Bread baking master Peter Reinhart spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at San Francisco’s Omnivore Books a few weeks ago about the artisanal pizza revolution, how baking can be a metaphor for radical transformation, and the challenges of baking with whole grains.

Reinhart, author of several influential books including The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, is an instructor at Johnson & Wales University and has a cult following among bread heads. He’s part of a movement of bakers using a technique known as “slow fermentation,” a.k.a. “no knead bread” where you rise your dough overnight in the fridge. It’s shockingly easy, and actually makes better bread (and pizza dough.) We talked to him about why whole grains are so challenging.

Haven’t people been cooking with whole grains since ancient times? What’s to learn?

Whole grain breads have been around as long as breads been around. But most of the attention for the last 100 years has been on white bread because, well, they taste so good. With whole grains, the bread tends to be denser than what we love or what we’re looking for.

What exactly is the definition of “whole grain bread”?

The man himself.

Technically, you can’t call something a whole grain bread unless more than 50 percent of the flour is whole grain. But that’s “transitional.” My goal would be to make 100 percent whole grain bread that tasted as good as San Francisco Tartine Bakery’s country bread. [A crusty, white, sourdough-inflected loaf that is Reinhart’s favorite bread in the world.]

What are some hard things about baking with whole grains?

You can’t hold whole grain bread dough as long in the fridge. It tends to go over the hill really fast—the dough starts to break down. There’s so much enzyme activity. Or when you bake it, it’ll start to rise then it falls. The enzymes attack the starches, turning them into so much sugar, that you don’t have enough starch. The bread comes out sweet, but gummy.

Have you made any breakthroughs?

A couple of my recipes in my book [Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads] use a technique similar to what brewers use. They’ll take the grain after toasting, and pour hot water over it. It changes the grain—it denatures some enzymes but not necessarily every enzyme. A few hours later when you taste the mash, it’s much sweeter. It tastes kinda like you put a shot of honey into the batter.

What about whole wheat grocery store sandwich breads? Don’t those guys know what they’re doing?

Usually sandwich breads—I think they put extra gluten in them, or special enzyme blends that are not available to home bakers to make them soft. And a lot of them have flavoring: oil, honey, etc. Anyone can make something good with honey and other enrichments. The real test of an artisan baker is what he can do with just flour, water, salt, and leaven. I call it the baker’s mission: Unleash the full potential of flavor trapped in the grain.

Check out Reinhart’s surprisingly spiritual video about baking from the Taste3 conference.

Check out Reinhart’s blog for videos and other interesting baking info,

Image of bread by Christopher Rochelle,
Image of Reinhart by Ron Manville.

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