheat breads. That’s the version that became popular as part of American deli cuisine. It’s still dense, richly-flavored, and dark brown or almost black, depending on how many darkening agents are used. However, the texture is much lighter and springier than traditional pumpernickel, which makes it far better-suited to sandwiches.

The Ruben: corned beef, gruyere, sauerkraut, and a dressing made of mayonnaise, ketchup, and sweet pickle relishEgg Salad: hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise, mustard, minced celery, grated onion, and a little celery salt, with a few pieces of crisp lettuceTurkey Ruben: smoked turkey, gruyere, homemade coleslaw with celery salt

Rye Sourdough Starter Conversion

I made a rye sourdough starter about six months ago, when I was under the mistaken impression that it was possible to make a 100% rye dough that would rise like wheat bread if you just added enough gluten. You can make any kind of starter with any kind of flour by following the process outlined here, but if you have a starter going already, you can also convert it to a different kind of flour by simply feeding it with the new flour. I didn’t actually want to convert Ezekiel, I wanted a separate rye starter, so I just used a tablespoon of Ezekiel and fed it with rye flour about every 24 hours as follows:

Day 1: 1 T. rye flour, 1 T. water

Day 2: 2 T. rye flour, 2 T. water

Day 3: 1/3 cup rye flour, 1/3 cup water

Day 4: 2/3 cup rye flour, 1 cup water

The reason I started giving it more water than flour is because rye flour absorbs a lot more moisture, and I realized that feeding it at a 1:1 ratio would produce something that would eventually be more like a ball of dough than a batter. That would will still work— “old dough” style starters are basically the consistency of dough and must be kneaded into new batches of bread gradually. I think wetter starters are a little easier to incorporate, and that’s what I’m used to using, so I decided to keep my rye starter at 150% hydration (2 parts flour: 3 parts water).

Day 3: a few tiny bubbles, just after feeding. Hard to tell in this shot, but the bowl was just under half-full After 8 hrs, the starter had bubbled up high enough to touch the plastic wrap covering the bowl. Done: active rye starter.

The first day, there wasn’t a whole lot of action. On Day 2, there were a few bubbles. By Day 3, the starter got bubbly within a few minutes of being fed and doubled in size within 8 hours. I used it to make a loaf with 100% rye flour, which didn’t rise much, but did get sour. Previous loaves I’d made with mostly rye flour using my wheat starter rose about the same amount, but didn’t get sour. So the rye starter clearly contains more of some strain of yeast that prefers rye flour.

this was dinner one night in February--quartered slices of a brick of traditional-ish pumpernickel with 1) hummus, cheddar, cucumber, and grape tomato, 2) apricot jam, camembert, and apple slices, 3) egg saladI thought about killing it after a few more tries convinced me that it just wasn’t possible to make a soft, sandwich-style or free-form loaf with 100% rye flour. Even after adding 1/2 cup wheat gluten, I couldn’t get enough of a gluten network going for it to rise like a wheat bread. So I can only make 100% rye as tall as my loaf pans go, basically like a traditional pumpernickel. I don’t dislike traditional pumpernickel, but it only really seems suited to being cut into canapé-sized squares and topped with canapé-style toppings, and there’s only so many of those I can eat. There’s nothing wrong with breads that contain less than 100% rye flour, but I don’t need a separate starter for that—Ezekiel will happily rise anything that contains at least 1/2 cup wheat flour.

Keeping a Once-a-Month Starter

The only reason my rye starter is still alive—although haven’t named it yet, so clearly I’m not that attached to it either—is because I’m maintaining it in a way that only requires me to bake with it about once a month instead of once a week. I only save 1-2 t. starter every time I bake, and then feed it weekly until it’s threatening to overflow its jar, which usually takes at least four weeks. I use almost all of it when I bake and save just another 1-2 t. 

