MANKIND HAS BEEN MAKING BREAD in some form for 6,000 years, but lately bread—for the wheat it often contains—ends up in the crosshairs, says Peter Reinhart in his new book “Bread Revolution.” How he answers bread’s detractors is covered in the book’s subtitle: “World-Class Baking with Sprouted and Whole Grains, Heirloom Flours, and Fresh Techniques” (and you can enter to win a copy).
Peter is one of the world’s master bread-makers, and the author of six books on bread baking, including multiple James Beard Award winners such as “Whole Grain Breads,” “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” and “Crust and Crumb.” He is a baking instructor on the faculty of Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has even delivered a popular TED talk on the subject.
So when was the last time you baked bread—which to my taste competes with homemade soup as the ultimate comfort this time of year, when we gardeners head mostly indoors for the long wait? I interviewed Peter Reinhart on my public-radio show for inspiration on the best-tasting, healthiest ingredients—including some that are gluten free. The transcript of our chat follows:
Q. I love the book, and the title, Peter—but for those who don’t have a copy in their hands to read for themselves why you called it that, tell us what the revolution’s about.
A. I think bread, in its essence, is revolutionary. When you think about something that’s made from wheat and flour, that’s been transformed into dough, and then the dough is transformed into bread—the whole concept is pretty wild and revolutionary.
But then after 6,000 years (and throughout the 6,000 years) there have always been times when people say, “Hey, bread’s not so good for us,” or “Bread is dead.” Or, “We shouldn’t be eating it,” and we’re going through a phase like that now.
People are worried about bread, and there’s a lot of gluten sensitivity. There are concerns about “wheat belly,” and “grain brain.” So there’s a lot of fear going on. And yet, people love bread.
We’ve found that it’s very difficult for people to give up bread. Folks who find out that they have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity—it’s much harder to give up bread than meat, or gourmet food, for instance, because it’s so intrinsic, and primal, and part of our nature.
What’s revolutionary today is that we’re finding that even after 6,000 years, there are some new ways to make bread with wheat, and there are some new variations of flour and wheat products that are tolerable to people who are having problems—but that also taste better.
So that’s really to me the revolution: that even after 6,000 years we’re learning how to make it better.
Q. As a “plant person,” I love the anecdotes in the book about how it was millers and growers of grain that connected you to these new ingredients and their potential. Back to the land you went to learn about these ingredients.
A. I got a call from a miller who mills for large companies like King Arthur Flour, and focuses on organic flours, and he said, “You know, I’ve stumbled upon something. I’m not sure if I’m crazy or not, but I want you to test this flour out because I think I’m on to something pretty big. It’s wheat that I’ve sprouted.”
Basically it had germinated, and the little sprout came out, and then he dried it and ground it back into flour.
He said, “I’m not supposed to be able to make good bread from sprouted wheat. It’s supposed to be ruined for breadmaking when it sprouts, and yet it’s making fabulous bread.”
I tried it, and I was blown away by how sweet the bred tasted, and by the fact that it actually worked. We’ve always assumed as bakers that once wheat or any grain got sprouted, the bread-forming properties—the gluten capabilities—were compromised. But as it turns out, when he catches it in the early sprouting stages, you get nutritional benefits, huge flavor benefits, and yet the gluten still develops and you still get great bread.
So we were off and running at that point, which was about four years ago. Then I found there were other millers who’d been working with sprouted grains and making flours, and I started connecting the dots.
Sprouting is not revolutionary. There are malt houses all over the country that are involved in the beer-making renaissance that’s going on, because beer is basically sprouted grain that’s then liquid bread. So the access is there, and people knew how to sprout, and grind, but nobody knew you could make bread from it.
Q. Sprouted grain bread isn’t new, either—I ate my first slice of Food for Life’s Ezekiel sprouted whole-grain bread decades ago. But that’s different, isn’t it?
A. It’s similar but different, and that revolution took place about 60 years ago, when a couple of bakeries found that they could sprout the grain and then grind it into a pulp, like running it through a sausage grinder. If they mixed this pulp or mash with other bread ingredients like yeast, salt, and honey, and added some vital wheat gluten—pure gluten, extracted from wheat—it would made a pretty darn good bread.
So Ezekiel’s, and Alvarado Street Bakery, and before that there was even one called Giusto’s Vita-Grain that all did this. It is good because it’s sprouted—the sprouting makes it more digestible and more nutritious—but that added gluten that was required to make it work really confirmed to us that without gluten, you really couldn’t make bread from it. Because they run it through that masher, you still have to add gluten to get bread.
The flour method, the newer approach where you dry and grind it right after it sprouts so it looks just like flour and performs like four and still has that gluten—that was the breakthrough.
Q. I was intrigued that you say in “Bread Revolution” that after experimenting with a new sprouted-wheat flour, you experienced the best-tasting whole-wheat bread you’d ever tasted. That’s a pretty bold statement coming from you, Peter.
A. I always tell my students on the first day of bread class that their mission is to learn how to evoke the full potential of flavor trapped in the flour, in the grain.
