It’s a brave new world, pastry fiends. So far we haven’t touched a single bread recipe on DFK, but that’s all about to change because today, we tackle beer bread. I’d like to start with beer bread because it’s a forgiving and relatively quick bread to make, and of course I love beer, so ya’ know, no brainer. Not only are we making bread today, we are doing it from my professional kitchen at the hotel! Thanks to my lovely assistant Danielle for allowing her hands to be photographed for the post (she hates having pictures taken of her…she’s like a snow leopard or bigfoot).
Let’s start by clearing the air about something. I must confess I am not a professional baker, I’m a professional pastry chef, and there is a difference! A baker by trade primarily bakes bread and vienoisserie (breakfast pastries), and a pastry chef makes all the desserts. Obviously there are recipes, techniques and products that crossover between the two professions and not to worry, I know enough about bread to give you this recipe (let’s hope), I just want to be clear that I have the upmost respect for bakers and that craft, but sadly can’t call myself truly a part of it. Still, I’ll soldier on and tell you all about beer bread and try not to embarrass a profession as old as recorded time in the process. No pressure.
Before getting into the notes of bread making in general, it should be said that since this is beer bread, a good, strong, dark beer is my preferred way to go. A stout or porter fits the bill and anything with strong malt and roasted, coffee, chocolate notes will give you a good result. If you use bud light or something similar let me know so I can book a trip to visit you in your kitchen and slap you. Shame.
Like some of the other recipes we’ve tackled (croissants, brioche, cinnamon rolls), beer bread will use yeast as one of the primary leavening agents. You have a few choices when it comes to what yeast to use. Easiest to find and use would be a dry active yeast. This has a long shelf life and works reliably. The next stage would be to use fresh yeast, found in little foil-wrapped blocks at some grocery stores (it seems like fewer and fewer these days). Fresh yeast is prone to drying out but has a deeper flavor when used. And then there’s the third option…
For the best results in creating artisan bread, all those in the know use a levain. A natural levain (say: “luh-ven”) is made from, you guessed it, natural yeasts that live and thrive in the air, in flour, on your hands…basically everywhere. If you feel queasy at the thought of someone’s hand yeast making that bread you love so much, relax because 1. Yeast and bacteria are literally everywhere, including on your eyeballs while you read this, so it’s unavoidable 2. It’s responsible for pretty much all the best stuff to eat: alcohol, cheese, cured meats, etc.
The benefit of the levain is technical and dare I say, spiritual in nature (I dare). Technically, a natural levain will give you the sour notes and overall depth and complexity of flavor associated most commonly with sourdough bread. The strength and nuance of the flavor is manipulated through developing the levain itself, the ingredients used in the recipe and the time and temperature of fermentation. On the spiritual side, a natural levain becomes an art form, kind of like my beloved croissants. You start dealing with a living thing that has moods and demands focus and attention. Each day your levain will be slightly different, and that’s part of the beauty.
Many would-be bakers get turned off by what they think is a complicated process to create a levain. Feeding schedules, temperature regulation, it can seem like a lot but is actually very simple. What’s important to understand is that while a levain is easy to make, it takes some time (almost all of it passive) so give yourself about a week to develop your starter/levain before making your bread for the best results (method for a starter and levain is below.
Flour choice is critically important in crafting bread. Without flour, there’s no bread. Not only is it the single largest ingredient in the recipe in terms of quantity, it’s responsible for developing gluten, which is the structure that allows bread rise and texture. Always use a high quality bread flour for your recipe, which will have a higher protein content and in turn create a stronger network of gluten. The gluten network allows gasses to expand within the bread during proofing and baking and that expansion creates the volume of the bread. Weak gluten will tear during gas expansion and the bread will lose volume and be dense in texture, more like a cake.
As we’ve seen with our other bread products, proofing – resting your bread in an environment conducive to yeast activity which allows the bread to increase in volume – will make or break you bread. A lot of times proofing has to take place in an environment so specific (no more or less than 80F and at 90% humidity for instance) that you need to create those conditions in your kitchen. Luckily, beer bread does just fine proofing in the fridge or at room temp.
If you’re baking your bread at home, I highly recommend the modest investment in a baking stone. You can get a baking stone from a lot of different sources, even just getting a heat resistant ceramic tile from a hardware store. All you need is a flat ceramic of stone surface that won’t crack at high temperature. Avoid bells and whistles that will end up costing you more money for little to no added value.
A baking stone will hold heat very well and allows you to preheat the surface to place the bread directly on. The hot surface will help give the bread good oven spring – the initial rapid rise of the bread that creates nice volume. The direct contact to the hot stone will also help form a good hard crust.
Professional ovens have steam injection, which is important to create rise in the bread and also to form the crust. You can imitate this by placing a metal bowl in your oven to preheat and then when loading in your loaves to bake, drop an ice cube or two in the hot bowl.
Your starter is the fermented mixture of flour and water that you will use to create your levain. With daily feeding, a single starter will last indefinitely. To be sure, artisan bakers have carefully protected and coveted starters that are years or even decades old. I’ve included weighed quantities for the starter but to be honest, that much accuracy is not necessarily needed. You’ll be fine estimating equal parts of whole wheat and bread flour and adding enough room temp. water to create a thick batter (I look for a consistency that is just thin enough that it won’t hold its own form).