You can keep any kind of starter on that kind of feeding schedule if you want to make sourdough-risen bread, but don’t want to do it every week. Once your starter is active, only save about 1 tsp. fed with 1 tsp. flour and 1 tsp. water (or 1.5 tsp. water if using rye flour). Then, about once a week, add just enough flour and water to double whatever is in the jar. A sample feeding schedule for a 100% hydration wheat starter might be:

Week 1: 1 T. flour + 1 T. water

Week 2: 2 T. flour + 2 T. water

Week 3: 1/4 cup flour + 1/4 cup water

Week 4: 1/2 cup flour + 1/2 cup water

Week 5: 1 cup flour + 1 cup water OR bake and start from the beginning again

Sometimes I forget about it for a week, and nothing bad seems to happen. Once I’ve built it up to 1-2 cups again, I make a mental note that I should bake with it sometime in the next week or two. The night before I want to bake, I “refresh” it by pulling it out of the fridge, dumping it into a bowl, adding 1 cup flour and 1 cup water and letting it sit at room temperature for at least 8 hrs before mixing the dough. The next day, I measure out as much as I need for the recipe I’m using, and if there’s a lot left over, I either add it to the recipe and reduce the amount of flour/water I use (baking really isn’t a science), double the recipe, or make another loaf. I suppose I could also just throw the extra away, but I hate to do that. I reserve just about a teaspoonful of the refreshed starter to put back in the jar with a teaspoon each of fresh flour and water, which makes a total of about 1 T. starter. Refrigerate. Repeat. 

I could also save a little more starter, say 2 T. or 1/4 cup, and feed it for just two or three weeks between baking. Not to get all self-help lit, but how empowering is that? You don’t have to be controlled by your yeast culture. You can have sourdough-risen bread as often, or infrequently as you want it. You are the master of your own sourdough starter!

Of course, you can also just use active dry yeast, too, and I’ve included modifications for that and a version that uses a wheat-sourdough below the ingredient list.

Recipe: Rye-starter-risen American Pumpernickel (makes 2 large loaves, adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups refreshed rye starter at 150% hydration (roughly 1.5 cups rye flour and 2.25 cups water)
  • 1 1/2 cups dark rye flour
  • 3 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup vital wheat gluten (optional but highly recommended)
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 4-8 T. butter
  • 3 t. salt
  • 2 T. malt extract, maple syrup, or sugar (optional)
  • 1/2 t.-2 t. caraway seeds (optional)
  • 1/2 t. fennel seeds (optional)
  • 1/2 t. coriander seeds (optional)
  • 1 T. shallot, fresh or dried, or onion powder (optional)
  • 2 T. cocoa (optional)
  • 1 T. instant espresso or coffee powder (optional)

Wheat Sourdough Starter Substitution: Use 2 cups of 100%-hydration sourdough starter made with all-purpose or high-gluten wheat flour, like Ezekiel (~1.5 cups flour and 1.5 cups water), increase the dark rye to 3 cups, reduce the bread flour to 2 cups, and increase the water to 1 cup. The rest of the ingredients and steps stay the same. If the dough is too sticky to knead, add more wheat flour. If it’s too dry to form a smooth ball and cracks as you knead it, add more water.

Active Dried Yeast Substitution: Combine 2 packages or 1.5 T. active dry yeast with 1/2 cup warm water (110-120F) and 1/2 cup all-purpose or bread flour. Let sit for 10 min, and then add 3 cups rye flour, 2 1/2 cups bread flour, 2 cups warm water, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and the rest of the ingredients from the gluten on down in the same amounts as above. If the dough is too sticky to knead, add more flour. If it’s too dry and cracks as you knead it, add more water.

Method:

1. If using fresh shallot, mince. If using dried shallot and/or any of the spices, grind them in a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, or by putting them in a zip-top bag and crushing them with a rolling pin.

I discovered the motor in my coffee grinder was dead, so opted for the ziploc bag route Some people like the seeds whole--if you do, skip this step and just add them to the dough

2. Whisk together the flours and the gluten, if using. The gluten will start to form long sticky strands as soon as it is moistened, so you want it to be distributed throughout the flour and the dough well.

3. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and stir just until it starts to come together. black bread 009black bread 010

3. Turn onto a lightly floured surface or rolling mat and knead for at least 15 minutes. It should be slightly sticky, but stick to itself more than it sticks to you and you should be able to form it into a smooth ball.

4. Lightly coat the bowl with oil, put the dough in the bowl and turn to coat the whole surface lightly with oil. Cover and let rise 6-8 hours (or more) until doubled in size.

~midnight~7am

5. Punch the dough down and divide into 2 equal pieces. Shape each into a smooth round ball or oblong, or place in a loaf pan. Cover and let rise again until doubled in size (probably at least 2 hrs, perhaps as much as 6 depending on how active your starter is).

punched down as they rose, they ended up being too close to each other and too big for the same pan, so I cut the parchment in half and separated them

6. Preheat the oven to 350F about 30 minutes before you want to put them in the oven.

7. Slash with a sharp knife—diagonal cuts for oblong loaves, a cross or square for round loaves, a slice down the middle for loaf pans. You can also let the loaf split naturally—one of mine did as it was rising. There must have been a small tear in the gluten network on the outside, which grew into a massive split as it rose. They just look a little more “rustic” that way.

8. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

The combination of caraway, fennel, chocolate, coffee, molasses, and onion or shallot probably isn't for everyone. I'm not a huge fan of caraway so I tend to use very little or leave it out. But there is something about the combination of caraway-infused American Pumpernickel, corned beef, and sauerkraut that just seems "right."

Sourdough English Muffins: Of nooks and crannies and double-entendres

hot, buttered muffins

“Oh, no, my muffin hasn’t had a cherry since 1939.”
Betty White on SNL

Not to belabor the SNL references too much, but the “English muffin” presents us with a quintessential Coffee Talk paradox: the “English muffin” is neither English nor a muffin. (Discuss! By gum, I think I will…)

Do you know the muffin man?

The words “English muffin” appeared in print for the first time in 1842 in Great Western Magazine, a publication of a British railway company:

"In the deep well of a blue-edged plate..is disclosed that dream of farinaceous enjoyment, the *English muffin.” (from the OED, which does not explain the asterisk)

The fact that it shows up for the first time in a railway magazine may suggest that no one thought to specify its national origin until they were taking it outside of its supposed “home” country. But the only place outside of England that the Great Western Railway went was Wales, which is, coincidentally, where the type of bread represented by the “English muffin” probably originated sometime in the 10th C. Perhaps the increasing continental interconnectedness represented by the railway prompted a bit of mistaken culinary nationalism?

when you place them on the hot griddle, you can actually watch them rise up as the yeast frantically pump out gasthen you flip them, they deflate a little, like you've crushed their little yeasty ambitions. I must have some kind of bread schadenfreude--I really love watching them poof and then fall.

From Punch, or the London Charivari, Volume 103, December 24, 1892 ed. Sir Francis Cowley Burnand via WikipediaAside from that one instance, yeast-risen rolls griddled on both sides to create two flat, browned sides and a pale band about the waist were generally just referred to as “muffins” on both sides of the Atlantic until the end of the 19th C. The word derived either from the Middle Low German word “muffe” (pl. “muffen”) meaning “little cake” or the Old French “moufflet” meaning a soft or tender bread. It was probably the kind of bread peddled by the “muffin man” of nursery rhyme fame and along with its close relatives, the crumpet and cross-bun, was  customarily served with butter and jam at mid-day tea, a tradition that began in the 17th C. and reached its height in the Victorian Era.

