The “Paranoia” Surrounding Gluten

Celiac disease is thought to affect roughly one percent of the population. The good news: it can be treated by quitting gluten. The bad news: many celiac patients haven’t been diagnosed. The weird news: millions of people without celiac disease have quit gluten – which may be a big mistake.

The Demonization of Gluten Podcast by Stephen J. Dubner on Freakonomics

For years, a very good friend of mine has claimed to have celiac disease. He went to a doctor but wasn’t actually diagnosed to have it, though the doctor did say that he could be one of those folks that has a non-celiac sensitivity to gluten. But he has so thoroughly convinced himself that he has this sensitivity that he has foregone many gluten products like pasta. Frankly, I think his sensitivity is more psychosomatic than anything else. I know that sounds a little insensitive of me, But here’s the rub: He can eat as much of the bread I bake as he wants with no side effects.

What’s actually funny is that even though he gobbles up my bread, he catches himself and says, I really should go easy on this stuff as if he’s telling himself he has this allergy or sensitivity; a belief that is bolstered by all the marketing around “gluten-free” products. It has gotten so bad that some bottled water companies advertise that their water is gluten-free. WTF? The gluten-free craze has really gotten out of hand.

Though I’m no scientist, maybe people’s recent sensitivity to bread has more to do with all the shit that’s put into mass-produced bread, like sugar and vitamins and preservatives. Maybe people’s bodies have absorbed the limit of what they can take and their systems are reacting.

I shared this thinking with my friend and also added that the bread I bake as well as that of other artisan bread makers has just four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and a leavening agent. There are no enrichment materials, no preservatives. The bread we make is made the way bread was originally made for literally thousands of years.

In the excellent documentary series on Netflix called “Cooked,” author of the book on which the documentary is based and star of the show Michael Pollan delves into this subject of how mass-produced bread has taken us away from the traditional healthy aspects of bread. The specific episode is called, “Air.” He too posits that perhaps most people who claim to have a gluten sensitivity may not be sensitive to gluten at all, but all the other stuff that’s present in mass-produced bread, suggesting that perhaps people with a gluten sensitivity try out traditional bread and see how they react.

Having said all that, I don’t want to discount the fact that there are people who have a real intolerance to gluten. But the only way to really know is if you are diagnosed by a doctor with having celiac disease. With respect to my friend, I pointedly asked him, “Did your doctor specifically diagnose you with celiac disease?” He said no, to which I replied that I while I didn’t want to discount his possible sensitivity to bread that it’s telling that he doesn’t react to bread made in the traditional way.

Gluten has really gotten a bad rap. Even I was kind of falling for this gluten-is-bad craze. But that kind of went out the window once I started baking. And I also started becoming a lot more aware and sensitive to the marketing behind the anti-gluten movement. Beware of companies using the term “gluen-free” with products that could never have it in the first place, like… water. Bear in mind that they’re using that phrase to convey that their products are somehow superior because they’re gluten free.

Unfortunately, this kind of marketing has created a paranoia around gluten. Obviously, you’ll have to decide for yourself what direction you take with respect to gluten. For me, after having done a bit of research, I’m not falling for it any longer. And no… I ain’t no conspiracy theorist…

A Day Out of Surgery And All I Want to Do Is Bake

Coming to you live from my hospital bed… I just had a full hip replacement surgery yesterday and the reality is that I will probably be out of commission for the next week to ten days recuperating from the surgery. So I most likely will be in bed. But despite that, I really just want to bake bread.It’s my Zen-thing. It puts me in an emotional and psychological place where everything is in balance and in perfect harmony.

For me, the act of baking bread is almost cathartic. Pent-up stress, anxiety, work-related issues – they’re suddenly released when I start working a dough. From the time I start weighing out ingredients to producing the finished product, I’m in the zone.

And in a very large way, baking is healing for me. I could be in the crappiest of moods when I start making bread, but by the time I’m finished my “baditude” is gone.

There are so many other things I could point out, but irrespective of them, I just want to heal up and get back to baking as soon as I can!

