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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Happened to My Peanut Butter Sandwich?

Salmonella in commercially produced peanut butter, High Fructose Corn Syrup in commercially produced jellies and Bromates in commercially produced bread. When did my PB&J become hazardous material? Maybe the sandwich is not the common denominator, maybe the factory is. 

In our never ending quest to create cheap food in this country, and we have succeeded, we appear to have traded nutritional value for dollar value. The baby boom generation grew up in a post WWII world where industry was king. Industry brought us plentiful, higher paying jobs with fewer hours spent at work, affordable cars and homes and cheap ‘convenience’ foods.

Want to make a cake? Buy a cake mix. Scalloped Potatoes? Just add water. Love your Mom’s homemade Mac n Cheese? Ours isn’t as tasty and isn’t actually made with cheese, but MAN is it fast! Dinner on the table in 20 minutes? No problem. Vegetables? Who needs ‘em? And we bought it. Literally. Hook, line and sinker. Fast forward to a new century where entire generations have grown up without learning where their food comes from or how to prepare food that is not processed or prepared for them.

Take bread. A simple combination of flour, water, yeast, salt and time. That is all it takes, though even yeast and salt are not a necessity. We have taken the simplest of foods, put it into the hands of corporations and asked them to take care of it for us. And they did.

Factory made bread never touches human hands. Often mixed in 500 pound batches, 1200 loaves an hour is not an unusual production number and would be a low number for many commercial bakeries. The product is usually leavened using a “chemical slurry” (actual yeast is too slow to react in this process) an instant action chemical mixture that mimics yeasts action. A marvel of modern science.
Now meet Potassium Bromate, a white crystalline powder often added to factory produced breads as a ‘flour improver’. It decomposes at 370 degrees and under the right conditions is completely baked off in the bread. If, however, too much is added to the flour or the bread is baked at too low a temperature or not quite long enough, residual Potassium Bromate will remain in the baked product and can be ‘harmful if eaten’.

Whoa. Back that up. Would you buy a food product marked “May Be Harmful if Swallowed”? Would you feed it to your family? You may have been doing just that for years.

Potassium Bromate may be listed in bakery products as Bromic Acid, Potassium Salt, Bromated Flour or it may simply be dumped into the vague category “dough conditioners”. It is considered a likely carcinogen and is banned in Europe, the UK, Canada, China, Nigeria, Peru, Brazil and many other countries. California has required a warning label on products containing Bromated flour and while the FDA has ruled that Bromates are “safe and legal” they have also, since 1991, urged bakers to voluntarily stop using it.

Why not ban it altogether? Because it was approved as ‘safe for use’ in food products before the Delaney Clause, which bans the approval of cancer causing chemicals for use in food. Notice the Act does not prohibit the USE of these agents if they have already been approved, simply the APPROVAL of new substances found to induce cancer. As long as it goes unchallenged as “safe”, even though it has been shown to induce cancer in mammals in laboratory settings, it remains legal for use in our food.

Why do commercial bread producers continue to use Bromated flour even though the FDA urges them not to? Bromates chemically speed up oxidation in bread, creating stronger dough that stands up better to commercial mixers, rises higher and reduces the time it takes to produce each batch of bread. Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C) works in much the same way and many bakers use this instead, though it does not work exactly the same way and is not as successful in big, commercial applications. So in the end, it comes down to dollars and what we as consumers are willing to tolerate and pay for a loaf of bread. The faster and more cheaply the bread can be produced, the greater the profit.

As long as we are willing to pay a factory to produce cheap bread we show our willingness to accept the lowest possible quality in food – or to quote Michael Pollan, “food-like substances”.
Each time we make our own bread or buy bread made by hand we connect ourselves with the process of providing for ourselves, choosing to know what is in our food and participating in our local community.

The Easiest Bread You Will Ever Make

So, why not bake your own bread? “Ha!” you scoff, “I have no time! It’s too complicated! I hate the kneading! I have never done it before!“ I have news for you kids, even if you have baked bread from scratch your whole life as I have, it just got a whole lot easier.

What if I told you that you probably have all of the ingredients in your house right now, That you could mix up a batch of bread dough in 5 minutes, let it rise and throw it in your refrigerator for a week. During that time, all you have to do is tear off the size you want, shape it into a loaf, let it rise for an hour or so and bake it fresh anytime you want it? Interested now?

