Spelt: a 'new' grain spells delicious bread

Wheat does such a fine job of making bread that home bakers seldom bother with any other grain. And frankly, in this part of the country, other flours, even the humble rye, are hard to find in fresh condition.

One solution, I've found, is to become a miller as well as a baker. After trying hand-crank clunkers and a slow, noisy attachment to my stand mixer, I invested in the speedy, efficient Nutri Mill that has solved the problem. I can find a variety of grains in bulk at several groceries around town, throw them in the electric grinder and have fresh flour in various grinds ready to use for bread.

Grains of spelt showed up recently in a food store bin looking much like wheat, but a little sleeker. I measured out a few pounds and did a little research at home. Not only is spelt high in protein -- between 16 and 17 percent (wheat runs between 10 and 15 percent, but commercially seldom higher than 12 percent) -- but it's also low in that devilish gluten that is plaguing some Americans today.

That characteristic has promoted the growing and marketing of spelt in America today, but it's been around for centuries.

Farmers in what is now southern Germany found a hearty relative of wheat that could stand up to the chilly climate of that part of Europe. It was spelt, a hybrid of the earliest wheat-like grain, emmer, and grass. The ancient Germans were growing it as far back as 4,000 BCE and calling it "dinkel," says chatty food historian Harold McGee. It's still used in breads and soups these days in Europe and is now becoming a favorite in the States.

I've used it as a substitute for whole-wheat flour in my daily loaf -- a blend of white and whole grain flours -- and found it added a distinct earthy flavor. I also recommend several recipes from Daniel Leader's "Local Breads" (Norton, 2007), a collection of recipes from France, Germany and Central Europe, where spelt is more common. His recipes, though, call for the use of naturally created leaveners or sourdoughs that you make yourself, including one with spelt flour.

Here's a simpler recipe for a whole spelt loaf from "The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking" from the French Culinary Institute. It uses a preferment called "poolish" -- that's right, from Polish bakers -- to start things off.


PG tested

For this recipe, you'll use heavy-duty stand mixer with dough hook, a large bowl or container, 2 8 1/2-by-4 1/2 loaf pans (preferably steel) and a scale if you prefer to weigh ingredients (the best approach).

For the poolish
  • 1 1/2 cups (12 1/4 ounces) whole spelt flour
  • 1 1/2 cups (12 1/4 ounces) water at room temperature
  • Pinch of fresh yeast
  • Combine flour, yeast and water in bowl, stirring well. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to ferment at room temperature for 14 to 16 hours.
For the dough
  • 1 3/4 cups (13 1/2 ounces) water
  • 3 1/4 cups (25 ounces) whole spelt flour
  • Poolish
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh yeast

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, add water first, then rest of ingredients. Mix on low speed until blended, then increase speed to medium (No. 4 on the KitchenAid) for about 7 minutes until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, feels elastic and gives some resistance when tugged.

Oil large bowl or container with vegetable oil or use spray oil. Scrape dough into the container, cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Uncover and fold the dough. Re-cover with wrap and repeat the process in 20 minutes. Then uncover and fold dough a third time. Re-cover and allow to ferment for 2 hours.

An hour before dough has finished rising, set oven at 450 degrees and insert baking stone if making round loaves.

After 2-hour ferment, scoop dough from container and place on floured surface. For loaf pans, coat pans with oil or spray oil. Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces and carefully using palms of hands to avoid deflating dough completely, form into rectangles about the length of the pans. Fold the dough long side so that both sides meet in the middle and seal the seam with heel of your hand. Tuck tips of the short side ends on to the seam and seal.

Place the dough seam side down in the loaf pan and using your fingers, tuck the dough against the sides of the pan, giving the dough something to push against as it rises. Spray or oil the tops of the loaves and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise about 45 minutes or until tops of loaves are peeking above the rim of the pans.

Uncover the loaves and bake about 45 minutes or until crust is a deep brown and firm to the touch. Remove to rack, allow to cool for 10 minutes, then remove loaves from pan and allow to cool to room temperature.

-- "The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking" from the French Culinary Institute (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011)

Bob Hoover: pittbookeditor@hotmail.com.


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