Flour Makes Such a Difference

Now that I’m more experienced at bread baking, you could say that being a bit of a Captain Obvious. But when I first started baking it wasn’t at all. I thought I’d just merrily use any old AP or bread flour and that would be that. And it was fine for the first few times. The loaves I made were tasty, if not necessarily aesthetically pleasing to look at; a little misshapen, or risen so much in the Dutch oven that it was a perfect imprint of the inside of the pot, or a replica of a flying saucer.

But as my initial interest starting transforming into the obsession it is now, I started looking into different techniques and ingredients that would improve the quality of the bread I baked, and one of those things was flour.

Like many, I jumped on the King Arthur bread flour bandwagon. It seemed that most home bakers used it and quite frankly, it’s great flour. And for the first couple of months I was baking, I used either that or the KA Special Patent flour which creates a real smooth, fluffy texture as it is geared towards buns and pastries.

But as I’ve shared a few times in previous posts, because of health reasons, I had to seriously reconsider not just the visual and taste quality of my bread but also its nutritional value and quality. So I started to make 100% whole wheat loaves. They looked pretty good, but ugh! They felt a little grainy and also tended to be a little dense as whole grain bread can be.

This led me on a quest for flour that I could work like regular bread flour but had the nutritional value of whole wheat. And that brought me to the flour that I use now and that I’m absolutely crazy about: The Unifine White Whole Wheat and Ultra-Unifine Bread Flour. Used in a 25-75 ratio, I get the feel of working with a bread flour but the nutritional benefits of a whole wheat flour as the bread flour is a high-extraction flour.

But more importantly, the taste of the bread that this combination produces is unlike any bread I’ve ever had. No matter if I create a sourdough or straight dough, I’m always rewarded with a slightly sweet aftertaste and an absolutely wonderful, chewy texture. The Unifine milling process smooths out the particulates in the flour so you don’t get that graininess that you normally feel with whole grain bread. But from a taste perspective, you know you’re eating whole wheat – or at least close to it.

So this is now my master flour despite having claimed that in another post for a completely different combination. And for me, having discovered this combination completely changes the game for me because I can focus all my baking efforts and skill development around working mainly with this flour. It just removes some of the guesswork and I can create a more consistent process.

Still Scratching My Head: Is It Poolish or Is It a Levain?

As some might know, I technically don’t make traditional sourdough in that I don’t maintain a starter culture to inoculate my dough. There are a number of reasons for this which I won’t go into here, but in lieu of a starter culture, I do use a poolish I create the day before I bake, which means I make practically every evening.

I know what you’re thinking. I could just maintain a starter and use the discard every day. But I have to be honest. I don’t want to invest the minimum five days in creating the culture – at least not right now. I’d rather be baking. Plus, as I greatly admire Nancy Silverton who started La Brea Bakery in LA, when I’m ready to do a sourdough starter, really want to try her grape sourdough. It’s pretty amazing. But I digress…

So as I mentioned, I use a poolish as a starter for my breads. A poolish is made from a 50-50 mixture of flour and water, and literally a pinch of yeast (I measure out 0.4 gram). I make mine at about 6-7 PM in the evening, then let it sit in my fermentation bucket on my counter overnight. Then at about 9-10 AM the next day, I prepare the final dough.

Now here’s where I scratch my head. Technically, a poolish is not a levain. A levain has no commercial yeast. And conventionally, a levain equates to a sour taste. This is because the airborne yeasts and lactic acid bacteria work in concert to consume the sugars in the flour and create that sour flavor. But my poolish is sour.

I let my poolish develop around 14 hours. And in that time, the natural yeasts and bacteria have time to activate and make a contribution to the flavor and gluten development in the starter. And it seems that at that point, the predominant microorganisms that act on the dough are the natural ones, not the commercial yeast. But of course, unless I actually do a chemical test, I can’t be absolutely certain.

But if my assertion is true, is my pre-ferment starter a levain at that point? Frankly, it’s not really important at all, but I just like to understand things so it remains a bit of a head-scratcher for me.

And as Nancy Silverton, founder of La Brea Bakery in LA said, “For me when I think of any food product, the most important test is the result, right? And how you got there is sort of incidental…”

When I first heard her say that, it gave me a lot of encouragement because I’ve lately had this feeling that even though I’ve been absolutely methodical and meticulous with my technique, I’ve been a bit unconventional. But the results have been great for the most part and it’s great to hear one of the greats in bread making provide some validation. So I guess I can keep scratching my head about this, but at least I know that the results are what matter.