When I first heard about the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, I laughed. “Gimmick. There is no way. Won’t taste as good as real bread.”

When I ran across a no-knead bread recipe on the King Arthur Flour website that originated in the book, I decided to give it a try. My response was a resounding OMG!
This is the fastest, easiest way to bake bread fresh whenever you want it. I was hooked. I bought the book the next day and have been baking my way through the pages. Today's bread was an English Granary Loaf – FANTASTIC. Soft inside, chewy crust with bits of malted wheat for texture.

You need no equipment other than a bowl and a spoon – actually the spoon is optional, you can use your hands if you like. I do have a few additional tools that I find helpful, but they are not necessary for perfect results.

Mixer with a Dough Hook. I do mix my dough with my Kitchenaid mixer and dough hook but that is just easier for me as it mixes it quickly and I already own the mixer. These are literally No-Knead breads so don’t worry about it - you only mix the dough for about 60 seconds.

Dough Bucket. I bought a dough bucket his year and I love it because I can see the dough level instantly, but any large bowl will do. p.s. never put the lid on the dough bucket tightly. As the dough expands it will literally blow its top.

Bread Stone. I have 2 types: a ½ inch thick bread stone that I have used for years in the oven and on the gas grill for pizzas and simple unglazed clay tiles. I bought the 6”x6” unglazed clay tiles at a hardware store for 44 cents each. 6 of them cover my oven rack perfectly and work exactly like the bread stone.

Hint: preheat the stone or tiles in the oven for 1 hour before baking to get a great crust on your bread. I also preheat a small empty bread pan and after placing the dough on the stone I pour hot water into the pan and quickly close the oven door to create steam and a crispier crust.

Parchment Paper. I let my dough rise on a piece of parchment paper on a cooling rack. When the dough is ready, I slide the dough, paper and all, off the rack onto the bread stone. This will also help you to remove the bread from the oven easily.

I use Unbleached All Purpose Flour unless the recipe calls for bread flour. Pillsbury, King Arthur, Bob’s Red Mill and many others make good unbromated AP flour. You can also go to your Coop or Organic food store and find a variety of high quality flours. If you are unsure about your favorite brand, email or call the company.

I also use Kosher Salt at home. Ever tasted your salt? Try this. Taste a tiny bit of kosher salt or sea salt. Tastes like salt, right? Now taste table salt. Taste like chemicals? That’s because it is loaded with anti-caking agents and other chemicals.

I keep my Yeast in the freezer. You can use it directly from the freezer with no ill effects to the dough and you don’t have to worry about it going bad as quickly.

We have good quality water from our own well but many people have heavily chlorinated water. If you have concerns, use spring water for your breads. The water should be warm, not hot. You can kill the yeast if you overheat it. If you can't hold your hand comfortably under the running water, it is too hot.

More than anything, know that YOU CAN DO THIS. Once you try it, you will be hooked on the speed and simplicity. I certainly am.

Oh, and let me know how your bread turns out!

The Recipe

3 cups of Warm Water
1 ½ Tbsp instant Yeast
1 Tbsp Salt
7 cups All Purpose Flour

Place water, yeast and salt in a bowl. Stir to mix. Add flour and stir or mix just until everything is combined. It will be a sticky, rough dough. Let the dough rest at room temperature, loosely covered for 2 hours. The dough will expand until more than double and may deflate as well – let it 'do it's thing'. All is well.

At this point you can either put the dough in the refrigerator, loosely covered, for up to a week or bake some or all of it right away.

When you are ready to bake, tear off a softball size piece of dough, form a ball or loaf, and let it rise on a piece of parchment paper or in a lightly greased loaf pan for 45 minutes to an hour. If you are baking dough that was refrigerated, this may take a little longer.

Just before baking, make cuts into the dough with a knife or kitchen scissors about ½“ deep. This will keep the crust from tearing as it bakes. Pop it into the oven for 25 – 30 minutes and out will come your beautiful bread.

Find recipes and tips for baking loads of great no-knead breads at King Arthur Flour by visiting their website.
You will be baking like a star in no time. 

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