They are going to learn to do that by using baker’s tricks and techniques—craft that has been developed over centuries to coax the flavor out of this tasteless, starchy product called flour. And it works.
You can do it by using techniques like pre-ferments; long, slow fermentations; and enzyme activity—all techniques for making great bread. And I have had great whole-wheat bread, and you can make it without using the sprouted flour.
But what’s interesting about the sprouting process: All of the work that bakers do to coax that flavor out is done for us by the sprouting process itself. It’s natural. It sweetens up the flour; the enzymes in the grain start to break apart and free up some of the natural sugars that are in the endosperm of the grain itself.
If you taste the difference between dough made from just whole-wheat flour, and chew on that, you can taste the inherent subtle sweetness that’s buried in there, but most of that sweetness is trapped in the starches still. If you chew on a piece of dough made from the sprouted flours, it’s very sweet because the sugars got released before you even turned it into dough.
Bakers are always trying to get that sweetness out by playing with tricks like yeasts and pre-ferments and bacterias, but nature has done it for us with the sprouted flours.
We’re right on the tip of an iceberg here because we’re just learning about it.
Q. The re-emergence of so-called “ancient grains” is a hot topic right now in agriculture, and also in the culinary arts. But the phrase can be a little vague, and even misleading. What does “ancient grains” mean?
A. There are two categories. The first specifically refers to ancient wheat strains such as einkorn, spelt, emmer, and kamut (which is a trademark name for khorasan wheat). These strains go back thousands of years, but for the most part they faded because they didn’t produce large yields, or have a lot of gluten to make a lot of great bread. But they are more digestible than modern strains of wheat.
There has been a lot of interest in bringing those back into circulation.
Then there is this other “ancient-grain” category—the non-wheats. If you think about it, all grain is ancient—so the question is whether it’s a modern hybrid form, or more of an heirloom variety.
So quinoa, or amaranth, rye, oats—even corn—every grain has an ancient heirloom version, and its modern manifestation. There’s a lot of interest in using those. Quinoa, for instance, is still pretty much the same as it has been for thousands of years—we haven’t messed with it too much. Give a few companies a few years though…
Q. [Laughter.] I’ve heard there may be people already thinking about that…
A. And these grains taste great, especially when you eat them in their whole form. That’s the best part about the interest in the ancient grains: It’s encouraging people to go back to eating whole grains.
And wheat is kind of the king of all the grains when it comes to bread, mostly because it has the most gluten. Wheat has more gluten that rye, and rye has more gluten than barley—and that’s about it. Those are the three that have gluten in them. But wheat has the most, so it tastes really good, and it rises really well.
So now the question is: Do we want to use ancient versions of wheat, or can we still use modern versions, and not have the digestive problems that people seem to be having in a growing fashion? We’re not even sure what the cause of that is. Some of it could be better diagnostics; some of it could be environmental, the way the wheat is treated in the ground and sprayed with herbicides that can mess with our guts. Or is it the [modern wheat variety’s] chromosomes themselves?
We have got a definitive answer yet. We know that all these things could be factors. But the nice thing about sprouted grains is that they’re usually grown form organically grown wheat, so they’re not treated with all the sprays, and they’re much easier to digest. That doesn’t mean that someone with Celiac disease can necessarily eat sprouted wheat, but we have found that a lot of gluten sensitivities that are not actually Celiac are able to tolerate sprouted bread.
A. You can actually now get all of these grains in their sprouted form, as the sprouted flour. You can even get quinoa in the sprouted form—everything except teff, which is probably the most ancient of all the grains, and I love using it. I am very excited to see teff having its moment in the spotlight.
Most people only know it as this flour for Ethiopian injera bread. It’s a great grain. You can’t necessarily make a whole bread from it, because it doesn’t have any gluten and it has its own strong flavor. But mixed into other dishes when cooked as a grain, or mixed with other bread flours, it can really work well.
The others can all be used in sprouted-flour form, and many can be used to make gluten-free breads. With the sprouted flours, you’ll have more sweetness, more flavor. I make cornbread from the sprouted form, and though it isn’t necessarily an ancient form of corn, it tastes every bit as good as the best heirloom corn out there. So I think corn is a good one to start with, if you’re going with the sprouted.
[Get Peter Reinhart’s recipe for Gluten-Free Sprouted Cornbread with Teff, above photo.]
And quinoa, which is just so good for you, and easy to work with.
Q. And it comes in colors—so beautiful.
A. It is beautiful. And brown rice—it’s very colorful as well. Red rice, black rices—I think rice and wheat are probably the two most important grains. Rice is having its moment now, too, again, with some ancient strains being brought back—like the Carolina golden rice, which has amazing flavor. It almost disappeared from the planet, and now it’s back.
Q. What about flours made from beans? And nuts and seeds?
A. Beans are another kind of seed, so when we talk about sprouted things, it’s all about the seed. Whether it’s the seed of wheat, or from a bean or a sunflower (I love sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and flours made from them).