ARGH!!! I Hate When I Over-Proof My Dough!

Flat bread… Ugh! You’d think that I’d have learned my lesson about baking in a hot kitchen. Times are MUCH shorter! But NOOOOOOOOOO! I let my dough rise for too long. The hell of it is that it tastes wonderful, but it’s UGLY. It’s like in high school when your friend is setting you up on a blind date and tells you, “She has a GREAT personality!”

My wife cut a slice and told me that it tasted incredible. I was expecting that because I really let my poolish develop for almost 30 hours. I just wanted to have that great taste with a great look! The picture above doesn’t really show just how flat those loaves are. But they’re pretty flat. And mind you, I’m not really pissed off; I’m more amused than anything else, mixed in with a bit of disappointment.

Pre-shaping, the dough was great. But it was hot, and frankly, I probably should’ve only proofed for about 15-20 minutes tops. But I let it go for a full hour and didn’t bother to check. By the time I got to the loaves, they had collapsed. Ugh! Pissed me off, but in a humorous way.

Failure is part of learning. They all can’t be perfect every time. I just have to be more vigilant next time!

No-Knead ≠ No Work

I have to admit that I was originally compelled to make bread when I saw a recipe entitled, “Easy Dutch Oven No Knead Bread.” And with that recipe, all you did was mix the ingredients together and let the dough sit overnight. Other than forming the dough into a ball the next day, you don’t touch it. I made it and it’s easy and no fuss. But then after making it a couple of times, I started looking at other no-knead bread recipes and each one of them had some sort of manipulation involved; specifically, stretching and folding. So I set out to understand why these recipes involved folding and not just leaving the dough alone.

And in my research, which also involved making bread from the recipes I encountered, I came to realize that even though the mix-together-and-let-sit-for-24-hours method works because it gives the yeast time to convert the proteins into gluten, it can have inconsistent results. The reason why is that if the dough wasn’t sufficiently mixed with all the yeast distributed evenly through the dough, the rise will be uneven. On the other hand, folding the dough ensures that not only is the dough mixed well just in case I missed some, it also ensures that the yeast gets distributed consistently through the dough.

Now technically, stretch and fold, coil fold, slap and fold and other dough folding techniques aren’t kneading. But they are methods to physically work the dough, albeit a gentler approach than kneading or using a machine which is the most intense way of developing gluten. And no matter how you work it, it’s going to help the yeast evenly distribute throughout the dough and help build up the gluten network.

So given all that, while no-knead can mean fire and forget, to develop a good loaf, you need to work it somehow.

It’s Memory, Not Vanity

A friend of mine asked me why I write the blogs that I write. To answer that, I have to go into a little bit of a back story. I already have a fairly popular blog called that I started over 13 years ago. It’s still going strong, but I really don’t contribute to it that much any longer. Though for several years, it was one of the more popular guitar-gear-related sites and I was going lots of reviews. Then there’s the recent conversion of this site from a vanity free-for-all blog to one that’s focused almost entirely on bread making. In both cases, I’ve used the blogs to record things I would learn and document processes. But in the case of this blog, it’s a little bit more than that.

You see, I’m pushing 60. Truth be told, I now have more years behind me than I have left. It’s life and I’ve lived a great life. But especially in the last few years I’ve come to notice something: I’m losing my memory. I have to write down practically everything nowadays lest I forget something. I have to be in regular contact with people for me to remember their names when I see them – unless they’re close family or friends where their visage and spirit are etched in my brain. And as you can probably tell since I’m writing about it, I know that it’s happening. I’m completely aware that my memory is eroding.

Does it bug me? Not nearly as much as you might think. The reason is that I’m still able to retain memories of things that are important to me, such as details in my professional life and people and places that have been part of my life, shaping who I am as a person. What I’ve started losing is my memory of the mundane.