Hannah Glasse included a recipe for small, griddled yeast breads in The Art of Cookery (1747) titled “Muffings [sic] and Oat-Cakes” which instructed that they be split with a fork rather than a knife so “they will be like a Honey-Comb” instead of “heavy as Lead.” Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter recorded a similar recipe for “Monticello Muffins” in her unpublished cookbook manuscript. It calls for a dough of flour, water, and yeast to be shaped in “little cakes like biscuit” and baked on a griddle “before the fire” rather than inside the stove. Those were probably the same muffins Jefferson was referring to when he wrote to his daughter Martha from the White House:

"Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter’s method [referring to Peter Hemings, the head cook at Monticello]. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me.”

One of Jefferson’s great-granddaughters recorded an anecdote regarding their proper consumption echoing Glasse’s warning not to cut them with a knife. The Benjamin Franklin in the story is one of Jefferson’s grandsons, not the bespectacled founding father, and Mrs. M is Dolley Madison, the fourth First Lady:

"On one occasion little Benjamin Franklin  . . . seated next to Mrs. M. found himself unequal to the management of his muffin. Mrs. Madison’s aid being invoked, she took the knife to cut it, but a little hand was laid on hers, and an earnest voice exclaimed, ‘No! No! That is not the way!’ ‘Well, how then Master Ben?’ ‘Why, you must tear him open, and put butter inside and stick holes in his back! And then pat him and squeeze him and the juice will run out!’ Mrs. Madison, much amused, followed his directions. Any lover of the English muffin will appreciate their wisdom!"

Notably, the story also seems to mark the transition from “muffin” to “English muffin.” What for the late 18th C. or early 19th C. Master Ben was just a “muffin,” was for Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Harrison, who lived from 1823-1897, an “English muffin.”

American Muffin

The need for a distinction was probably prompted by the growing popularity of quick breads, which was facilitated by the increasing availability of chemical leaveners. The New World turned out to be a great source of potash, which could be refined into pearlash, an alkaline salt used in some bread and cake recipes in Andrea Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery. Chemically-leavened breads really took off after the first factory to produce baking soda was established by two New York bakers in 1846. A 1879 domestic handbook titled Housekeeping in Olde Virginia includes two recipes for “muffins,” the first of which would have produced something like an English muffin, and then:

“Another recipe for muffins…make the batter the consistency of pound cake, and bake in snow-ball cups as soon as made” (foodtimeline.org).

Although a butter and egg-rich cake called “pound cake” was also made in England, the one that’s traditional to the American South is lighter specifically because of the inclusion of baking soda. As quick breads became more common, especially in the American South, the older, yeast-risen style of “muffin” may have been associated with the Old World. It was apparently sold as a distinctively “English” bread at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. A recipe in Richard Baxter’s Receipt Book for Bakers (1896) claimed: “These are the genuine English Muffins that were introduced into Chicago during the World’s Fair.” Furthermore, the first person to mass-produce them was an honest-to-God Englishman. 1950s Thomas' ad--before "nooks and crannies" were their slogan--the small print describes the "wonderful texture of ridges and valleys that toast to a golden perfection...eagerly soak up butter, jam or marmalade"

Samuel Bath Thomas emigrated from Plymouth, England to New York in 1875 and began selling yeasted, griddled rolls at his Ninth Avenue bakery in 1880. An article on Wolferman’s website claims that Thomas invented the “English muffin” and the fork-splitting technique that preserved their “nook & crannies” better than knife-slicing, which seems to confuse Thomas’s advertising campaigns with history—the phrase “nooks and crannies” actually comes from 1970s Thomas English muffin ads. But Wolferman’s does have the essential Americanness of the term right—when Unilever bought the S.B. Thomas brand in the 1990s and began exporting “English muffins” to the UK, consumers there were totally bemused by the name.

So the “English muffin” is essentially American—or, traditionally, Welsh—and it’s completely different from the other kind of bread Americans typically call “muffins.”

