When I moved to Maine in 2001 – to get even with the guy who had sold me a houseful of furniture, but refused to give me a discount – I knew I would be in big trouble. And I was right!
After two days my stomach started complaining, and my brain kept sending “gag” signals, when I walked the supermarket aisles and encountered nothing but shelf after shelf of “Wonderbreads”.
Poking one of those proudly-called rye, multigrain, oat nut, or wheat breads with my finger, I found no resistance. I could squeeze them through their plastic bags, and they would spring right back to their original size when I let go. Even toasted, they retained their squishyness and would not support butter or jam without getting soft and soggy.
Eating two warm meals a day was another thing my stomach refused to accept. German families usually have bread and cold cuts either for lunch or for dinner. German schools don’t offer lunch, and Mom cooks at home.
As a working mom I used to view this daily cooking as a chore, and bad idea – until my daughter went to Bangor High, and had to eat at the school cafeteria (this experience turned her into a cook, and gave birth to a career as chef!).
Finally, I couldn’t take my stomach’s growling anymore. I started seeing bread mirages by day, and dreamed of crusty loaves by night. So I went on a quest for German everyday bread, Feinbrot.
The first step was, of course, to find a recipe. That was, in 2001, a big hurdle. No one in Germany baked Feinbrot at home, you could get several varieties in every bakery and supermarket.
My baking books and the internet offered only recipes for specialty breads, but not for the simple loaf I was looking for. And Feinbrot is usually baked with medium rye flour, but I was lucky to find whole rye flour, if any.
And how to make sourdough? I didn’t have the slightest idea! But then I found a recipe for Pain au Levain, made with sourdough, in the “French Farmhouse Cookbook“.
Full of enthusiasm I mixed my first starter from the scratch, and, also, as backup and for comparison, another starter from a store-bought package.
My first two breads, twin loaves from the two different starters, resulted in two almost identical bricks!
Stubbornly, I kept on baking, producing more bricks on the way – my husband suggested having a supply next to our bed in case of a home invasion – and experimented with different amounts of rye, wheat, temperatures and baking times.
After several weeks (and bricks!) my homemade starter was way ahead of the store bought mix, both in flavor and activity. Slowly, by trial and error, I figured out what bread flour/rye ratio worked best, and which temperatures and baking times delivered the best results.
An open house tour with my daughter at the New England Culinary Institute in Burlington, Vermont, left me green with envy. Valerie was going to learn how to make baguettes – from a real French pastry chef! I went home, and, since I couldn’t be one, at least I could buy “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice“.
Reading Peter Reinhart’s instructions I was struck by an epiphany! I had always (as stated in my recipes) just placed a cup with cold water in the oven. Though my breads had the right taste and right crumb, the crust was rather chewy and thick. But now I learned how to set up my oven for hearth baking – with a baking stone and STEAM!
With the discovery of steam, my humble Feinbrot was transformed! Flavorful, a bit tangy, with a thin, crisp crust, it tastes good with cold cuts, but also with honey or jam.
We especially like it with Fleischsalat, the typical German meat salad, made with ham and pickled cucumbers! You can also toast it, which I do when it’s more than two days old.
If you want your Feinbrot to be somewhat tangy (as we do), you can use unrefreshed starter from the fridge (the longer it was hungry, the tangier the bread will taste) But don’t use an unfed rye starter, or your bread will be too acidic!
My default mother starter is a whole wheat sourdough at 75% hydration (i.e. 75% flour/25% water). If your starter is 100% hydrated (50% flour/50% water), see note below to adjust the flour and water amounts.
192 g/6.77 oz whole rye flour
64 g/2.25 oz whole wheat flour
4 g/0.14 oz salt (1/2 tsp)
195 g/6.87 oz water
195 g/7 oz whole wheat mother starter (75% hydration) – for a 100% hydrated starter, see note below *)
200 g/7 oz bread flour
120 g/4 fl oz water, lukewarm
*) If your starter is 100% hydrated (50% flour/50% water), add 49 g/1.72 oz whole wheat flour and reduce the water amount to 71 g/2.5 oz.
all soaker and starter
56 g/2 oz bread flour
10 g/0.35 oz salt
1 g/0.03 oz ground bread spices (anise, caraway, fennel and/or coriander **)
**) For easier use, put equal amounts of anise, caraway, fennel in a spice mill, and give it a couple of turns. I like to make some breads with coriander only, therefore I use a separate mill for it.
In small bowl, stir together soaker (it will be rather stiff). Cover, and leave at room temperature overnight.
In second bowl, mix white starter. Cover, and leave at room temperature overnight. It should show a spongy structure underneath when it’s ripe.
DAY 2 (Morning)
Mix together all ingredients for final dough, 1 – 2 minutes at low speed (or by hand), until all flour is hydrated, and a coarse ball forms. Knead 4 minutes at medium-low speed (dough should be somewhat sticky). Let dough rest for 5 minutes, then knead for 1 more minute (dough should be very tacky, bordering on sticky).
Place dough in an oiled bowl or container, cover, and let rise at room temperature, approximately 4 – 5 hours, or until it has grown to about 1 1/2 times its original size.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. Shape into a boule, and place it in a floured rising basket, seam-side up.
Proof at room temperature for about 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 hours, or until the bread has grown about 1 1/2 times its original size, and a dimple, made with your finger, comes back a little bit, but remains visible. (Preheat oven about 3/4 hour before you expect to bake!)
Preheat oven to 500ºF/260ºC, with steaming device (I use an aluminum foil loaf pan, filled with pebble stones) and a baking stone.
Turn bread out onto a parchment lined baking sheet (or on a peel to bake directly on the stone). Score your loaf.
Place bread in oven, creating steam with your preferred method (I pour a cup of boiling water into my steam pan). Reduce temperature to 475ºF/246ºC.
Bake bread for 10 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 425ºF/218ºC. After 10 minutes, remove steam pan, rotate loaf 180 degrees for even browning, and continue baking for another 20 minutes, or until crust is deep golden brown, bread sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom, and an instant read thermometer registers at least 200ºF/93ºC.
Let bread cool on a wire rack.
STORAGE: Keep Feinbrot 1-2 days in a brown paper bag, then wrap it in plastic foil (and toast it). I usually freeze half of my bread soon as it’s cold. (Thaw at room temperature.) Never store homebaked bread in the fridge, it will get stale!
BreadStorm users (also of the free version) can download the formula:
Feinbrot with spelt:
Replace the rye and whole wheat flours in the soaker with 256 g spelt flour, use only coriander instead of spice mix.
Feinbrot with oat:
Replace the rye in the soaker with oat flour.
Feinbrot with nuts:
Add a handful of toasted nuts to the dough (I like it with whole hazelnuts).
Updated and rewritten post (first published 10/31/10)
Submitted to Yeast Spotting