It’s almost as if my brain knows I’m starting to butt up against my memory capacity, so it says, Hmm… not really too impactful… We’ll keep it there for a few days, then just let it go or replace it with another mundane memory. It’s as if my brain created what is known in software engineering as a FIFO buffer, which stands for first-in-first-out. It’s a construct of limited size where the oldest thing placed in the space is always the first thing to go.

Frankly, I find this rather amusing – at least for now. But in anticipation of my memory getting worse – and it will get worse – I’m writing everything down that I’m learning about bread making, and doing it in a way where I’m sharing or teaching because I found that when I do things like that, I remember them better.

Maybe I shouldn’t take my worsening condition so blithely. But I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it, other than doing my best to de-clutter my life, which has actually helped slow the effects a lot. But even all that just slows it down and doesn’t eliminate it. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll get to the point where I don’t remember much at all, but here’s what I do know:

  1. I’ve lived an amazing life.
  2. I’ve had the privilege to travel to distant places, literally halfway around the world
  3. I’ve been married for almost 30 years to the same woman and we have had eight wonderful children together.
  4. I have a cadre of close friends whom I have been able to lean on in times of need or provide support.
  5. I’ve had a long and successful career in technology
  6. I’ve had the freedom in my life to pick up hobbies like bread making
  7. I have my Faith and a community that helps nourish my spiritual needs

In other words, I’m completely grateful for what I have RIGHT NOW. I know that my life could end at any time. I’m not going to spend my days worrying over things that I can’t control. So if I’m losing my memory, I’m losing my memory. I’m not going to lay down in a fetal position and give up. I may not have as many days in front of me as I have left behind, but I’m doing to do the best I can with the days I have left – no matter if I can remember them or not. 🙂

No-Knead, No Oven Spring? No Problem!

I lurk a lot in online bread baking forums in search of tidbits of information and insights that will help me improve my skills. And though I’ve finally reached a point where I can consistently make a pretty good loaf of bread, I’ve refrained from contributing to public forums. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to share, which is one of the reasons I devoted this blog to bread baking. A large part of this blog is a diary of the things I discover, the other part of it is sharing the lessons I learned. And a HUGE lesson I’ve learned is this:

With no-knead bread, if you want good oven spring, you have to have achieve sufficient dough strength so the gluten network retains the gases to promote forming gas pockets and be strong enough to hold the dough’s general shape in the first 10-15 minutes of baking.

Okay, for the experienced baker, this is a given. But for many folks like myself up until recently, it wasn’t an intuitive thing. I now know how to feel that my dough has strength and the telltales, but when I first started making bread, I was just following the recommendations in the recipes I’d follow.

Specifically, I’m talking about the recipes in Flour Water Salt Yeast (“FWSY”) by Ken Forkish, which seems to be the “reference” book for many home bakers. It surely was mine when I first started out. I still follow many of the principles Ken lays out in the book, but after having created dozens upon dozens of loaves over the last few months (I bake at least two loaves a day), I realized that there was one discussion that was missing in the book, or more implied rather than specifically called out and that is developing dough strength and why it’s important.

On page 35 of FWSY, he has a page devoted to folding. The salient point of the section is in the first paragraph:

Doing this [folding] several times during the bulk fermentation of the dough helps organize the dough’s gluten network, which allows it to holod on to gases produced as the dough ferments… The more complexly knit this network of gluten becomes, the more strength the dough has.

That nails it. And for a more experienced baker, the implication is clear: Developing dough strength gives you a better rise and oven spring.

But for the beginning baker following recipes, they don’t have the experience and, more importantly, haven’t developed the feel for dough strength. So like me, they’ll just follow the recommendations as in the Saturday White Bread which specifies just two folds. But that’s assuming you’re using AP flour or white bread flour. But even with those flours, if you haven’t sufficiently folded the dough and developed the gluten network, even those will collapse or spread out in the oven like the loaf shown below:

As you can see, the crumb on that loaf actually wasn’t all that bad. At first, I thought it was a proofing issue, but if it was, I would’ve gotten a really weird, uneven rise. So after doing a bit of research, I learned that I hadn’t developed enough strength in my dough.

