Breaking, and Baking, Bread with Adrian Hale
“I’m a writer, and I’ve always enjoyed baking,” says Adrian Hale, a food writer whose foray into baking bread began as a last-ditch effort to find bread that her daughter’s stomach could tolerate. After a bit of experimenting, Adrian perfected her “Mama Bread” and has never gone back. Today she combines her passion for writing and bread baking—her essays have appeared in publications such as Saveur, Culture and Brain, Child Magazine. She also edits an online magazine called Communal Table, and blogs about her baking adventures on her blog Thousand Bites of Bread.
Adrian’s family has a deep-rooted connection to bread, which is part of the reason she refused to give up on it. “My grandmother was a concentration camp survivor and she always said that bread saved her,” shares Adrian, explaining that bread has long been a pillar of their meals and family culture.
“Whole wheat is kind of a super food, and if it’s long fermented it’s providing food for gut bacteria,” she says. This is why Adrian believes that gluten is not necessarily the villain it’s often made-out to be. “Our culture always wants to find the one thing, but it’s actually a symphony of things. If we can start looking at food as whole, and not try to find one culprit, we can usually find a more balanced solution.” A wheat berry, for instance, is a fairly complete food. It’s only when the parts are separated and used selectively—as in white flour—that certain elements become a problem.
Adrian’s solution to this problem is to take the sourcing, milling and baking of bread into her own hands. Listen to her talk about her bread-baking journey at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts!
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Adrian Hale, longtime food writer who made her way to bread baking. It is so fun to be able to talk to someone who loves to bake bread and who does it so much that she also writes poetry about bread. And also she shares a lot of her recipes that she does and has a blog. And I love this: she says that she likes to share her bread and poetry freely because they’re much cheaper than therapy. Welcome, Adrian!
ADRIAN HALE: Hi! Thank you so much for having me.
TM: That is so fun that you say poetry and bread baking together. Of course I’m wondering, Adrian, what made you get so attracted to bread and bread baking, and to the point that you really have spent so much time doing that—like, every day, don’t you?
AH: I do, yeah. Well, I’m a writer, and I’ve always enjoyed baking. I write here at home and I love having something to get up and clear my head, so it’s sort of a meditation throughout my day. But it kind of started… I started getting more and more involved in it when my daughter started having—when she was, like, three-ish years old, four-ish—she started having stomach problems. And we couldn’t figure out what it was for over a year. She would kind of just get a stomachache after she ate. And a long series of things led us to maybe it is wheat.
And I’m a food writer, I’ve been a food writer for a long time, and I was like, “No way—this is just another fad that we keep hearing about, that wheat is the villain.” And I also come from a Jewish family that bread is a really big part of our tradition. And my grandmother was a concentration camp survivor and she always said that bread saved her. So I was just really adamant that I couldn’t take bread out of my daughter’s diet without really diving into what the issues were.
And that led me to really trying to understand, what is bread? And so now I make bread the way that it’s been made for thousands of years. And my daughter can eat it, so we call it Mama Bread, and one thing led to another.
TM: I’m sure some of our listeners are saying, “Huh, she bakes bread like they did thousands of years ago.” First of all, it’s so interesting to note that bread and wheat is probably 12,000 years old. And maybe the reason why we are the civilized—or certainly the beginnings of civilization. You know an awful lot about the history of bread, Adrian. Can you say a little bit about that? How is the dawn of civilization bread-related?
AH: Well, there’s, more and more stuff is coming up all the time. Like they’re thinking now that maybe we’ve had a longer history with cereal grasses, even as a wild food. Like when we were hunter-gatherers that we were actually gathering that. But definitely the idea that you can store these grass seeds is tied to civilization because we had a way of storing that food that’s very storable for a long time. As soon as you grind it, it’s a fresh food and you need to use it. But kept in the right conditions—and that is a big lever for building communities around the food.
But also I think a big part of it, too, is that you need to have different people performing different jobs, and that is sort of the basis for at least modern civilization as we know it. Like you didn’t have one family necessarily doing something, but you had a community miller, and a community farmer, and a baker. And so it provides these larger landscapes and groups of people.
TM: But wasn’t like wheat…certainly it’s older than rice? Older than a lot of staples that we eat around the world now, and probably one of the first staples. Is it true that wheat is actually kind of being given credit for the fact that we were able to double our population in the early years because we had something so nutritious and easy to grow, like wheat? Originally wasn’t it harvested wild?
AH: Yes, it was originally harvested wild. I don’t know about the population thing. I do know that in terms of all the other cereal grasses that I’ve tried that haven’t had quite the impact, wheat has this ability to transform in a way that rice and other grains don’t—because of gluten, actually. Because it has this quality of…you can just cook it and eat it as a berry, just like you would mostly rice. But it also has this ability to grind it and then transform it into something that, kind of, before we knew it what was happening—and it probably did seem magical and had a life of its own, in a way. And I would think people were drawn to it that way, the way that fermentation draws us to many things like cheese and wine.
