Sunday, May 9, 2010

Baking Low Sodium Bread - Keeping It Fresh - Part 4

Here are some things I’ve learned about keeping lower sodium bread fresh. Some people are disappointed with homemade bread because it dries out and stales so much faster than commercial grocery store breads. Lean, rustic breads, in particular, stale quickly. (That's why the French buy fresh baguettes every morning.) All that is to be expected because the home baker does not have access to the additives and dough conditioners that commercial bakers use. The long laundry list of ingredients on your bread packages attests to that fact. Also, home bakers don’t have the same kind of specialized equipment. However, there are things you can do to keep your homemade bread fresh longer and to prevent it from quickly drying out and going stale.

Don’t start with overly dry dough. When baking low sodium breads, you normally don’t want to use excessively wet or soft dough. But don’t go to the opposite extreme and end up with overly firm, dense, and dry dough either. That kind of consistency will result in loaves that are on the dry side to begin with. They will stale almost immediately.

Don’t over bake the bread. Again, the last thing you want to do is start out with dry bread. Soft, enriched breads that contain fats are done baking when the internal temperature is around 180-190 degrees. Drier, crusty breads need to bake until they are between 200-210 degrees inside. Simply poke an instant read thermometer into the center of the loaf and in thirty seconds or less you should have an accurate reading of its internal temperature.

If you bake in your bread machine, the crust setting will determine how long your bread bakes. The medium setting is probably the safest to use. Most bread machines only have a bottom heating element unlike the top and bottom elements of conventional ovens. As a result, often times the bottom and side crusts of machine baked loaves are darker and thicker than the top crusts. Attempts to get a browner top crust by baking on the dark setting might result in dried interiors. Don’t forget that residual heat will finish off the baking once the bread is removed from the machine and the pan. If you’re having a problem with dry freshly machine baked bread, you might consider experimenting with using the light setting.

I like evenly browned crusts, but I like bread that doesn’t get dry or stale even more. So, for me, if it’s a choice between overbaking in the machine to get the top crust color I want or having bread that will stay fresh longer, I’ll pick the moister, softer bread. Baking bread in the oven gives you much more control over the crust; that’s one reason I prefer using my oven. However, as I stated before, during the hot summer months, a bread machine baked loaf definitely suffices.

Be sure to let your bread cool completely. Cooling is actually part of the overall baking process. Bread should be allowed to come to room temperature after baking, because the heat retained inside continues to cook the bread. Cooling allows the moisture in the bread to re-distribute itself (similar to letting a grilled steak rest). Slicing it too early disrupts this process and the moisture escapes. If you cut into the bread before it's cool, it may still be gummy inside. However, if you simply cannot resist slicing into the warm bread, try this: place the bread, cut sides down, on a countertop and cover with a tea towel until the loaf has cooled completely. This action should allow the moisture to redistribute itself almost as well as cooling the whole loaf. I do this when my husband simply can't wait for the bread to completely cool.

Wrap the bread carefully to avoid staling. Cool the bread until you can wrap it without condensation gathering on the inside of the plastic wrap or bag. Make sure it is completely cooled. Just because the bread feels cool to the touch does not mean it is ready to wrap. Heat may still be trapped in the center of the loaf. Wrap the bread closely in plastic wrap or a tight-fitting plastic bag rather than a loose-fitting one. When bread is wrapped loosely in a plastic bag, its moisture eventually moves into the excess air trapped in the bag. This is even more prominent when the bread has one end sliced and removed or if you slice the entire loaf in advance. I try to only slice bread as needed so it stays fresh longer; I also keep the sliced heel in the bag, resting against the exposed part of the sliced loaf.

Some people like wrapping their bread in aluminum foil. I’ve had some luck with the green bags. If you don’t think you can eat up the entire loaf within 4-5 days, freeze part of it. Wrap it carefully in foil or plastic wrap and then place in a freezer bag, removing as much air as you can before closing. Some people place a paper towel over the bread before wrapping in plastic for freezing. They say that the paper towel absorbs excess moisture during the thawing process.

Add special ingredients to the dough to slow staling & drying out. The following may help:

• Fats and sweeteners (honey is especially helpful, as is coconut oil)
• Emulsifiers such as egg yolks or lecithin (granular or liquid)
• Dairy products like milk, sour cream, yogurt, or buttermilk (dried, canned, or fresh)
• Potato products like potato water, mashed potatoes, potato starch/flour, mashed potato flakes
• Chia seed slurry (combine 1 tbsp chia seeds with 1/4 cup water and let sit until a thick, gloopy slurry has been created; use 2 tbsp of the slurry as part of the liquid for the dough)
• Oatmeal (dry or cooked)
• Cooked grains such as cracked wheat, rice, cereal blends, etc.
• Vegetables and fruits such as grated carrot, mashed sweet potato, raisins, etc.

Add a dough conditioner or enhancer. The Bread Machine Digest site has an informative discussion about common dough conditioning additives the home baker can use to lessen staling and improve texture. The site also has a few recipes for making homemade dough conditioners.

I routinely add 1 tablespoon of granular lecithin to all the yeast doughs I make. I can find it at local health food stores. I also add vital wheat gluten to all the whole grain breads I make – 1 tablespoon for breads with 50% or more whole wheat flour. I also use a bit of orange juice when making 100% whole wheat bread (I learned this trick from King Arthur Flour: “The orange juice won't add its own flavor to the bread, but will mellow any potential bitterness in the whole wheat.”).

