Breads made old-fashioned way are coming up in the world

May 23, 1993|By Teresa Gubbins | Teresa Gubbins,Dallas Morning News

Crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside -- rustic breads are gaining favor among '90s cooks who yearn for a return to the natural goodness of unprocessed foods.

Rustic breads are full-flavored, with a dense, intriguing texture studded with grains, nuts and savory little items such as olives, sun-dried tomatoes and herbs.

Made with a fermented starter, or sponge, rustic breads signal a return to the old-fashioned way of making bread, before yeast came in little packets.

"For convenience and efficiency, yeast is great for bread, but flavor gets sacrificed," says Beth Hensperger, author of "Baking Bread, Old and New Traditions" (Crown, $18.95).

Yeast is temperamental, too, says Carol Ritchie, a baker who teaches bread classes. "Yeast has a limited life span," she says. "If you're not paying attention, the dough will over-rise, and the bread sinks during baking."

Starter, by contrast, rises slowly over a long time, producing a tasty bread with a chewy texture and toothsome crust that yeast can't provide.

"We're going back to the old days when bread was the foundation of a diet based on simple ingredients found in the region," says Ms. Hensperger. "Russia, for example, has rye bread because that's what grew there.

"Rustic breads also address people's health concerns," she says. "Real European rustic country bread has no additives. It's lean dough -- no fat and no sugar."

Ms. Hensperger's vision of rustic bread-making dates back to a trip to France.

"I was in a little village -- it was kind of crumbling -- when I came upon a baker in a storehouse," she says. "He had a wood-fueled oven into which he was placing these breads that were huge, as big around as if you stretched out your arms. He baked them until they were almost black. The bread looked like it was made of stone, like it was part of the earth."

Rustic means rough or unpolished. That explains the advantage of rustic loaves for a novice baker. They're supposed to look sloppy and rough-hewn. You don't have to worry about shaping them perfectly.

Try making loaves of different shapes -- long and thin, or squared, or roll the dough into rounds.

Leavening isn't a problem, either, because starter's relaxed pace makes the rising of the dough very flexible.

Like an old friend, starter tolerates your mistakes. If you forget to come back to the dough for a while, it will still rise and bake into a delicious loaf.

Italian country bread is a classic rustic bread that begins with a sponge that takes at least four hours to rise; the flavors develop even more overnight.

French-style whole-wheat bread breaks the rising process into three steps: starter, then sponge, then dough. Making this loaf takes at least three days.

Olive bread, which is closer to a traditional yeast bread, has been "rusticized" with the addition of large chunks of olives.

Whether made with starter or yeast, bread undergoes two risings. The first sparks the leavening process; the second rising takes place after the dough has been shaped. Wait until after the first rising to add nuts, raisins or herbs. Many recipes suggest tossing the additions in flour first.

Traditionally, rustic breads are baked in a wood oven or an open hearth at very high temperatures -- an environment you won't find in most homes. Use a baking stone -- a brick-like composition stone that retains heat and keeps the oven temperature hot and constant -- to replicate the conditions.

"With the prosperity of the Western world, we lost track of the old way of making breads," says Ms. Hensperger. "But there's a renewed interest in the art of baking. It's creative. Baking bread has an appealing innocence."

Flour power

Making rustic breads the old-fashioned way can turn you into a flour fanatic.

Purists insist on organically grown whole-grain flours in the belief that they are grown with more care. However, organic flours are a rarity at most supermarkets, where the options usually are limited to three kinds of white and maybe a whole-wheat.

Susan Cheney, author of "Breadtime Stories" (Ten Speed Press, $16.95), recommends buying grains through the mail.

Whole-grain flours in particular have a limited life span; by buying from boutique grain companies, you increase the chances that the produce is fresh. Health food stores also stock organic flours.

Refrigerating flour in airtight containers will help preserve freshness.

Wheat flour is the No. 1 choice for bread. It contains the protein gluten, which helps bread rise. Ms. Cheney's favorite for bread is hard red spring wheat, because of its high gluten content. It can be ordered directly from grain merchants through the mail.

Whole-wheat flour is better for you -- but bread made with all whole-wheat doesn't rise as well as bread made with white flour. It's better to combine whole-grain flour with bread flour or all-purpose flour.

Other grains can be mixed into the dough to add flavor and texture.

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