TM: Well, you know, you started talking about getting involved in it because you had a child who, all of a sudden, was having stomachaches and you thought maybe there was a wheat allergy. Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about that? And then now you say you can bake bread for your child. But how did that come about, to bake bread that she could eat without getting a stomachache?
AH: Initially we just, my husband was like, okay, we just did this test so let’s try to take it out. And had I not, I think, had I not come from the family I came from, where bread was such a pillar—my grandmother always said, “We’ll always have bread on our table,” because she had a friend, when she was in [the] concentration camp, who gave her extra bread, and that’s what she credited with saving her life. And so that’s the message that I grew up with, that bread is… And in Jewish families, challah and bagels and all the things are—that is like a connector. And also, I would hear these stories, growing up, of when she would send my dad to the store—he grew up in Montreal—she would always give him enough money for two so that he could eat it on the way home because she was never going to let us be without bread.
So when this happened with my daughter, that was really in my consciousness. And so I did take the bread we were giving her out of her diet and her stomachache did go away. So I was like, “Oh, darn! Now I really have to double down and figure this out.”
Well, the first thing that I figured out was we were giving her what we thought was a healthy bread—and I’m sure it’s a fine, healthy choice for some but for whatever reason, she was reacting. And the first thing I learned was, I turned over—it was a package of bread, it was whole-grain because I thought I was making a good choice. And then the first thing I saw was that there was extra gluten added to it, and I didn’t really understand that. I was like, “Why are they adding gluten to this?” And that led to my first discovery that they have to add gluten to those whole grain breads because they make them quickly just like they make Wonder Bread, or like any of the fast breads that they were making since the 1950s. And so just that change alone, of trying to come up with this slow, long fermentation really helped her.
I’ve come to think that maybe it’s just her microbiome in general, that the changes we made—getting grains that were better sourced and then grinding them fresh and making this long-fermented bread, she did fine. I’m sure that there are a variety of reasons for that, that I’ve learned over the years, but initially it was that one change of long fermentation and whole grain that really made the difference.
TM: So probably because you weren’t buying bread that had this additionally added gluten, so there was probably a lot less gluten, would you say, in it? Or do you think that gluten is the culprit?
AH: I don’t, actually. I don’t think gluten is necessarily the culprit. I think it’s actually the accumulation of all the little things that make that bread versus a different bread. Like I think that they’re making it very quickly—they’re making those breads in under an hour. And so I don’t think it’s just the gluten. I think that there’s also something called phytic acid in wheat that is an antinutrient that robs minerals out of our body, and that is neutralized by long fermentation, from what I understand.
I think there’s also some evidence that some of the gluten breaks down into amino acids with the long fermentation; that other minerals are unlocked. It’s just like, our culture always wants to find the one thing, but it’s actually a symphony of things. And if we can start looking at food as whole and not try to find one culprit, we can usually find a more balanced solution.
TM: Isn’t it true that almost all commercial bread, though, has this added gluten to it?
AH: No, not really. White bread doesn’t need to do that because the gluten is in the white part of the wheat berry. So if you look at a wheat berry, it has three main parts—there are more than three. But one is the bran layer, which is the outside of the kernel; and there’s a germ that is basically a packet of nutrients that, if you plant the wheat seed in the ground, that’s what will feed it until photosynthesis takes over. So there’s a lot of fats in that and it’s a very rich source of nutrients for the plant but also for us. And then the white part is called the endosperm, and that’s mostly starch and proteins. And that’s where the gluten is.
Which we can talk about the history of milling, but if you’re taking off the bran and the germ and you just have the white, then you have actually a lot of gluten in there, so you don’t need to add more gluten to it. It’s actually more common to add gluten when it’s a whole grain bread that they’re trying to make very quickly. Because in that case, what they’re doing is taking wheat and adding a lot of commercial yeast to it, and they need to put something in that will let the gluten form as quick as the yeast is fermenting, or is putting gas into it.
TM: I’m curious to back up just a little bit. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re talking about when you say “long-time fermentation”?
AH: Okay, yeah. So when you’re making bread, as you know as a baker, there’s a few things that you’re managing with these few simple ingredients. One is fermenting the dough, like putting gas into the dough. And that’s basically your yeast eating and making gas and putting that into the dough. And the other is the gluten development. And you want those to happen on a trajectory that they both get—they’re both ready at the same time.
