Why I Bake Whole Grain Bread Every Week

We'll tell you why and show you how

Today we have an excerpt from the book that’s coming out Nov. 16 that I wrote with my longtime co-author, Kerri Conan: It’s called Bittman Bread: No-Knead Whole-Grain Baking for Every Day; we are really excited for you to read it (and start baking). This isn’t just a cookbook for Kerri and me: It has become a way of life and has redefined our priorities in the kitchen.

Six years ago, we started playing around with whole-grain bread baking. Three years ago, when we got much of our approach right, we were hooked. Today, Kerri and I bake whole grain bread at least once a week. Here’s the beginning of the story of how and why we got there.

If you’d like, you can order Bittman Bread here. — Mark

In 2015, I briefly relocated to Berkeley and, living alone and with some time on my hands (I’d left the Times and was between book projects), I began taking bread more seriously. I was determined to leave white flour behind and, luckily, I’d met and befriended Bob Klein of Community Grains in Oakland. Bob was working with wheat farmers from California and the Pacific Northwest to find older strains of wheat that could simply be ground without sifting or otherwise removing the bran or germ to make truly whole-grain bread.

As it turns out, making the best bread mostly means two things: mastering natural starter — usually called “sourdough,” though it’s not necessarily sour — and using real whole grains.

I say “real” whole grains because there are a lot of foods out there that call themselves “whole grain” that are not. If you take anything out, it’s obviously no longer whole. A whole-grain flour should have the same composition as the grain from which it was ground, but sometimes components are removed and the result is still dubbed “whole.”

Many serious bakers — me included — don’t believe you can bake really good whole grain bread without natural starter. Put another way: Commercial yeast (made possible by Louis Pasteur) cannot produce a satisfying whole grain bread.

The new home bakers have figured out the appeal of bread baking as relaxing, habit-forming, fun, and something to show off on social media. All of that is true with bread made with white flour, so the question is, “Why make whole grain bread?”

My answer is: “It’s better.” When you update an old fashioned technique and combine it with an old-fashioned grain (again, whole), you can make the best bread you’ve ever had — and by best, I mean not only the healthiest but far fuller tasting, more complex and satisfying than what you’re (probably) used to. Naturally fermented whole grain bread is the bread that was long called “the staff of life,” and the only bread I find worthy of the name.

Ancient and even preindustrial loaves were composed primarily of fermented whole grain — whether wheat or one of its ancestors like einkorn or emmer, or barley or rye— water, and salt. Those breads provided protein, fat, fiber, and a host of micronutrients. With a little dairy or meat or legumes and the occasional fresh fruit or vegetable, they formed the foundation of a solid diet that could support good health.

White bread can’t do that. What it can do is be reproduced uniformly and cheaply; it can also be industrially sliced and loaded with preservatives. It can even be called “wheat bread” (which of course it is), but can never be truthfully called “whole grain,” because its flour has been stripped of the bran and grain, the key sources of nutrients in wheat.

Bread made only with white flour, or even some small portion of whole grain wheat flour, doesn’t provide much in the way of nutrition. (That’s why most packaged bread is fortified with added vitamins.) In fact, your digestive system treats it more like sugar than it does whole wheat.

The convenience of white bread was a boon to wheat growers and especially processors in turn-of-the-twentieth-century America, and the shelf-stable stuff was gobbled up by city dwellers who, as factory and office workers, no longer had the time— or place, or energy, or even ingredients — to bake real bread. Rural people held out for as long as they could against factory bread and continued to bake, or at least buy at a local bakery, where whole-grain bread remained the standard well into the twentieth century.

But those traditions are now pretty much gone, even in England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Turkey, and other places where wheat has long been important and where whole-grain breads remained the standard until a couple of generations ago.

Those traditions are now being revived, both for long- and short-term reasons. The long-term reason is that good bread is actually good for you; it’s not one of those carbs that you’re often warned against. It also reminds you how simple nourishing food can be.