Super frugal baking: slow cooker sourdough

I’ve been a little crock-pot happy the last few days (with good reason of course: Crock pots are awesome!). After my happy realization that I could cook dried beans using far less energy than the stovetop, using my crock pot, I decided to take another plunge into the world of slow cooker baking.

I made bread in my slow cooker once before (and strangely, that is consistently the most clicked-on post on my entire blog since someone pinned it on Pinterest), but it was a bit strange, with a very hard bottom crust.

But after checking numerous sites, I found out the reason for my earlier flaw: direct contact with the bottom of the slow cooker with create a very thick crust. This is easy to avoid by cooking it in another cooking vessel, inside the slow cooker, and raising that vessel up a tad off the floor of the crock pot.

So I decided to try with my current favourite sourdough rye bread (a spiked “epoxy” dough from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads book–which means it has some sourdough, some soaked dough, and some commercial yeast added on baking day). This morning I got the final dough together and gave it a first rise. Then, without a final proofing, and also without pre-heating the crock pot, I degassed the dough and put it into a well-oiled pyrex bowl which I then perched on a canning ring inside my crock pot.

I let it bake for about 2.5 hours, until I could see the top starting to firm up (the top finishes last in this type of baking since the heat doesn’t really make it up that high).

Now, bread gourmands would be shocked at this bread I’m sure. It was slightly browned on the bottom, but there was no crackly crust, no maillard reaction, no grigne to speak of. But it was bread. It was even quite good!

The crumb was open and creamy, as it seemed that the proofing happened inside during the crock’s warm-up. It was well-risen indeed. Actually it seemed a touch over proofed, but just a touch. Still certainly enjoyable.

I have to admit, it was very light and fluffy, which I would love to attribute to my amazing kneading skillz, or the crock pot proof, but I think it was probably because I ran out of my usual stone-milled whole wheat and supplemented with some supermarket “whole” wheat stuff that is really just white bread with a bit of bran thrown in. Blush.

Some tweaks

For future experiments–and I will be doing this again, oh yes–I plan on finding a better baking vessel, maybe a coffee can? I would like something with straight sides, as with my bowl method the dough actually rose up and touched the inside of the lid, which meant some condensation got on the bread which made some really nasty gummy spots.

I might also try preheating the slow cooker while I proof the bread a bit outside the oven, to see if I can get it “baking” a bit sooner and lose the over-proofed yeasty taste.

In any case, I’m excited for summer baking. I can put my slow cooker on my balcony and enjoy fresh bread without heating up the house! And it also gives me hope for another summer plan: solar cooking! Stay tuned . . .

Kitchenaid Grain Mill Attachment = AWESOME!!!

(Update, March 2014: Boy I was excited when I bought this grain mill! I have used my it and enjoyed it now for nearly four years, and find it most successful for milling rye flour to feed my sourdough, and using rye flour as an additional grain in wheat-based breads, but I have not successfully made bread using 100% home milled wheat flour using this grinder. Not to say it isn’t possible! I confess to not trying all that hard. Please read all the comments below, and other reviews online if you are considering purchasing a Kitchenaid Grain Mill.)

Last week I broke down and bought a KITCHENAID GRAIN MILL ATTACHMENT WOOOOOOOOO!!!!

Okay, there are probably a few of you out there who don’t quite get the all-caps-league excitement. I’ll admit I pretty much nerded out on this one. But I’ve been thinking about this one for awhile now, and I believe it was a good move to bring more nutrition to our baked goods.

Here are some things I have recently read about flour:

– Whole wheat flour is not really “whole”. It has part of the germ removed because the germ, which contains oils, can go rancid quite quickly. So they remove this to make it more shelf stable.

– The germ contains most of the nutrition, including B vitamins, vitamin E, calcium, zinc, copper, manganese and potassium. It also contains enzymes that help your body in numerous ways. None of this makes its way into store-bought flour.

– Store-bought whole wheat only has a fraction of the fiber that whole grain fresh flour has.

– Wheat berries are incredibly shelf stable, lasting years–possibly even decades!

I recently threw out most of a 10 kilo bag of (poor quality) whole wheat flour because it went rancid. For me, moving to grinding my own flour will mean producing less waste as well as better nutrition. It will also be cheaper than buying organic flour from the store.

And it makes AMAZING pancakes!

Plus, I’m hoping to be able to help out some of my friends who are gluten-free by milling flour for them. There are several grains that are gluten free, but finding these specialty flours is hard–not to mention expensive! So if you’re in need of some gluten-free flour, let me know and I’ll share the bounty 🙂

The only glitch in my plan is that I’ve found fresh flour acts quite differently in bread making than store-bought flour. This might be because the increased bran cuts more of the gluten strands, making it harder to get a light, airy loaf. It could be because the grind is not as fine as store-bought flour. Or, it could be that some oxidization actually helps the flour produce a better loaf, as posited by some users on The Fresh Loaf.