Just bluffin’ with my muffin

Lamenting the substitution of “English muffin” for “crumpet” in the American versions of the Harry Potter books, Michael Quinion of World Wide Words argues that “crumpet” has unique cultural associations, even though young Americans might not know them. In particular, he mentions the crumpet’s slang connotations:

In the 1930s, the word became British English slang for a woman regarded as an object of sexual desire. No doubt men remembered their schooldays and associated female pulchritude with something tasty….

is "muffin" really not a slang term in the UK? is this cheeky smile really just for the American audience? or does Michael Quinion live under some kind of rock where women can be crumpets but not muffins?But of course, “muffin” has a similar connotation in America. It can refer to attractive people of both genders, usually preceded by “stud” for men, and is also used to refer to female genitalia—although as a primary rather than secondary sex organ, it’s a matter of some dispute whether that counts as “an object of sexual desire” (see Civilization and Its Discontents p. 63). In any case, it’s probably the perfect substitution for “crumpet” for American readers.

The usual explanation for the slang use of “muffin” has less to do with the tastiness of muffins or “female pulchitrude” than the phonetic similarity between muffin and “muff,” as in the winter accessory made of fur. “Muff” was adopted as a slang term for vagina in the late 17th or early 18th C. for anatomical reasons highlighted by this lyric from the 1707 Merry Songs & Ballads: “The Muff between her Haunches, Resembl’d..a Mag-Pye’s Nest” (OED).

By way of unfortunate synecdoche, it eventually became a slang term for a woman or girl, especially if considered promiscuous or a prostitute. According to Cassell’s, the extension to “muffin” as slang for either woman or vagina in the U.S. happened in the 1960s, at which point its primary culinary referent would have been the quick bread baked in a instead of the griddled, yeast-risen roll.

That just makes it all the more curious that “crumpet” would have acquired the same slang meaning overseas without the phonetic tie to “muff.” Is it just the fact that that both crumpets and muffins—both English and American—are round? I guess the words bun, pie, tart, cupcake, and dumpling all have similar slang meanings. Even biscuit is apparently a slang term for a young woman—who, if unappealing, is a “cold biscuit.” Not so for the toroidal bagel, twisted or rod-shaped pretzels, square petit fours, crackers, and brownies,* or flatbreads—there are no entries in Cassell’s for pita or naan, and pizza’s associations are primarily dermatological. I’m left, somewhat uneasily, with the conclusion that round breads and pastries are just inherently yonic. A question for you, dear readers: Are there any round baked goods that haven’t become slang terms for women and/or their genitalia?

*The Girl Scout level is taken from the mythical fairy-like creature known in Scotland and parts of England as a brùnaidh popularized by Canadian author Palmer Cox not the name of the baked good, which refers to the color of the chocolate bar cookie-cake. And even when deployed colloquially it refers primarily to someone being naive, not necessarily female.

What are you waiting for stupid? Eat it!

Even if all round breads are yonic, I guess I’m just more sensitive to the slang meanings of “muffin” than I am to biscuits or pie. It seems ridiculous, for example, to tell you how much I think you will delight in eating these muffins. Or, worse, how much I like eating these muffins. Or to exhort the delights of yeasty muffins.

But it’s the truth. These are some tasty muffins. (See? It’s terrible!)

A few notes on the recipe:

My starter alone doesn’t have enough rising power to create “nooks & crannies” in 10 minutes of baking time, which is why I use a recipe that calls for active dry yeast on top of the starter. If your starter will rise a loaf in less than 2 hrs, feel free to leave the packaged yeast out.

The sourdough flavor will depend on your starter and how long you let the dough rise. If you want a pronounced sourdough flavor, let the dough rise 8+ hrs. If you’re just trying to use up some starter, 2 hrs for the first rise should be plenty. If you don’t have a sourdough starter, double the amount of yeast and add 2/3 cup water and 2/3 cup flour.

When I make larger muffins, I sometimes bake them for 10-15 minutes after griddling them because otherwise they’ll remain doughy inside. To test them for doneness, you can try tapping the browned edges—if they sound hollow, they should be done all the way through; if they sound dense, they may be better if they’re baked. My preferred “testing” method is just to rip one open while it’s still warm off the griddle. If it’s doughy inside, I toast it. If not, I just butter it and go to town.

