January 15th, 2008
As the recession kicks in – and looks to be a long, deep one extending well beyond this fall’s elections and possibly through 2009 as well – the health and wellbeing of all our families are going to be something at the top of the list of “important” considerations. Worse, there are strong hints of a coming Worldwide Food Shortage caused by expanding droughts in grain growing regions as well as diversion of cropland and crops for the production of ethanol.
So in this post I want to talk about bread. That generally most ignored of foods in the modern world, turned into nutrient-sapping paper maché paste by giant food processing conglomerates. Yet bread is traditionally known as “The Staff of Life,” the most important staple food for human beings since ancient prehistory.
My father was a big fan of “meal bread,” what he called breads that form the belly-filling ‘meat’ of a day’s diet to supplement any vegetables or cheeses that are available. Breads that sop up the “pot likker” liquids left from boiling greens or stewing meats, breads that offer complementary proteins to spreads like nut butters or flavored oils and butters, breads a person can live on if need be while not causing drastic shortages of necessary nutrients.
These breads are quite different from your basic Wonder Bread loaves of bleached white bread with the consistency of thin mud pie. They often come with a variety of nuts or seeds, sprouted whole grains, grated cheeses, diced garlic and onions, even wildings such as acorn or bark flours. Bread can also be made with potatoes, beans, dried squash, corn or even fruits, enriched with sun-dried tomatoes and laced with herbs like rosemary and basil and oregano and mints. Made from any combination of wheat, rye, rice, soy, barley, amaranth or millet flours, preferably with grain-heart and bran included, meal bread is a solid, heavy loaf with a lot of body and plenty of personality.
We’ve examined some of the most immediate ways to save money, and one of the most important of those is learning how to cook meals from scratch. Not only does this save a lot on prepared and processed foods and eating out, it also allows people to get more involved with their food – which tends to translate directly into a healthier diet and fitter body. Bread is probably one of the best foods a person can commit to making for themselves and their family. One can go whole hog with the project or simply purchase one of those handy dandy bread machines that so many Yuppies swear by these days. But if you want to try your hand at real live meal breads, your best bet is to do it by hand. That way you can be creative day after day after day, and your family – including those kids who think the world revolves around Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs – will learn to love it.
To save the most money on the project while obtaining the most bulk for your buck, you can purchase whole grains by the pound at health food stores and organic co-ops. You’ll need to bring your own bags and have ample well-sealed containers at home to store them in. The best I’ve found are those plastic 5-gallon buckets with tight-fitting lids you can recycle from construction sites (they hold drywall mud) or perhaps get from your local deli – those big kosher pickles come in these buckets – or even from your local school cafeteria, as many bulk foods are packaged this way. Wash them thoroughly and sterilize them with boiling water, let them dry thoroughly and line with a white plastic garbage bag. Once your grains are in the bucket you can twist the bag over it (this helps defeat weevils, mice and other vermin) and then cover firmly with the lid. The grain will keep for more than a year this way. Do keep out a quart jar of whole grains (and mung beans/alfalfa seeds) if you can, as these can be sprouted in a day’s time to add green-growth vitamins to your breads.
If you purchase just a few pounds of different kinds of grains at a time, you can go ahead and grind it (I use a nifty countertop hand grinder from Poland) and store it in canister jars with screw-on lids in your freezer. Label the jars so you know what’s in them, most flours look pretty much alike when they’re ground! Or simply purchase bags of pre-groud flour (and artisan flours) at the grocery store and store them in the freezer.
After awhile you’ll develop some favorite combinations of flours you’ll want to use over and over again. In a 3-cup loaf recipe I like to include half a cup of bean flour (garbanzos and blacks grind up nice or can simply be added mashed), half a cup of serious whole grain (like acorn or cracked wheat) with fine-ground rye or soft wheat flour. Oat flour isn’t as good in “meal bread” as whole rolled oats, but that’s personal taste. You’ll also want to get supplies of flax seed, unsalted sunflower seeds and unbleached sesame seeds to include. If you like poppy seeds go for it, but be forewarned that they’ll make you flunk a drug test!