I read a lot of grain mill reviews before buying the Kitchenaid attachment. This one has many negative reviews due to people burning out the motors on their mixers. But knowing this gives me power–instead of going ahead and milling 10 cups on the finest setting at the highest speed, I’m choosing to mill smaller amounts at a time, doing two (or three) passes, moving from coarse to fine, at slower speeds. I was thrilled that my machine, a 325 Watt Artisan, didn’t even break a sweat.

The other benefit of the Kitchenaid Grain Mill is that it can mill very coarsely, which will be great for cracking grains for porridge or for multigrain mixes for bread. I’ve heard fresh-cracked corn grits are amazing!

I’ve now got some new challenges, and new projects ahead of me. I’m EXCITED!!!

Bread Machine Bliss

Okay, this was not done in the bread machine, but it was a loaf I baked on my holidays in my new cloche I got for four dollars.

In the middle of the first week of our holidays I took a trip to Value Village in my hometown. I was on a quest: for a bread maker. I had seen bread makers at just about every garage sale and I just KNEW I could pick one up at the second hand store.

Right I was–there were three to choose from on the shelf. The helpful employee told me they price them according to brand, and by how well they function when they are tested. (It seemed like they had a lot of bread makers in overstock–each time I went to the store, there were 3 machines on the shelf, but one was different each time.)

I picked up a West Bend model with the words “The Natural Choice” written in reassuring letters on the top. It was $17.99. Thus began the theme of my holidays: baking bread.

Of course I had to try it out right away, so I took it home to my sister’s house and quickly found a recipe online for whole wheat bread. I scanned her cupboards, found all the ingredients, threw them in to the machine, and waited . . .

“It’s not doing anything,” I told my partner after 15 minutes.

“It’s not doing anything,” I told him again after 20 minutes.

“It’s not doing anything,” I complained again after 21 minutes. “Maybe it’s broken.”

Which was when I took to the internet and found out that most bread machines have what is called a “rest period” where they let the ingredients come to room temperature before mixing. Aaah–it’s not broken.

20 minutes later, it sprang to life, mixing with vigour. Over the next 4 hours, it kneaded, rose, punched down, rose again, and baked, producing a lovely fragrant loaf of whole wheat bread. And all I had to do was measure the ingredients!

Now, let me just say, to maintain my bread cred, that I am very anxious to go back to my hand kneading, slow-rising, hearth baking ways–after the heat of summer has passed. The beauty and magic of the bread maker is that it doesn’t require me to heat up the oven, and hence the house. This means I can bake bread on the hottest day of the summer!! No more fooling around with baking in the slow cooker (that never really worked anyway).

I think I made bread every day after that, both there and at the cottage we stayed in on Manitoulin Island. Lots of sandwiches. Lots of toast. Lots of bread and butter.

Has my bread maker earned its keep? Without a doubt. I’ve read it uses about a nickel’s worth of energy to bake a loaf, and it probably takes less than a dollar’s worth of ingredients. Compare that to the $3.50 to $4 we usually spend for a loaf of bread, and you can see the evident savings.

The other factor is that when you make a lot of bread, you will eat a lot of bread, which means that you are probably replacing some more expensive foods with cheaper food. Mmm–pass the butter.

My next challenge will be getting my sourdough starter up and running, and then attempting to make some spiked dough sourdough in the bread machine.

How about you–any experience with bread machines? Any great recipes to share? Have you too experienced bread machine bliss??

Slow Cooker Bread–for real???

I believe it was Suzanne who left a comment on my “Heatwave” post about using a crock pot in the summer to avoid heating up the house. That got me thinking. I’ve been doing a lot of reading over on A Year of Slow Cooking, and have been feeling very inspired about my crock pot. Apparently they’re very efficient little cookers, letting off very little heat, which also means very little wasted energy.

And then, I think it was the Roasted Garlic Spoonbread recipe that got me thinking . . . is it possible to bake bread in a slow cooker? Is that crazy? Or is it a wonderful, wonderful way to make bread all summer long without heating up the house?

In the end, I think it is somewhere in the middle, or possible both: a little crazy and a little wonderful (though I’m willing to go a little crazy to try to amp up the wonderful, in classic Frugal + Urban experiment stylez).

Parchment-lined loaf pan baking inside my slow cooker

So what I did is this: I made a batch of miraculous no-knead bread and stuck it in the fridge over night. Then this morning, I hacked off a hunk of dough, shaped it and stuck it into a parchment-lined small loaf pan. I let it warm up to room temperature and then I stuck it into the slow cooker on high, which I had warmed up for 15 minutes beforehand.

My slightly misshapen loaf

After about an hour, the delicious aroma of baking bread started filling the house. I let it bake for about 3 hours total, until I could see the sides were browned, and it had a nice hollow thump sound when I knocked on the bottom. I removed it and let it cool out of the pan.

In the end, it tasted very good! A little misshapen, but that was because of my sloppy parchment papering. The weirdest thing was the crust: it was crunchy and browned on the bottom and sides, where it had come into contact with the heat of the pan, but soft and pale on top where no heating element had the chance to crisp it up, and where it may have been exposed to a lot of moisture falling from the lid.

