I signed up for a two-day bread camp this summer at Spence Farms near Fairbury. As a baking instructor at our local community college, I thought I might pick up a few ideas to share with students. We typically spend four weeks out of the semesterlong class learning about and making bread.
We arrived at the farm with a potluck dish to share and a sleeping bag or tent. I opted for a friend’s house nearby. We were asked to bring a rolling pin, pair of kitchen scissors and willing hands. Bread Camp is a hands-on, sustainability exploration of Spence Farm that includes all the senses — touching, tasting, seeing and smelling — all the while immersing in bread making.
We compared and contrasted taste, texture and flavors of various grains and honey. We also toured the farm, saw wheat being harvested, and helped with chores such as harvesting pumpkin blossoms and gathering eggs.
Settled in 1830, Spence Farm is the oldest family farm in Livingston County. It includes 160 acres of woods, prairie, pasture and vegetable crops. Other crops include hay for the dairy cattle and grains such as wheat and rye. In the past 10 to 15 years, Marty Travis and his son Will, the partners of Spence Farm, have been working to restore habitat, increase diversity of crops, revitalize the soil and develop relationships around food. They sell freshly ground grains to bread bakers throughout the state, as well as fresh produce.
Erin Meyer, a registered dietitian, is the executive director of Spence Farm Foundation, which is a separate, not-for-profit corporation. Meyer’s goal with the foundation is to connect agriculture with chefs, dietitians and physicians. Her vision is to revitalize communities through food — improving access to healthy food and increasing economic development through building demand for farm jobs. The foundation recently received a grant and support from over 20 organizations to build an Artisan Grain Collaborative in the Chicago area where the University of Illinois Extension will test grains. The bread lab will include an information center.
Greg Wear with Public Quality Bread in Chicago led the bread baking. In a typical week, he and his staff turn out 10,000 loaves of bread.
“How we work with grains develops flavors,” explains Wear.
One of the most surprising things to me was the difference in using fresh-ground flours vs. flours that are commercially produced. Fresh-ground flours offer amazing flavors in bread, whether from oats, wheat, rye or barley.
KNEAD: Although he’s kneading pizza dough here, Greg Wear with Public Quality Bread in Chicago says he typically turns out 10,000 loaves of bread in a week, with his staff.
Here are a few things I learned at the camp about baking bread:
1. Pay attention to the protein, moisture and ash content of the grain you are using to make bread. Higher-protein flour is better for bread; lower proteins are better for cakes and pastries. Too high moisture can lead to mold, bacteria and pests. Higher ash content means more nutritious flour; however, higher ash also can tear dough apart and weaken the gluten structure. Who knew?
2. Pre-ferments, such as a sourdough starter or a soaker (where grains are literally soaked in water), a scald (boiling water is poured over grains), poolish or biga are all flavor developers. Use them as often as you can. (Pre-ferments are portions of bread dough that are prepared in advance of baking. They help bread turn out better.)
3. Mix the flour and water first; then wait to add the salt and yeast. That will allow long, unbroken gluten strands to develop until the salt and yeast are added. When salt is added, it locks up gluten development.
4. Don’t be afraid to allow a longer fermentation. Flavor is developed in the fermentation. That’s why sourdough starters are so effective.
5. We baked our breads in a wood-fired oven, which also added to the flavor development. Most of us don’t have access to that, but even adding steam to a regular oven helps create a better crust.
6. If you want to be a better bread baker, bake bread more often. Read all you can and try different ingredients. Try mixing flours — wheat and oat; wheat and barley; wheat and rye.
If you’d like to find out more about Spence Farm or Spence Farm Foundation, go to spencefarmfoundation.org.
This family recipe uses the scald method; it’s from my sister-in-law, and I make it often.
2 cups boiling water
2 cups graham (stone-ground) whole-wheat flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons margarine or butter
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup milk
5-6 cups bread flour
Fargo is a dietitian for HyVee in Springfield. Send recipe ideas to her at [email protected].