565g whole wheat flour
565g bread flour
In a non-reactive container, combine both flours and room temperature water with your bare hands. Using your bare hand will transfer precious yeast to the mixture. The mixture should be a thick batter with no lumps and is the culture to make your starter.
Cover the container with a linen/cloth towel in a cool, dark place (a cupboard works well) for 2-3 days or until you see activity in the culture – bubbles, an increase in volume and a sour, fermented aroma.
Once the culture is active, feed it daily:
Remove and discard 80% of the mixture leaving 20% in the container.
Replace the discarded 80% of culture with fresh 50/50 mixture of flour and water, working it into the 20% of culture you maintained and achieving the same thick batter (your starter is born!).
Repeat this feeding everyday at around the same time. The repetition will create a feeding pattern and the starter will react in a more predictable manner. Every 24 hrs. the starter will go through a cycle with the flavor and aroma changing throughout the day from sweet and floral (fresh/young) to sour and acidic (mature). Creating a levain at these different stages will create a different flavor in your final bread.
Based on my production timing and needs, I like to feed my starter in the morning, which allows me to make my levain in the afternoon and in turn make my bread the next morning.
Once you have a predictable starter, you can use it to make your levain. For beer bread I like to use a younger, sweeter starter. This means I make my levain around 5 hours after feeding the starter (this may be different for your starter depending on many factors).
100g bread flour
100g whole wheat flour
Combine all of the ingredients and cover the container with a cloth towel. Let the levain proof in the refrigerator overnight.
The levain should be bubbling and have a slightly sweet, slightly sour aroma before you use it in your bread.
250g bread flour
125g rye flour
5g dry yeast
30g instant potato flakes
50g rye flour
2g dry yeast
Combine the bread flour, rye flour and water and mix until incorporated. Let this mixture rest at room temperature, covered with a towel, for 15-20min. This step is known as autolyse and allows the flour to hydrate and enzymes to start breaking down the protein and starch in the flour. As a result, the protein can reform as gluten, increasing extensibility (the gluten’s ability to stretch before breaking) to create better bread.
While the flour mixture rests, hydrate the potato flakes with the beer.
Add the salt, yeast, levain and hydrated potato flakes to the flour mixture in a stand mixer with a hook attachment. Keep the salt and yeast separated from one another or the salt will kill the yeast. Salt can be a dick sometimes.
Mix the dough on low speed for 6-7 minutes scraping down the bowl half way through the process to ensure everything is well incorporated.
Mix on medium speed for 2-3 minutes until the dough becomes smooth and has good, tough stretch.
Transfer the dough to a mixing bowl, cover it with a cloth towel, and proof it at room temperature for 1-1.5hr or until doubled in volume.
While the dough proofs, make the beer mixture by combining all ingredients and mixing until well combined. Keep covered and reserve to use later.
Before shaping your dough, prepare a surface to place the finished loaves on so they can proof. I like to use either a baking peel with a heavy dusting of flour and cornmeal or a piece of parchment paper coated in non-stick spray and a heavy dusting of cornmeal.
Transfer the dough to a well-floured work surface. Like almost all bakers, I prefer using a wood surface.
Portion the dough out into 200g pieces and shape:
Place the floured side of the portion of dough face down on the work surface in front of you.
Grab and pull portions of the dough, stretching it out from the edge of the mass and folding it up and over back onto the mass. You should notice that this tightens the dough. Repeat this all around the dough and turn the mass over onto the work surface, with the less floured side now face down.
With a dough scraper, push under the mass of dough on one side while cradling the dough and turning it with your other hand. Repeating this process will form the dough into a tight ball. It’s important that the motion is done quickly so the scraper doesn’t stick to the dough. Flour your hand if it begins to stick to the dough. Practice, practice, practice. It’s the only way to get the hang of it.
Gently transfer the loaves of dough to the surface you prepared.
Coat the top of each loaf with some of the beer mixture and a sprinkle of oats.
Give the loaves a heavy dusting of rye flour.
Let the loaves proof, covered, at room temperature for 1hr.
While the loaves proof, preheat the oven to 245C/470F. Place your baking stone on a middle rack and a metal mixing bowl on a rack just below the stone to preheat as well.
After proofing you will likely need to release the loaves from the surface they proofed on. This is an important step because the loaves have to move freely to be able to transfer to the baking stone. I release the loaves in a similar way to shaping them into balls – a quick motion around and under the dough with my dough scraper. Don’t worry if the loaf is slightly deformed by this step, you can gently nurse it back into a ball with your hands by shaping around the edge of the loaf (avoid touching the top that has the beer mixture on it).
Transfer the dough to your preheated baking stone. You want to avoid lifting and placing the dough onto the stone with your bare hands because you’ll deform and deflate the dough and more importantly put your hands at risk for a very, very bad burn. Using a baking peel (which is a cheap and easy investment) dusted with cornmeal is the best way to transfer loaves. With the dough on the peel, place the peel on the stone and in a quick motion slide the peel out from under the loaf. Just like they do in the movies to remove a table cloth from a set dinner table.
Before closing the oven door, place 1-2 ice cubes in the preheated metal bowl to create steam during the beginning of baking.
Bake for 30-40min. or until the bread has a dark brown crust.