Mark Bittman, the former New York Times food writer and cookbook author, has just published a fantastic new bread book in the tradition of Jim Lahey’s No-Knead method. It’s a pared-down introduction to baking bread that is practical, accessible, easy … and fun!
I haven’t baked from it yet, but I can tell you it will rope lots of people into the bread baking realm. Anyone who resisted the bread-making craze in the early days of COVID will find more inspiration here.
A few things off the top
Its title, Bittman Bread: No-Knead Whole Grain Baking for Every Day, tells you a few things off the top.
- The book’s focus is on Whole-Grain.
- Uses the Jim Lahey No-Knead Method 1
- The Bittman brand
It’s the first point that takes this book in an original direction, I think. Bittman’s Bread is the first impassioned plea by a credible author that I know of for people to eat more whole grain and turn away from white, all-purpose flour. Nutritionally and flavour-wise, whole-grain bread is far superior to the Wonder Bread-style loaves many of us grew up on.
Fluffy, white and soft
Since the early 20th century, we’ve become dependent on highly processed grains that offer calories without any nutritional benefits. Even so-called artisan bakers, including myself, rely on white flour (with the nutrient-rich bran and wheat germ sifted out of milled flour) to make bread fluffy, white and soft.
Who doesn’t love the crispy caramelized crust of a well-made baguette or the blistered, chestnut-coloured finish of a Salish Sourdough loaf!
But it’s a revelation to discover the subtle flavours of whole grains for the first time. Grassy, earthy, tannin, nutty … these are some terms I’ve used to describe grains like Red Fife wheat, spelt, einkorn, barley, rye. And all Happy Monk bread comes with sourdough to enhance these flavours and add a tangy note.
Flavour! Who would have thought bread could actually have taste all these years after white packaged bread fluff?
Flavour and nutrition!
But we also know the health benefits! A recent survey of scientific studies showed whole-grain intake reduces mortality from various ailments, particularly cardiovascular disease.
What’s not to like about whole grains?
Professional bakers have extolled the virtues of whole grains for their flavour and nutrition 2 but nevertheless, bow to customer preferences and continue to use roller-milled 3 white flour.
Eclectic bread choices
Bittman observes that consumers are making more eclectic bread choices, eating more tortillas, bagels and English muffins than ever before. Interestingly, whole wheat bread sales boomed more than 70 percent between 2005 and 2014. White bread slumped by 20 percent over the same period.
The early COVID resurgence of bread baking and interest in sourdough suggested advancing people’s bread sensibilities. Bittman thinks the next step will be a movement towards healthier whole-grain foods, with less reliance on highly processed foods.
Really, there’s nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to bread. We know humans have been making bread for millennia. The earliest hunter-gatherers ground grains with rocks, stirred the flour, water and legumes together and baked the dough near a fire or hot sand.
Those early grains were whole. Our ancestors did not sift bran and germ; they did not produce all-purpose white flour for a light and fluffy crumb or a burnished, flaky crust. 4
Choosing real food
We’ve been here before. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to choose “real food” again over highly processed.
Bread made with 100 percent whole grains, though, can be challenging. Bran and wheat germ bits are ragged and sharp, like shards of glass that can affect the bread’s ability to rise.
It’s not uncommon for such loaves to be flatter than white loaves and dense and dry.
Bittman and co-author Kerri Conan detail simple ways to get around these problems. Their loaves, they claim, highlight the excellent flavour of whole-grain and produce a moist, chewy texture.
Bittman and Conan also address sourdough starter, suggesting that one can be made easily and quickly by mixing bits of dough made with commercial yeast with flour and water.
Different takes on old techniques
I believe their techniques aren’t new; instead, they are different takes on old ones. The innovations of Jim Lahey’s no-knead technique weren’t either. Still, they made bread-making more accessible to many and easier for people to succeed at. By all appearances (again, I haven’t baked from Bittman Bread), it looks as if Bittman and Conan have succeeded.
The book has recipes for whole-grain bread for more than just wheat. There are chapters on whole-grain pancakes, waffles and cinnamon rolls and pizza, to name a few. Reviewers rave about the book’s achievement: making whole grain baking accessible and enjoyable.
But I have a minor quibble: the book’s title, Bittman Bread.
It’s as if he thinks the techniques he describes are so original, the flavours of the bread so wonderful, they deserve to carry his name.
Bittman Bread or ancient bread
As I said earlier, there’s nothing new under the sun concerning bread, even by Mark Bittman’s admission. No one’s eyes will be opened by the loaves that come out of this book. No taste sensations will be loosed upon the world for the first time. I’m sure they’ll be delicious, but bread is still bread.
Readers may indeed find success with his techniques, and that’s something to boast about. But there’s nothing so different or revolutionary about those techniques that they should deserve to carry the Bittman name.
It’s a nice bit of branding. There is some pleasing alliteration, Bittman’s Bread, and it rolls nicely off the tongue.
But maybe Bittman should name the book for what it really succeeds at: making the bread easier to bake and more nutritious than ever. It’s written well and truly celebrates a significant part of the cuisine of humanity. Bread. Pure, simple and healthy.
To the staff of life!
The Lahey method is described in past Happy Monk blog pages here, it’s revisited here in a recent NY Times article by J. Kenji López-Alt, and here, placed in the context of other favoured bread books of the Happy Monk.↩
Baker/author Peter Reinhart has devoted two books to whole grains, including Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grains and Bread Revolution↩
Roller milling is a modern technique that allows for the efficient sifting of bran and germ in real-time. In contrast, stone milling produces whole-grain flour that contains all bran and germ that can be sifted out afterwards. ↩
Scientists speculate, though, that this ancient bread may have been used as a wrap for roasted meat. It may have been the oldest sandwich! ↩