It takes 3-4 cups of flour to make a standard round bread or loaf. You can always double a recipe so you don’t have to bake so often, and for a little less than $100 you can get an efficient solar oven that will bake bread fine as long as the sun shines – thereby saving you money on that electric range oven!
Now I guess we should examine leavening. Some combinations of flours are quite short on developed gluten, which is the wheat protein that allows bread to rise and become fluffy when yeast is added. Some people are sensitive to gluten and/or yeast, so there are recipes for no-yeast breads out there that use baking powder instead of yeast. Sourdough is my favorite penny-pinching leavening, but it relies on natural yeasts. Anyone sensitive should avoid sourdough and just stick with non-yeast recipes.
I say sourdough is my favorite cheap leavening because once you start shopping for breadmaking supplies, you’ll find that yeast is an expensive item. And it takes at least one whole packet (or tablespoon equivalent from a jar of dried yeast) per loaf of bread. You’re not just keeping healthy with meal bread, you’re also trying to feed your family well on a shoestring budget! Sourdough is the best answer I’ve found.
I’ve heard tell of sourdough starters out in San Francisco that are more than a hundred years old! No, the sourdough itself isn’t that old, as it’s “fed” daily as it’s used to make bread, but that’s an impressive batch of leavening! Sourdough is basically just a fermented mix of flour and water. The yeasts that thrive naturally on the surface of grains, fruits, vegetables and in the air are what causes the fermentation, or you can take the shortcut like I did and start your starter with a packet of store-bought yeast. I use a starter that has a bit of added sugar (used a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses) and a bit of milk (for its lactic acid), but you can make a good starter with just flour and water.
My recipes usually call for 2 cups of liquid (starter or starter plus warm water) per loaf, which means that I have to feed the starter with that much more flour and water – and maybe a spoonful of sugar – every time I bake bread. Weekly I pour it out into a bowl and let it sit bubbling for an hour or two, while thoroughly washing the jar and letting it dry. Then I put it back into the jar and pop it into the fridge to use next time. It needs shaking or stirring regularly to mix the beer-like liquid with the settled flour, and I do let my dough sit out for a couple of hours to develop well before kneading and shaping the loaves.
Heavier breads take longer to rise than breads made with fine-ground unbleached wheat flour alone. The more additives (veggies, nuts, sprouts, seeds) in the loaf, the longer it’ll take to get a good rise. For some really rich meal breads I go ahead and put the dough in an oiled pyrex bowl with a tight lid in a slightly warmed oven and let it rise overnight. Sourdough doesn’t have to rise twice (though sometimes you’ll want to do that), and should be baked at a hot temperature. 450º for a basic semi-white light loaf, 425º for whole wheat and mixed grains, 400º for heavy loaves with seeds and veggies. Cook it covered if you can for the first half hour, then uncovered until the crust is brown and the loaf sounds hollow.
I’ve listed some great sites for information and recipes below, and hope my readers will take the time to check them out. I know it doesn’t sound all that important to talk about bread when there may be a major food shortage as well as economic depression in the next couple of years. But again, bread is the most important of the foods we need to keep us and our families alive in hard times. A basic plain loaf of sliced whole wheat sandwich bread is now $3.50 at my local grocery store – and while I don’t remember when bread was a nickel, I do remember when it was a quarter a loaf. Once you become adept at making your own breads, you’ll find that by buying ingredients in bulk you can have a fine heavy loaf of serious artisan bread for less than a dollar a loaf! It’s some work, but the kind of work that is most satisfying. If you plan well, you can bake up to 6 loaves over a single weekend, enough for the coming week and high in nutritional value. Bread can be frozen and re-heated before serving.
If you make 6 loaves of meal bread – very much gourmet specialty items, by the way, which cost 7-10 dollars a loaf locally – for about $6, that’s some serious food value! If you can get your children to love it, you’ll find that they can be very creative in their lunchtime trading with friends. My grandchildren always pack extra slices of bread and trade them for apples or carrots or cookies, or sometimes a fine mac and cheese. Kids are ever more environmentally and nutritionally aware these days, so encourage them! Let them help make bread with you on the weekend and they’ll be even more proud of their lunches!
Click through background sites for great recipes, and create your own!