So there are three main things that will make gluten develop. One is water, the other is time, and the third is mechanical action, or kneading or beating it. And so what they do is they add gluten to it, and the yeast, and they just beat it, really—like they beat the crap out of it, basically. And that will make the process speed up so that they can get something that looks like bread in an hour or less.
TM: When you talk about gas, in the yeast, you’re talking about the yeast, it brings carbon dioxide, doesn’t it, into the bread?
AH: Yeah. I mean, to be crude, it’s burping and farting. The yeast is burping and farting into our bread. But the long fermentation is, what I’m trying to do is manage the bread so that—I use a natural fermentation, and so I can decide how much of that I want to put in there. And I usually put a low amount and let it ferment longer, rather than a large amount.
TM: So when you say natural fermentation, you’re talking about sourdough starter?
AH: Yes, exactly. Or leaven—people have different words for it.
TM: Well, I think some of our listeners are probably just thinking to myself, “Oh my goodness, she had a daughter who appeared to be gluten intolerant and yet she was able to work with her.” Have you heard other stories like this from other people who really have had either stomachaches or rashes sometimes from gluten, or they think it’s from gluten? The reading that I’ve done is that there isn’t a lot of proof out there that the kinds of reactions people are having are related to gluten particularly.
AH: Yeah, you’re right. There isn’t a lot of proof. I mean, there’s a little bit of proof that celiac is on the rise, but that’s still less than one percent of the population, like way less. So even with it being on the rise, it’s still a really small percentage of people. And there’s different theories, and people know their own bodies. But I teach bread classes now through Airbnb experiences, so I get a lot of people now. And even just a couple months ago somebody contacted me and said, “My husband loves to bake bread and I’m gluten-intolerant, so I don’t really want to take the class, but do you mind if I just sit in with him because we wanted to do stuff together that day.” And I said, “Yeah, sure, come.” And she was listening to my story about my daughter and she was like, “Maybe I’ll—you know, I sometimes try bread, and maybe I’ll try some of this bread.” And she actually contacts me more with questions about bread baking because she realizes she can eat this bread.
TM: This is your Mama Bread?
AH: Yeah, Mama Bread. And maybe part of it is that whole wheat, if it’s milled fresh and used quickly and it’s actually whole, because that’s a whole other issue we could delve into. But whole wheat is kind of a superfood, and if it’s long fermented, it’s providing food for gut bacteria. So maybe that’s part of it, is that it’s just better for—we’re hearing more and more about microbiome—that it’s just feeding the gut bacteria that keeps us well.
TM: Well, if you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Adrian Hale, a food writer, an editor, a mom, and definitely a bread baker.
So gluten, for our listeners, is a protein. And bread, of course, is a wonderful, is a food that people did consume and were able to keep alive because it does have protein in it. And one of the things that I found fascinating was how old bread and wheat production is, but that it wasn’t until the ’50s or ’60s that—I’m going to call it the era of Wonder Bread, or when Wonder Bread came about—that we started moving from whole grains to this white bread, at which time we took out all the nutrients out of bread.
AH: Yeah. So a wheat berry is a pretty complete food. It doesn’t have gluten in it, but it has two other proteins that become gluten with those three things I was talking about: water, time, and mechanical action bring these proteins together to make gluten. But it has protein; it has a lot of micronutrients that we need. The germ has a lot of good fats like vitamin E.
So throughout history we’ve basically had, the way to get flour was to crush it between stones, and that’s what we did for thousands and thousands of years, is we would just crush seeds in some way. And it wasn’t until, I think it’s 1849, that in Hungary—and this was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—there was a crop of wheat that had a really hard bran layer that was hard to stone-mill. And they were mechanically—I think it was two brothers—they were mechanically inclined and they figured out a way to crush, to basically sheer off the bran and the germ from the wheat berry. They did that by slightly hydrating it and using a big machine. And that was really the first time in history that I know of that they had the ability to do that.
And that solved some problems. Number one, it solved the issue of milling this really hard thing that would’ve maybe gone somewhat to waste. It also did a few other things that kind of became really popular. One is that before, in history, if you wanted a white flour, the only way you had to get that was to stone-mill it and kind of sift it through cloth, and the only people who could do that were the wealthy. They had slaves who could do that extra labor. So one of the things about the Industrial Revolution was bringing luxury goods to the middle class. And so this new way of milling was doing that by bringing an easier way of bringing white flour to the middle class.
Well, the other thing it did was that it took off the parts of the wheat berry that were the most prone to go rancid. So before, in history, you would grind your flour and use it, but the Industrial Revolution, they wanted shelf-stable products. And so now you had a way of getting something more shelf-stable because the part that’s prone to rancidity the most is the germ, because [of] all the oils. And once you get those oils into the flour, it’s like a great food for you, but it’s a fresh food—it’s not something you can keep on the shelf for a long time.