Beans are really good for us, they’re inexpensive, and when they are sprouted they make a great, sweet flour as well. The only problem I find with bean flours, sprouted or not, is that they tend to dominate; they can take over a product flavor-wise. I tend to use them in small amounts, blended with other grains to supplement those flavors.
But beans are probably one of the healthiest foods we can eat, and a great value as well. Pumpkin seeds are a great food source—but very expensive. Beans are affordable.
Q. Yes, they used to send the army out supplied with beans to fight the wars, right? [Laughter.] So what about chickpea flour, for instance?
A. Chickpea flour is a good one because it doesn’t dominate as much. I’ve used black-bean flour, which is delicious and makes great pasta as well, but it’s a stronger flavor and you have to ease into it at first.
Q. It was fascinating to read in “Bread Revolution” that one of the primary challenges to bread—worry about gluten—has already yielded a multi-billion-dollar gluten-free industry segment. But so many of the ingredients on the commercial products have no “tooth” or texture, and seem to me like 21st century Wonder Bread. If it’s gluten free people are after, which ingredients should we instead experiment with?
A. No tooth, but even worse: They’re just as bad for you from a glycemic standpoint as wheat or sugar. That’s one of the criticisms of wheat by people who have written books about it: that it spikes you blood, and isn’t good for your glycemic index. Certainly any starch flours are like that as well—and sometimes starch flours are worse than sugar for someone dealing with diabetes, or pre-diabetes.
For people who have switched from whole wheat over to a heavily gluten-free diet, we’re seeing some tendency toward blood-sugar issues, and even obesity.
Q. “Bread Revolution” doesn’t use those starch flours. It talks about loving the whole grains for all their components.
A. I do have a couple of gluten-free recipes in the new book, but they use gluten-free using healthy grains, or nuts. I did a whole book on gluten-free baking based with nut flours and seed flours, which are totally different than using starch flours. The book [called “The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking“] was diabetic-friendly, using nut flours, which don’t cause a glycemic load. They may be high in fat, but it’s a good fat, and they fill you up; they’re nutrient-dense.
There are alternative and options to what we think of as the gluten-free products that are out there. And the gluten-free industry, I have to say, is taking the challenge. The quality is getting better.
Q. Now if all of those possibilities were not enough, “Bread Revolution” ends with a drumroll chapter, called “The Next New Bread Frontier.” You alert us to flours made from really surprising ingredients—including byproducts of winemaking and coffee-processing industries. What a few headlines?
A. These are waves that haven’t tipped over yet, like the sprouted flours have. People in California, after they do the grape press for wine, are saving the seed and the skins. Not only can they get oil from the seeds, but they now make varietal grapeseed oils, and they can dry the skins and make a flour that is super-high in antioxidants and anti-fungal components.
And after the oil is squeezed from the seeds, they can be dried and made into flour—and that too, has great antioxidant properties. You can’t make a whole bread from them, but you can add a little bit to another product.
Same thing with coffee beans—the “cherries” around them can be dried and made into a tea. It doesn’t taste like coffee, but more like a tea that’s healthier for you than the coffee, super-high in antioxidants. And that can be dried and ground and put into into breads as well.
There are other people working with spent grains, and drying them and powdering them to put into breads, to boost not only the fiber content but the flavor content. It brings with it a prebiotic (as opposed to a probiotic): It becomes the food upon which the good bacteria can feed to create more flavor. If we eat those prebiotics they work in our gut to provide the nutrients for the good bacteria that live in our guts, so they can heal us.
more from peter reinhart
- Peter Reinhart’s Pizza Quest website
- Peter’s classes on Craftsy.com (including a free one on pizza)
- Get Peter’s Gluten-Free Sprouted Cornbread with Teff recipe now
- Buy ‘Bread Revolution’ on Amazon
- Peter lists some sources for the flours her recommends, in the back of his book, including: anitasorganic.com and essentialeating.com and lindleymillsinc.com and onedegreeorganics.com and shilohfarms.com and healthyfour.com and arrowheadmills.com.
enter to win ‘bread revolution’
I’LL BUY COPIES of “Bread Revolution: World-Class Baking with Sprouted and Whole Grains, Heirloom Flours, and Fresh Techniques” for two lucky winners. All you have to do is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last comment.
Like I said up top: When was the last time you baked bread? And whether homemade or store-bought, what’s your personal policy on bread and taste preference right now in your life?
I’ve been a whole-grain, organic-only type for decades. I’m mad for dense, wholemeal German-style vollkornbrot (“Bread Revolution” includes a recipe for this oldtime loaf), for instance, and don’t dare leave me alone with a skillet of warm cornbread.
Extra: Double your chances of winning by click over to get his Gluten-Free Sprouted Cornbread with Teff to enter again in the comments at the end of that page.
Winners will be chosen at random after entries close at midnight Sunday, December 14. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: Links to Amazon are affiliate links and yield a small commission.)
(Photo of Peter Reinhart by Ron Manville; other photos by Paige Green, used with permission.)
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