Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Experiment: Play with Dough

Gluten is a protein in wheat flour and some other grains. It is the gluten in the flour that gets nice and stretchy when you add flour and knead it into a nice ball.


Note: double up quantities if you prefer. The listed amounts are small so everyone could make their own. I did not try this with the class. My daughter likes to play with "bench flour" when I'm done shaping bread, but has trouble working it through the "sticky" phase and into the "smooth ball" consistency. It would probably be messy for preschoolers.


  • small bowl
  • 1/8 cup flour
  • 2 1/4 tsp water, plus more as required


  1. Put the flour and water in a bowl. Mix them together with your fingers.
  2. Knead the dough as it balls up, adding small amounts of water or flour, if necessary to form a nicely textured dough ball
  3. Keep mixing, rolling, and mashing until it turns into a springy ball.
  4. Flatten the ball out, and gently stretch it like pizza dough. Does it remind you of a balloon? Can you shape it into a bubble? Try blowing it like bubble gum, but with it on the outside of your lips. Then, seal off a bubble by pinching the dough together. Of course, now you'll have to pop it!

Lesson learned:

  1. Flour kneaded with water creates a springy, stretchy dough.
  2. Dough can capture air bubbles.
  3. When coupled with the yeast experiment, you find that: Yeast produces gas. Dough can trap gas bubbles. When mixed into the dough, the yeast will make thousands of tiny bubbles in the dough. This is how yeast breads rise. Baking "freezes" the bubbles, which are visible if you look closely at a slice of bread.


  1. Kneaded dough becomes stretchy because the gluten molecules in flour link into long, stringy "rubber bands".
  2. Careful rincing of a really well-kneaded ball will leave you with a ball of gluten only. However, this is tricky and messy, and I did not find that it really adds anything to the class.
  3. Gluten is great for bread, giving it rise and bite.
  4. Gluten is bad for cookies and cakes, making them tough and hard, and preventing "snap" and "crumble".
  5. Fats interfere with gluten development. Working fats into flour before adding the water will help make more tender pastries and biscuits, but is bad for bread.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Prelude to Pretzel Class: Wheat Sprouts

This is one of my preschool pretzel class experiments to do the week before. What better way is there to prove that grain is a seed? Many whole grains from a health food store will sprout easily and quickly. Kamut and hard red winter wheat berries are a sure thing. Some other grains, like hulled barley, will not sprout. That's because the outer bran layers have been removed, damaging the seed.

Here are the sprouts after two days on a wet paper towel, inside a zip-lock. They have swollen with water, and you can see the roots fingering their way out of the grains. This Kamut® seed (my favorite wheat) is at least eight years old, and still sprouts like a champ.

A couple of days later, the paper towels grew mold spots, the roots grew through the paper towels, and I discovered that I didn't really know how to operate the camera. The photos aren't worth posting. I'm going to try again, with a different setup, and some camera instruction.

Six days after that, here's the wheat grass. You can still see the grain that the grass is sprouting out of.
I'll revisit this project with better photos, and hopefully a better growing method. The bowls go dry quickly, damaging the roots. The Montissori teachers just showed me a better way, which I will try. They put a folded wet paper towel around the inside of a clear glass, putting the grain between the glass and the paper towel. Extra water can be put in the glass, to be wicked up. The glass is open to air flow, hopefully preventing the mold. Also make sure to only use grains that look the most perfect. Damaged grains that do not sprout become food for mold.

Anatomy of a Wheat Berry, and About Gluten

Basically, wheat germ is the baby plant, endosperm is the plant food, and bran is the outer covering. White flour is the endosperm alone, and has a relatively long shelf life. Whole grain flour is the whole deal ground up, and has a shorter shelf life because the oils in the germ will go rancid.

It's funny; before I knew this, I had sometimes made bread with white flour, and added bran and germ to make it more nutritious. I had really just reassembled whole grain flour!

Left whole, the grain can last a long time. I just soaked some >8-yr-old grain two nights ago, and it is already sending out spider-like root fingers. I wonder how long the grain will keep?

Gluten is a protein in the endosperm. If you add water to it and knead it, the gluten will form stretchy, rubber-band-like strands. This is of course the friend of the yeast bread, and doom for tender baked things like biscuits, cookies, and cakes. The gluten acts like a bunch of balloons, which fill up with the gas produced by the yeast, allowing the bread to rise. Or, it acts like a tangle of rubber bands, making cookies, biscuits, and cakes tough and chewy. A good "bite" is essential for a bagel; it is bad news for chocolate cake.

Different brans and kinds of wheat flour have differing amounts of gluten. Off hand, the extremes seem to be King Arthur Flour's "Sir Lancelot" on the high side, and White Lily® Flour on the low side. Sir Lancelot: great for bagels; White Lily: great for biscuits. An All-Purpose flour will be somewhere in the middle, and work reasonably well for most things.

Gluten absorbs water. A higher gluten flour will require more water than a lower gluten flour to achieve the same dough texture. I think this is the main thing that affects bread recipes, not the humidity in the air, or the season, etc.

I always use King Arthur Flour for bread, because they test and maintain a consistent gluten level in their flours. Once I find the right amount of water for a bread recipe, it never changes, all year, and I live in the south. Our humidity is all over the place.

Whole-grain bread may be heavy because the bran cuts up the gluten strands, reducing their rise. Bleah. I say mix the whole wheat flour with a good white bread flour; get some benefit of the whole grain while still making bread that's worth eating.