So roller milling kind of became the norm at that point because of those Industrial Revolution values. And they thought they were solving problems. But it was like, by World War II they realized that populations that live on flour products mostly were getting sick, and they were getting sick with diseases of omission, like pellagra, which is like a lack of vitamin B. And there was this big effort, I think it was pretty much an international effort during World War II, to get enrichment into white flour. Which is why now, when you buy white flour, you turn over a bag and it’ll say, “Wheat flour enriched with…” and it’s basically four B vitamins plus one mineral. And those are things that were taken out of whole grain to begin with.
TM: So we solved one problem but we gave ourselves new problems, which is certainly the—
AH: A lot of new problems!
TM: Yeah, a lot of new problems, and that’s the story of, I think, the Industrial Revolution.
AH: Yeah, taking something apart and trying to be smarter and put it back together has not really proven to be a good way to eat in general. But I think that shelf stability thing, that component just changed the market. And so just fast-forward to the hippies that wanted to make whole grain bread, and [unclear—“my aunt for all hippies too”?]. And I remember that they had this ideal to make better whole grain bread, but all that was available to them was flour that was either sitting on the shelf too long—so it’s not supposed to sit on the shelf that long—or what was happening for a long time is people weren’t putting the germ back into the flour. So it tasted like cardboardy because bran kind of tastes a little cardboardy—old bran.
TM: You know, Adrian, we’ve been talking about flour a little bit, and I think that you probably have done a lot of experimentation with lots of different flours. As a fellow bread baker, I’m always very frustrated with the choices of flour that I have. Can you talk a little bit about where you source flours, or do you go out and look for flour in different places?
AH: I do, yeah. Flour is like a big part of my mission. I think the number one thing to do to get better bread and better flour is to support millers who kind of share your ideals. I love millers that source their grain from farmers they know. And if they can be transparent with you about who those farmers are, even better. And then millers who will mill fresh and get it to you as quickly as possible. So that’s one thing that I teach other people and I do for myself. Nan Kohler of Grist & Toll in Pasadena is a wonderful mill. There’s a handful, like Carolina Ground in North Carolina. I actually have this on my website so that people can go and find mills and bakeries who share these ideals.
TM: Is this your Communal Table or your Thousand Bites of Bread?
AH: Yeah, Thousand Bites of Bread has a directory on it.
TM: Thousand Bites of Bread. Listeners, if you’re going to search for some new kinds of flour and also tune in to Adrian’s experimental and also proven bread recipes, I think it would be a lot of fun for those of you who want to experiment with lots of different kinds of flour.
AH: Yeah, and I paid for that website with bread. So it’s all paid for with bread, and the woman who runs it still gets bread every week to run it. And it has a directory on there of the best mills and bakeries, and there’s little icons that’ll tell you who mail orders and who does flour. But I think finding a good miller is an important step.
I also, in many communities you can only find grains that are grown locally that aren’t being made into flour. And so I think people who are more serious that want another hobby, because milling is like a whole other set of things to learn, but getting whole grain and having a little home mill is a great way to do it too. My favorite farmer, farmer Mai, she just grows the most amazing grains. And now one of my favorite millers is getting grains from her and milling it. But for a long time I would just go get it and mill it myself.
TM: So you have a little mill at home that you can buy whole grains and then make your own flour?
AH: Yeah, because I like to use the flour pretty fresh. And I think there’s very few studies done on this, but I had heard at one point that there was an Australian baker who tested it and, like, ground the flour and tested the nutrients over time, and that after five weeks it was no longer really fresh. And so I try to use—that’s what I use as my gauge. I try to use my flours within about a month, or you can freeze them. So you can buy them fresh and freeze them.
TM: Yes, that’s probably a very good idea. Thank you for reminding me of that, so when I go and try and find these great flours, I’ll put those in my freezer.
AH: Yeah. And it’s fun to become like a tourist of grain. Like now, when I travel, I go to the farmers’ market and look for local grains and flours to try, and it’s pretty fun.
TM: So, when you travel and you go, is it common for you to be able to find local mills and local flours?
AH: Now that I’m kind of looking everywhere I go, yeah—and there’s more and more popping up, which is great. But there’s almost always, if you’re a farmers’ market frequenter, a lot of times there will be somebody who’s a vegetable farmer but they might have rye as a cover crop or something. It’s more common than you think. And it can be kind of hard because not all of those grains necessarily have good bread-baking qualities. But it’s fun, too, to experiment and try different stuff out.
TM: Well, Adrian, we’ve really learned a lot about flour and bread and the history of bread from you today. And thank you for all the good education that you’re doing, helping people learn how to bake bread.
AH: I so enjoyed talking to you. Thank you so much.