I have to admit that I kind of scratched my head at that discovery because I followed the Saturday White Bread recipe in FWSY absolutely closely. But two folds was just not enough. As a dough expands in the oven, you should get both horizontal AND vertical rise. If you don’t get much vertical rise, it means the gluten network isn’t strong enough to support the vertical height. Also, if you look at the loaf, it’s also not scored on the top. That also could be a contributing factor as there may have not been enough give in the top skin, which forced the bread to expand outward instead of up, but that’s another discussion altogether. For now, we’ll just focus on developing dough strength.

How Do You Know Your Dough Has Strength?

I’m just going to start off by saying that there is no magic number to the amount of folding you need to do. Even Ken Forkish says in the last paragraph of “What Is Folding?” on page 35:

The recipes in this book each give guidance on the time and number of folds recommended, usually specifying a range, such as three to four folds. However, I don’t want to be overly hard and fast with rules about this. When working with your douh, you’ll be able to see the physical change after you’ve folded it. If, based on what you observe, you want to give it one more fold, go ahead and do it.

I remember reading that last line and saying out loud, “What the f$#k am I supposed to observe?” But despite that, I went on reading because I thought he might delve a littler deeper into the observation. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as he went with it.

So I had to do a bit of research and did a lot of baking and have a couple of telltales that I use to make sure I’ve developed enough strength in my dough.

The first test is a common one that you’ll probably see online – a lot. It’s known as the windowpane test. Basically, you take a hunk of your fermenting dough and stretch it. If you can stretch it into a thin membrane (window) without it tearing, then you have good dough strength.

But there’s also a way to feel the strength developing when you’re doing your stretch and folds that I use to gauge how far along my dough is. When it’s time to do a stretch and fold, if, when you do the first stretch, the dough stretches really easy and you can stretch it to two times the width of the dough ball, it’s likely not strong enough. And when you finish the last fold, if the whole dough ball doesn’t want to come along when you pull, you don’t have enough strength in your dough.

Furthermore, when you stretch and fold, you’re supposed to turn the dough over onto the folds after you’ve formed a ball. You should be able to do this easily if your dough is strong. But if you finish and the rest of the dough settles back, then you don’t have enough strength and you’ll need to do more rounds of folds.

That said, if you’re working with a super high-hydration dough (like above 80%), your dough will have a tendency to collapse, no matter what you do. But when you stretch high-hydration dough, the dough mass should come along with your stretch. If it shows signs of tearing, you’ll need more folds.

For this very reason, as opposed to following the guidelines in FWSY, I’ve taken the Tartine Bakery approach where they do 6 folds over the course of 3 hours, doing one every half-hour. I know, that’s very involved. By the time you do the last stretch and fold, you can really feel the resistance!

Folding Forms the Foundation

A lot of emphasis is put on shaping and creating a taut skin to get a good oven spring. No doubt, it is critical. But if you don’t have the good foundation of a well-developed gluten network with which to start, you won’t get as good an oven spring. It’s really the combination of a well-developed gluten network AND a nice, tight skin that will give you great oven spring, at least as far as structure is concerned. There are other factors as well, but those are beyond this particular discussion.

For me, I started getting great oven spring when I started to trust what I was feeling in the dough as I folded it. Was it too easy to stretch? Did it feel like tearing? Or did it put up some resistance and want me to take the whole dough ball in one pull? These questions led me to fold the dough more than the prescribed or suggested amount of folds in FWSY, and since then, I haven’t had to worry that my loaves will collapse, even with really wet dough. And especially now that I’m using a whole wheat and high-extraction flour combination, those extra folds have worked wonders with my oven spring.

I thought that maybe it was my folding technique that was flawed. But as I mentioned in a previous article, this is exactly what they do at Tartine Bakery!

Now all that said, I’m only sharing what works for me. You may do fewer folds and still get great results. The great thing about making bread is that though there is a certain exactitude to the process, there’s also a lot of variability. So what may work for some, may not work for others and vice-versa.

Happy baking!

Beouf Bourguin-off

There are two stews that I love to make. Beouf Bourguignon and Beef Stroganoff. One day, I thought to myself, what if I made a bastard stepchild from the two dishes. Would the ingredients clash, or would they come together and form a merry union? It turns out, that they can go together REALLY well. You just have to change a few things up, and it’ll work.