Recipe: Sourdough English Muffins
makes 12 smaller muffins (~68 g or 2.4 oz) or 8 larger ones (~100 g or 3.5 oz)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sourdough starter (100% hydration)* 
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour (or more white flour)
  • 1 t. active dry yeast (or about 1/2 packet)
  • 2 t. salt
  • 2 T. softened butter or oil
  • 1 T. sugar or honey
  • 2/3 cup lukewarm milk
  • 2-3 T. cornmeal for dusting the pan

*If not using starter, double the amount of yeast and add 2/3 cup water and 2/3 cup flour.

Method: 

1. Make a “sponge” with the instant yeast by combining it with a pinch of sugar, 1/4 cup flour, and 1/4 cup milk warmed to 110-120 F (or 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup warm water). Let sit for 5-10 minutes—it should get bubbly and increase in volume.

a "sponge" tests to make sure the yeast is aliveit's not strictly necessary--if you know your yeast is active, you can just mix all the ingredients together after 5 minutes: bubbling up nicely

2. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for the cornmeal, and mix until it starts to pull away from the bowl and form a dough. After I’ve heated the milk for the sponge, I add the butter so it will melt while the sponge is blooming.

this makes it softer and richer than dough made with just flour and water, although based on the Jefferson stories, you could try that too  all the ingredients together--I doubled the recipe, which is why this looks like so much more than the recipe above would make.

2. Scrape the mixture onto a lightly floured surface and knead around until it’s a well-defined ball that’s tacky but not truly sticky, adding more flour if necessary. I love the way the Jefferson daughter’s cookbook manuscript describes this step, and the process of making bread by feel rather than measured amounts: “Mix . . . the flour up with water so thin that the dough will stick to the table. Our cook takes it up and throws it down until it will no longer stick.”

 in-process kneading pictures are complicated by the sticky, floury hands problem ready to rise

3. Lightly oil a bowl—I usually just use the same bowl I mixed the ingredients in with as much of the dough scraped out as possible. Place the dough in the bowl, turn to coat with oil and cover with plastic wrap or a towel.

4. Let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hrs (or more if you want a more pronounced sourdough flavor).

more than doubled is fine--even leaving it overnight isn't going to hurt anything deflated for the first time: foreshadowing

5. Punch the dough to deflate, remove to a clean table and knead gently until most of the air pockets have been released.

the first four--I weigh the dough to make sure they're even, which isn't necessary but does make for perfectly equal muffins16: again, a double batch

6. Divide into 8-12 pieces and form each one into an even ball by rolling between your hands or on the table. If they’re sticky, dust with a little flour. Cover them as you make them and set a timer for 30 minutes after you finish the first four (they’ll be ready first, so they’re the first ones you’ll two batches of 4 done and cooling, one on the stove, the last 4 on deckgriddle).

7. If making only 8-10 muffins, preheat the oven to 350 F because you’ll probably need to bake them. If making 12, I’d skip this—griddling will probably be sufficient.

8. With about 5 minutes left on the timer, preheat a skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Just before adding the first four muffins, sprinkle it with cornmeal.

9. Starting with the first balls you made, gently put them in the skillet. They should puff up visibly. After about 5 min, flip them and cook them for about 5 min more on the other side. Adjust the heat if necessary—if they’re not browning much after 5 minutes in the pan, turn the heat up. If they’re browning too quickly, turn the heat down. If the “on deck” balls start to rise too much, you can pat them down a little bit.

10. Option: if they’re not done after being griddled, transfer them to a baking sheet and put in a 350 F oven for 10-15 min.

11. To serve: perforate the edge with a fork and gently tear open. Toast (or don’t, your loss).

split with a genuine fork light as honeycomb instead of heavy as lead