Pros: Astoundingly delicious, light, and perfect whole grain breads
Cons: Only for dedicated bakers!
Rating: 5 out of 5
I’ve heard amazing things about Brother Juniper’s Bread Book and it’s even on my wish list, but when I first received Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor, I had no idea it was by the same author. He also wrote the highly-successful The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. With a history like that, I certainly had high hopes for this book, but I also greeted it with a mild skepticism. After all, while I certainly do enjoy whole grain breads, Reinhart promised a level of airiness, flavor, and perfection from homemade whole grain breads that I had difficulty accepting. While I knew it was possible to make wonderful whole grain bread at home, I also knew the results could be a bit temperamental at times.
I should have believed him.
Let me make a couple of things clear up front. First, this book is not for the casual baker who likes to toss a recipe together on short notice, throw it in the oven, and be done with it; Reinhart goes the extra mile of effort to extract every last ounce of perfection from whole grain breads. Nor is it for someone who wants recipes to be simple and easy, in five steps, without any need to learn the whys and wherefores behind them.
Second, it is entirely possible to make delicious whole grain breads without using his complex methods. I’ve done it using the recipes in both Whole Grain Baking and Secrets of a Jewish Baker. If you are the aforementioned casual baker then I highly recommend picking up one (or preferably both) of those books.
However, this is the perfect book for the cook who’s always fiddling with their recipes trying to make them Just Right. It’s the ideal companion for the baker who’s willing to go the extra distance to get not just delicious and enjoyable whole grain bread, but perfect whole grain bread. It isn’t the right book for everyone, but for the right audience I can’t imagine a better read.
Do be sure to read the first few chapters, which explain the history and science behind Reinhart’s methods. Not only is it fascinating stuff, but it’s necessary to give you the understanding you’ll need to make the most of the recipes. Unlike simple recipes where you can just follow a few steps and be done with it, these methods require you to have a feel for the doughs and such. The amount of kneading required, for example, can vary so much depending on which grains you’ve used, how you’ve kneaded them, and so on. If it weren’t for Reinhart’s “windowpane test,” which has you test the gluten development of a bread by gently stretching the dough and seeing if you can stretch until it’s somewhat translucent (illustrative photos are included), we wouldn’t have known that the difference in airiness between the loaves we made was entirely due to kneading. But because he armed his readers with that knowledge, we were able to make a loaf of super-high-fiber oat bran bread that was fluffy. Yes, I did indeed just describe a whole grain high-fiber bread as fluffy.
No matter the grains you want to try in your breads, you’ll find a formula to use them in here. Quinoa? Cooked rice? Bran? Doesn’t matter—it’s in here. Reinhart has also included a number of ‘transitional’ breads that use part-white flour and part-whole grains so as to ease your transition to whole grains.
The recipes do involve a certain amount of flipping around from section to section, and you need to start them the night before. (In the case of those recipes involving a wild yeast starter—which he does tell you how to make from scratch—you’ll need to engage in even more advance preparation.) The book is complex in ways that normally I would hold against a cookbook. However, in this case I won’t. These aren’t unnecessary complexities at all.
Reinhart set out with a very specific goal in mind—the creation of the perfect whole grain loaf of bread—and did everything he had to do in order to achieve that goal. Through playing with the recipes I’m convinced that everything he has you do is, in fact, integral to achieving his fantastic results. It may take you a few tries with any given recipe to make it come out perfectly as you learn how to gauge the feel of the doughs, but with practice… well, let’s just say I’m going to take a break after this review to go back to the fridge for some more oat bran bread. Yummy, fluffy oat bran bread.
He succeeded in his goal, and I believe that serious home bakers will relish the results and rise to the challenge he presents.