That didn't last long!

But none of that stopped us from eating the whole loaf.

It was good enough to inspire me to try more experiments! For my next one (two loaves of bread in less than 24 hours!!!) I hacked off my hunk of cold dough, shaped it into a small boule, and stuck it directly into the cold slow cooker. I’ve turned it on low, and I’m going to leave it on all night. What will I be greeted with in the morning? Hopefully breakfast 🙂

The morning loaf, baked on low overnight

June 23 update: Another yummy loaf of bread! This one, baked right inside the slow cooker insert, without a baking pan, was only crisp on the bottom, and, maybe because I let it cook longer, the top was not as soft. I did vent the lid with a toothpick before going to bed (just used the toothpick to hold the lid open a tiny crack, enough for some steam to escape), which may have been a factor in the improved top crust. I didn’t leave it overnight, but woke up around 4 or so and went and shut it off. In any case, it worked out well because the loaf is halfway eaten already!

All this bread baking is a clear inspiration to go and pick some local strawberries and make a big batch of jam!

The miracle of life–a sourdough starter

I started my new starter three days ago, according to Peter Reinhart’s new “Artisan Breads Every Day”:

Day 1: combine 1 oz flour with 2 oz pineapple juice. Stir together and leave at room temperature for 2 days, stirring three times per day.

Day 3: add 1 oz flour and 1 oz pineapple juice to the Day 1 mixture. Stir together, and leave at room temperature until it becomes frothy and bubbly, stirring three times per day.

The idea is that the pineapple juice prevents the bacteria leuconostoc from taking over, and the stirring  prevents the mixture from getting moldy. The next step is adding 2 oz flour and 1 oz water, leaving for 1-2 days and stirring intermittently. Then adding 3 oz flour and 1 oz water to 4 oz of the previous culture, at which point you let it ferment and then it is ready to become your Mother Starter.

So today is day 4 and I am delighted to report that my goop is starting to bubble! It is delightful to be bringing a new starter to life. It holds the promise of amazing tasting bread to feed my family. The promise of not having to go out and buy bread because I’ve just baked up a couple loaves. Just the smell of sour yeasty goodness makes me verklempt. (Really. I get choked up very easily).

Now, if only I had thought of doing this at the beginning of winter instead of the beginning of summer!

Stepping back into Sourdough

I’ve lost my sourdough starter. By which I mean, it got so polluted and gross that it wasn’t working at all any more. So I’m starting my starter over. Again.

I actually gave it a try not long ago, and found my starter infected with leuconostoc, which imitates a true starter by getting bubbly and smelling sour, but it is actually bacteria, not yeast, which is bubbling. It gets very sour right off the bat, and doesn’t have that yummy beery/yeasty smell that makes bread taste like bread.

Peter Reinhart says to make the starter with pineapple juice, so that is what I am going to do. I’ll start it tonight and will report back soon. Once my starter is established, I’m going to follow the methods described in Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day, which incorporates the no-knead approach with sourdough techniques, exactly what I set out to investigate last summer. Fortunately, Peter Reinhart, with his big team of testers, has taken the challenge instead!

I’ll let you know what happens . . .

Bread–upping the nutrition

IMG_1462Most of you who have checked out my bread recipes would notice one thing right away: they’re pretty heavy on the white flour. Most of my recipes are, in fact. And we eat a lot of bread, which means white flour constitutes a pretty large portion of our diets. Lately I’ve been thinking that’s not such a good thing.

The thing is, I really like simple bread recipes, ones that contain only 4 ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Unfortunately this formula only really works with white flour (at least as far as I know).

Since my supreme enlightenment (discovering Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day), I’m completely sold on the no-knead method and the simple recipe, and don’t want to complicate it any more with shortening or sweeteners. I want my easy bread and the fibre/nutrient content too!

So I’ve begun another experiment: slowly increasing the amount of whole wheat flour I add to the mix. I’m trying to find how far I can go, what percentage whole wheat flour I can get to where the simple recipe and techniques still work.

Here is my progress, so far:

1 cup of whole wheat flour (5 1/2 oz) was barely noticeable. The crumb was glossy, and speckled with occasional flecks of bran, and the taste was fairly indistinguishable from the all-white version. A completely innocuous way to add a bit of fibre and nutrition to the recipe.

2 cups of whole wheat flour (11 oz, or around 30% of flour by weight) actually added to the flavour, I thought, making it slightly more complex. The texture was still great and the loaf was beautiful. 30% whole wheat is what you will see in most “light whole wheat” recipes.

3 cups of whole wheat flour (16 oz, or 50% of flour by weight) is just in the oven now . . .

Well, after baking and cooling and slicing and buttering and finally tasting, I have to say this is pretty darn good! Still a lovely lofty loaf, with a crackling crust and beautiful full flavour. I thought at 50% I would start to see some density happening, and start to taste some bitterness, but none of that has happened!

So I’ll keep pushing it–next time to 4 cups out of 6! If anyone out there has experience using whole wheat in the Artisan Bread in 5 recipes, please let me know!