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What’s Wrong With Michael Pollan’s ‘Perfect’ Bread

Emmer and wheat bread with jam is a good choice for breakfast. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

Emmer and wheat bread with jam is a good choice for breakfast. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

Every time you bake a load of bread, it’s a small miracle — combining flour, water, salt and air to get the final product.

When humans found a way to store grains and make them into flour, it changed the course of history, enabling economies and populations to grow. In so many ways, bread is at the core of our history. Bread is culture, and it is about people. It’s also about love — think about how we bake for people we love, our family and friends.

I recently read Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked,” and it made me think a lot about my relationship with bread. I did not relate to his idea of the perfect bread, which he claims to have found in Chad Robertson’s Tartine sourdough bread. Robertson’s bread, I’m sure, is amazing. I have not tasted it from his cafe, but I have enjoyed Robertson’s book, and I think it is a thorough and detailed baking book with a guide on how to make sourdough bread.

Bread shouldn’t be perfect, but varied

But to Pollan’s point, is there such a thing as perfect bread? I sustain myself every day on rye bread — actually, I can’t live without it. In the Middle East, they live on flatbread and pita, and in many parts of Eastern Europe they live on different types of rye bread. Thousands of bread traditions exist around the world, and the new and trendy sourdough bread made with a dark, tasty crust and light, airy texture can’t take all them out in one go.

I bake bread according to what I am going to eat and what kind of flour I have in the house. I often like to eat dense bread with a lot of fiber, and I like to bake with varieties of flour such as rye, spelt, emmer and different heritage wheats. I use a lot of local flours, such as Ølands wheat. This summer I met a farmer at a Kneading Conference in Maine who had just started growing some Øland hvede wheat. Interest in that particular variety is growing.

The flavor of bread comes from the flour, so bread can’t be better than the flour you use to bake it. You can add to that with your skill and knowledge, which comes from practice. Baking doesn’t have to be only scientific; it can also be very intuitive.

Pollan writes in “Cooked” that he has concerns about the Tartine sourdough bread being 100 percent plain wheat and therefore not as healthy as a whole-grain bread, but it’s a challenge to get the same crust and texture with whole grains. My question is why not just enjoy a variety of breads baked using different methods?

I believe bread has to be about variety, and that comes from diversity in both craftsmanship and grains. Both have more or less disappeared in Western food culture, with the food-manufacturing industry taking over food production.

No matter what, good bread needs quality flour milled from grains treated with care and grown in an environment with crop rotation and care for the soil. The flour has to be stone ground and not separated in the process, and it can’t be older than 7 months when used. Finally, when baking bread, the dough needs time to ferment. Large-scale food manufacturers do not apply to any of these above-mentioned techniques, and many small bakeries do not either.

So, do you have to bake your own bread to have good bread? The answer is both yes and no. If we don’t bake it ourselves, we have to make conscious choices about the bread we buy.

If you are hesitant about the idea of baking your own bread and all it involves, you should know that baking is not hard or time consuming; most doughs take care of themselves.

Baking is part of my everyday life; I bake rye bread every week, and I also bake a lot of other breads, including this dense and tasty emmer wheat bread. It contains about 25 percent whole-grain flour, so it’s very filling. I eat only a slice for breakfast, and it’s perfect for a sandwich on the second day or with soup during the winter months.

Emmer and Wheat Bread

Emmer is an old wheat variety that contains a lot of protein and minerals and tastes wonderful. Eat the bread the Danish way with cheese or jam for breakfast or with a salad or soup.

Prep time: 1 hour

Cooking and proofing time: 8 to 12 hours

Total time: About 2 hours active work, spread over multiple days

Yield: Makes two loaves

Ingredients

2 cups (280 grams) stone-ground whole-grain emmer flour

4½ cups (500 grams) strong wheat flour

1½ teaspoons organic dry yeast

1 tablespoon flaky sea salt

2¼ cups (600 milliliters) cold water

Directions

1. Start by mixing the flours in a large mixing bowl, then add in the dry yeast and salt.

The bread dough. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

The bread dough. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

2. Pour in the water, mixing the dough until it is smooth and even. If you have a Kitchen Aid or similar mixer, use it to mix the dough. The dough should be quite sticky and will absorb a lot of the water while rising.

3. Place the dough in a bowl and cover it with a kitchen towel, then let it rise at room temperature for a half-hour.

4. After it rises, cover the bowl with cling film and place it in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours.

5. After proofing in the refrigerator, place the dough on a floured surface and let it rest for 30 minutes.

6. With spatula and a bit of flour, divide the dough into two equal pieces and shape it into two round loafs without kneading too much.

7. Place the loaves on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and cover with a kitchen towel. Leave to rise for about 30 to 45 minutes.

8. Check on the dough. It should have risen a little and bounce back easily when touched lightly. If the dough rises for too long, it will start going flat.

9. Preheat the oven to 450 F (225 C or Gas 7).

10. Sprinkle the oven with water or place a small oven-proof bowl filled with water inside. This will create some steam in the oven.

11. When the dough is ready, place it in the oven and bake for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 400 F (200 C or Gas 6) and bake for 35 more minutes.

12. Remove the bread from the oven and leave it to cool on an open wire rack. It’s important not to cut the bread before it’s cool because the bread continues to bake during the cooling time and is not done until entirely cooled.

Main photo: Emmer and Wheat Bread with jam is a good choice for breakfast. Credit: Trine Hahnemann



Zester Daily contributor Trine Hahnemann is a Copenhagen, Denmark-based chef and caterer and the author of six cookbooks, including "The Scandinavian Cookbook" and "The Nordic Diet." She has catered for artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones. Her company, Hahnemann's Køkken, which runs in-house canteens, counts the Danish House of Parliament among its clients. Hahnemann writes a monthly column in Denmark's leading women's magazine, Alt for Damerne.

2 COMMENTS
  • Amy Halloran 11·4·14

    I love this take on bread! The idea of the perfect loaf scares so many of us out of the kitchen. Thanks for bringing some sense to this bread frenzy.

  • stephanie torba 3·15·16

    Where does a person get strong wheat flower and whole-grain emmer flour? Thanks:)

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