Musing: Hard wheats are higher in gluten, and tend to grow better in the more Northern states. Soft wheats are lower in gluten, and grow better in the South. Bagels are very popular in New York; biscuits are very Southern. Accident? YOU decide.

Prelude to Pretzel Class: Wheat Life Cycle, Other Grains, and Gluten

Before I go to my kids' preschool to bake pretzels with them next week, the teacher is weaving "baking" into the daily work, by reading them related stories, and having them use the grinder/flaker. I provide a variety of grains to be squashed into flakes, crushed into flour, handled, and maybe sprouted. I'm not sure why some grains are referred to as "berries", e.g. wheat berries, rye berries, etc. Oats are called "groats". Go figure.

This photo shows the preschoolers the life cycle of wheat, helping them discover that grain is grass seeds. Sprouting some certainly beats a photo, if you've got the time; just put a few on a wet paper towel, inside a zip-lock. They will absorb water, and sprout in just a couple of days. I started three varieties going at home yesterday, to show my daughter and to get some pictures. They are already plump from the water. I hope to keep them going until they look like green blades of grass; one day maybe I'll grow some that I can harvest... Hopefully the teacher will sprout some too.

Images from here, here, and here.

It's probably waaay overboard, but I gave the class 13 kinds of grain to crush. Most of them can sprout, too.

It's normal to have a grain collection, right? Once I wondered why we make bread with so few, given how many varieties there are. With tasting comes understanding. Much as I wanted to love them all, alas, it was not to be. Also, many of them are too low in gluten to make a loaf; they can only be additions to a good dough.

Here's info I've collected on grain varieties. I'm probably missing some. Unless someone tells me that teff or sorghum really do something fantastic for bread (do they?) I probably won't try any more. Anyone have opinions to share?

My greatest discovery: Kamut®; great story behind it, and it tastes great, good for you, hypo-allergenic, and more nutritious than red wheat.
My greatest dissapointment: Quinoa; great story, great nutrition, native to America, I really wanted to like it, but, yuck; big time yuck; tried it again, still yuck.

GrainGlutenMy Comments
Wheathigh"Hard" wheats are high in gluten. People who don't like whole wheat often like the taste of white wheats.
ricenoneHaven't tried in yeast bread.
cornnoneA bread called "Anadama" calls for corn meal.
milletnoneIt's very mild; it might give some texture to a loaf.
sorghumnoneI have never tried it.
ryehighNot my favorite, so I haven't used it much.
triticalehighI don't care for this grain.
oatsnoneI like adding a handful or two, either rolled or steel-cut, to my bread.
barleymoderateApparently you can make bread from barley alone, but I have not ever tried. It's nice in soup.
teffnoneI have never tried it.
wild ricenoneHaven't tried in yeast bread. Just doesn't strike me as a great idea.
spelthigh**I think this one tastes ok, but not as good as wheat.
Kamut®high**My favorite whole grain, even more than wheat.
buckwheat*noneI have never tried it.
amaranth*noneI like throwing these into yeast bread whole, for texture in the bread.
quinoa*noneReading about Quinoa makes me want to like it, but I just don't; tastes bad.
kaƱiwa*none?I have never tried it.
cockscomb*none?I have never tried it.

*a non-grass grain, or "pseudocereal".
**The gluten is different from wheat gluten, and may be ok for people who cannot eat wheat gluten; or so I understand.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Prelude to Pretzel Class: The Grain Flaker/Crusher

I'm doing my pretzel class once again next week for my youngest daughter's preschool class.

The teachers asked me to send the grain crusher (Marcato Marga Flaker) this week, so all the kids can have a go at it. We put it through its paces at home first. Here's my daughter showing how it's done.

One setting makes flakes out of oats, another setting crushes it into flour. Some grains will flake, others just crack. I have found that wheat cracks, and that spelt and oats will flake.
Kids find it fun to turn the crank, then feel the flakes or flour that falls into the tray. She wanted to try crushing all thirteen varieties of grain that I had.

To make it look more like the flour that most kids are accustomed to, use a fine mesh sifter. This will separate the bran from the flour. Doesn't she look serious?

I dumped the bran onto the paper towel next to the flour that we sifted out. The flaker makes a more coarse flour than you get at the grocery, but it is definitely flour. Feeling it is a must. The next thing I did was add some water to the flour and show her how it turns into a dough. That was good for giggles and playing with. She said it smelled good, and ate some of it.

The Intent of this Blog

This is about baking good stuff (mainly bread and cookies), and also about where some of the ingredients come from and how they work. Hopefully it will help a beginner to overcome bread baking failures, provide some interesting info and recipes to even a veteran baker, and explore things like how to use that same famous chocolate chip cookie recipe to make cookies that stand out.

This is also a place to share experience about equipment, ingredients, and technique, as well as "experiments". They say that double-acting baking powder will rise when mixed into a batter, and again later in a hot oven. On a whim, I added some to a cup of water. After it stopped foaming, I put it in the microwave. Sure enough, when it got hot, a bunch of bubbles foamed out of it again. Yep, that's double-acting all right.

I haven't entered any contests. However, a hot loaf of bread from the oven does not survive long at my house. At a party, someone once told me that my cookies were well worth the burn on my arm; "Thanks for taking one for the team". My oldest daughter thinks I should have a cooking show. :) I'm tempted to make marshmallows, just to see how that works...