The first thing is that you don’t use cheap meat. Beouf Bourguignon is traditionally made of cheap cuts, and you braise the crap out of the meat till it’s tender. On the other hand, Beef Stroganoff uses better cuts like ribeye or top sirloin. Personally, I prefer top sirloin because I just can’t get myself to stew a nice ribeye steak. So I use top sirloin. Believe me, it’s worth it using a better cut of meat instead of stew meat.

With this recipe, you have your choice of starch to serve it over. But frankly, I just like sopping up the gravy with a hearty artisan bread. And since I make a lot of bread, it’s always on hand!

Without further ado, let’s get the recipe!


2 lbs. sirloin steak cut into 1″ cubes
4 whole garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup beef broth/stock (unsalted)
1 cup Burgundy or Pinot Noir (it doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be drinkable)
4 medium carrots cut in 1″ pieces on the bias
1/2 pound of whole mushrooms, halved
1 small can of tomato paste
1 medium onion, sliced thin
1 pint sour cream
1 tbls herbs de province
2-3 tbls flour
Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 450
  2. In a 5-qt Dutch oven or large oven-safe pot, add about 1 tbls olive oil and begin to heat on the stove over medium heat.
  3. When the olive oil starts reaching its smoking point, add the garlic and vigorously sautee, being careful not to brown it.
  4. Once the garlic starts becoming fragrant – about 45 seconds – add the meat.
  5. Add salt and fresh-ground pepper and brown the meat until all sides are grey
  6. Add about 1/2 of the beef broth and all of the tomato paste and stir to coat the meat completely and cook for a few minutes.
  7. Add all the wine and the rest of the broth.
  8. We want to get to the point where the liquid is barely covering the meat, so add the rest of the stock, then if the meat is still not covered, keep on adding wine in small amounts till you get there. 🙂
  9. Bring the mixture to a boil, then cover and let simmer until your oven comes to temp.
  10. Once your oven comes to temp, transfer the pot to the oven, then immediately turn the heat down to 350.
  11. Bake at 350 for an hour. After an hour, turn the oven down to 275.
  12. After the second hour, add the carrots and gently fold them into the mixture so you don’t break up the meat. Cook for half an hour.
  13. In a cast iron skillet, saute the sliced onions in olive oil.
  14. Once the onions begin to wilt, add the mushrooms and saute for about 4-5 minutes until the mushrooms start to soften.
  15. Add a bit of beef broth, then sprinkle the flour over the mixture to thicken it up. Make sure there are no lumps! If there are work them out and add a bit of beef broth, but you don’t want it too liquid.
  16. Finally, add a pint of sour cream, mix thoroughly, then set aside.
  17. When the beef and carrots are finished, remove the pot from the oven, then over low heat, add the onions and mushrooms and fold until everything’s incorporated.
  18. Let simmer for 10 minutes for all the flavors to marry.
  19. Serve over rice or noodles or sop up the gravy with bread!

It’s the Microbes, Baby!

Bread is the product of fermentation. Without it, all we’d have are bricks if we just combined flour and water and heated them. But luckily for us, we have yeasts and bacteria that gas up the flour-water mixture, interact with the enzymes in the flour and produce a plethora of pleasing flavors from nutty to sugary to sour and sometimes, even a bit of umami. And the little critters are responsible for giving us the gift of bread.

They’re everywhere and there’s no escaping them. This is why you can mix flour and water and leave it sitting and after a couple of days you’ll see it bubbling. There are natural yeasts and bacteria in the flour and in the air. And when you give them some food to eat by adding water flour, which in turn releases enzymes on which the yeasts and bacteria feed, they literally go on a feeding frenzy that we know as fermentation.

And it never ceases to amaze me that fermentation is a form of decay. Yes, decay. The yeasts and bacteria actually break down the starches and sugars in the flour. The things that they produce in the process that give us all that pleasing taste are actually- to put it plainly – the microbes’ shits and farts. Yeasts give off CO2 which creates pockets and bubbles in the dough. The lactic acid bacteria produces acids as well as other by-products. And we are rewarded with their excrement! I know… when you put that way, it’s a little gross. But given the product of that fermentation, personally, I can live with it…