Adding an acidic ingredient (ascorbic acid [Vitamin C], lemon juice, vinegar) to whole wheat yeast breads helps keep gluten bonds strong and also helps the yeast work longer and faster. I use honey (as long as the recipe doesn't call for more than 2 tablespoons of sugar) and coconut oil for the sweetener and fat in all my breads to help avoid staling.

I’ve found that these additions give my panned breads loaves a softer, moister, and more tender crumb and keep them from quickly getting dry and stale. This is especially helpful when I make 100% whole wheat bread. The homemade bread is tender and light, almost like store bought but without all those weird ingredients.

Finally, after all is said and done, remember that it really is worth the trouble. You may wonder, after reading all the advice and helpful hints, if a bread machine is really a useful piece of equipment. My answer is an emphatic, “YES!” A bread machine is a great tool for those trying to follow a low sodium diet. First of all, keep in mind that most of my suggestions really deal with the pitfalls of making lower sodium bread – machine or no machine. Low sodium bread making has very real differences from ordinary bread making. All the finagling with yeast amounts, liquid to flour ratios, watching carefully for overproofing, etc. are part of the low sodium bread making experience whether or not you have a bread machine. What the bread machine does is take care of the kneading and rising, and if you want, the baking too.

In the past, I’ve used my own muscle power to make bread dough, my food processor, tried the artisan bread in 5-minutes recipe, and made batter breads. These methods all worked, but I like using a bread machine better. It does a superior job of kneading. Owning a bread machine has made it possible for me to supply my household with all kinds of lower sodium bread stuffs. The ability to rather easily make 2-3 different kinds of dough in succession without wearing myself out is a great benefit. Or being able to start a bread recipe late in the afternoon and have it baked in time for an after dinner snack. Or getting several doughs rising in the fridge for me to shape and bake the next day. The few minutes worth of checking the dough during the kneading cycle are absolutely nothing compared to the benefits.

Using the bread machine has meant that we have all kinds of good choices available for breakfasts, snacks, and sandwiches. Supermarket bread, especially the low sodium varieties, cannot compete with what I’m producing now. I’m able to make deliciously flavored breads and sandwich buns – seasoned with onion, dill, rosemary, caraway, black pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, chives, on and on – flavors I could never get from the supermarket. And they’re all lower sodium. Plus I can make true 100% whole wheat low sodium bread that has real substance to it and is not disgustingly squishy or sweet.

Next Post: Baking Low Sodium Bread - Without a Bread Machine - Part 5

Baking Low Sodium Bread Series:

Part 1 – Introduction  

Part 2 – Beginning Basics

Part 3 – Getting Started

Part 4 – Keeping It Fresh

Part 5 – Without a Bread Machine

Part 6 – Favorite Bread Recipes

Part 7 – Favorite Buns and Rolls
Low Sodium Bread – Demystified


Stephen Hansen said...

Although I'm only 29, I was recently diagnosed with hypertension and was put on a low-sodium diet. Its been something of a shell shock, as I was never much of a cook, and suddenly nothing at all that I thought was even "okay" healthy works for me. Its taken replacing nearly everything in my kitchen, and actually starting to seriously learn cooking to make this major lifestyle change to be healthy.

I've done a lot of research since then, found a number of good and useful sites, but I have to say that your blog has been the most interesting and useful at the same time. Its more raw, real-world, and I enjoy a lot how you periodically modify recipes to be low-sodium and explain how you do it. Then the various products you find, and your experience with them as a real person doing real food, is invaluable.

It has helped to look at recipes and contents and approach cooking less as a chemistry experience (mix exactly this and that in this precise ratio, do these precise steps, and your potion is done!) and more as an artistic exploration of fiddling to find something great.

It's been invaluable. This series on bread in bread machines especially is -- bread has pained me quite significantly since I went on this diet! Most of the stuff in the stores has alarming quantities of sodium, and the stuff that doesn't? Is unpalatable.

Following your advice, I had the first bread I actually enjoyed since going onto this diet tonight. A cheese and onion loaf that I tweaked from my bread machine's included recipes, and it came out actually tasty.

Thank you for all your work on this blog.

shambo said...

Wow, Stephen, so many compliments. Thanks so much! I certainly can identify with the challenge of learning to cook and eat low sodium. It's not as simple as just hiding away your salt shaker, that's for sure.

You seem to be up to the challenge, and I wish you the best of luck. I'm glad you're getting something out of my ongoing bread series. I wrote it mainly out of frustration with so-called low or no salt bread recipes. Usually there's just a list of ingredients with directions to plop everything into your bread machine. No discussion regarding the role salt plays in yeast doughs and what you need to watch out for.

Your cheese & onion bread sounds pretty good. I made some bread today too. Thanks again for your encouragement.

Sarah T. said...

Mom, you really are amazing! The research you've done to keep Dad alive is incredible!

shambo said...

Yup, that's me -- amazing! You should know by now that I really enjoy making bread. And as I've mentioned ad nauseam, I got really frustrated reading the bread recipes from some low sodium web sites & cookbooks. They never discussed the relationship between salt & yeast. And often times I could tell that they had not adjusted the yeast amount to compensate for the missing salt. I thought they were just setting people up for failure. Thus this great treatise of mine.