Pandemic Bread Baking
Flour and yeast have been difficult to find for months. In the beginning, they disappeared from store shelves almost as fast as disinfectants and toilet paper. Stocking up on cleaning products in the midst of pandemic makes obvious sense and, though toilet paper hoarding behavior was widely mocked, I was reminded of Primo Levi's stunning Holocaust memoir If This Is A Man, which makes plain that having what we need to relieve ourselves lies at the core of human dignity. If panic and uncertainty during sudden lockdown caused people to stock up on TP, it made a certain kind of sense. The flour and yeast, however, took me by surprise.
When everyday strategies of food provisioning needed to change suddenly and dramatically, I thought that my bread baking experience, limited as it is relatively speaking, would be an advantage to myself and, in a sense, to others. Because I knew how to bake bread, the premade loaves I often bought for convenience could be left for others; people who, under normal circumstances, didn’t have the time or interest required to bake their own. Granted, a lot more people suddenly had time, but it wasn’t self-evident that interest would follow - especially when processed bread remained available. But when I tried to stock up on bread baking supplies, they were already gone.
There wasn’t a shortage, as is often the case with food system access issues. When people don’t have or can’t get food, the problem is usually that the food we’ve produced costs too much or isn’t distributed in equitable ways - not that there isn’t enough. Methods of food distribution are shaped by capitalism, and the goal of capitalism isn’t to get people what they need, it’s to increase the profits of those who already have more than they will ever need. We have flour. We have yeast. But supply chains are big clunky inflexible systems designed to deliver goods in particular, profitable, ways. Most flour and yeast is destined for commercial or institutional settings like restaurants and schools; and retooling the way it’s packaged and delivered to make it suitable for home use is not as simple an operation as it might seem.
In any case, people were undeniably baking more bread at home. Sourdough internet became impossible to escape. Scrolling through Instagram you were guaranteed to be slapped in the face with at least one freshly baked loaf of sourdough bread. I love food photography; this is not a complaint. But I couldn’t help wondering, why the sudden interest in baking bread? Prior to the pandemic, were there really that many people secretly harboring desires of kneading dough and waiting for proofing loaves to double in size, deterred only by the time constraints of modern life? And why, of the myriad bread varieties, were so many people choosing to bake sourdough – a relatively time consuming, technically challenging and potentially wasteful bread?
Maybe there is a simple answer, or a combination of many simple answers. People were bored, baking is therapeutic, some people couldn’t find sliced bread. But also, the pandemic had made the workings of food supply chains visible to a lot of people in a way they had not been before. In the new reality that was taking shape, it wasn’t clear that we would be able to rely on our food system to provide for us as it once had. We might need to rely on ourselves. It was as if people were asking themselves: what is the most basic and essential thing that I could do, or learn to do, that would go furthest towards achieving self-sufficiency? The answer, for many, was bread.
Humans have been baking bread for at least 10,000 years. At times, depending almost literally on bread alone for subsistence. In Europe and North America, from the 1600s into the early 20th century 40-60% of all calories consumed came from bread. Outside the Western world rice is arguably more essential, but, and depending on how broadly you are willing to define the word, bread is one of the foundational components of many of the world’s cuisines. From the flatbreads of The Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia - roti, naan, paratha or injera - to the tortillas, skillet and batter breads of South and North America.
So much is lost, though, if we reduce bread’s significance to its value as a vehicle for delivering calories to bodies. Despite what our diet and wellness obsessed culture wants us to believe, bread is not best understood as an indulgent guilty pleasure, a dirty word, a “cheat day” treat. It is the lifeblood of much of human culture and civilization, and the act of baking it, the many traditions of bread making, have occupied the heads and hands of home cooks for centuries, shaping the identities and everyday experiences of generations of people.
As an undergraduate I took a social inequality course. While teaching Marx, indispensable for such a topic, the brilliant instructor moved beyond the standard into-level story of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie and introduced us to elements of Marx’s theory of what it means to be human. He believed that the difference between humans and animals - “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees” - lies in our relationship to the material world. Animals more-or less live off what nature provides, building only from instinct; humans envision new forms for the material things we need to live - our food, our houses, our clothing - and we use our minds and bodies to bring those visions into being. Whatever its flaws, the theory identifies an essential dimension of human experience that is increasingly rare. Sure, sometimes our things are made by hand by someone, but only rarely do any of us make what need ourselves, from scratch.
This dimension of human experience is called “species-being,” and the concept appealed to me in part because, at the time, I had been learning to cook and had recently discovered Smitten Kitchen and the world of food blogs. It was 2008 and food blogs were different. They were not just monetized digital recipe binders. They were invitations to follow along with someone else as they learned to feed themselves and built a relationship to food. They were diaries of creation that documented personal experiences of domestic life. They were textual records of the thought processes of some of Marx’s architects as they used their heads and hands to make food.
Inspired by these food blogs, I made my first loaf of bread and I was immediately hooked on the experience of making something out of what appeared to be almost literally nothing - flour, water sugar and yeast. It was a feeling I realized that I’d only had once before, as a teenager sewing clothes out of fabric scraps I’d found in the basement. And I wondered what Marx would think of what had become of our species being. It was a question that would fuel my academic work for years to come, immersed as it would often be in theories of creation and alienated labour. It was a question that would bring me back to the kitchen, again and again, as I chased that feeling of transforming nothing into something that could be used to meet the most basic of needs.
There may be as many reasons for pandemic bread baking as there are bakers, of sourdough or any other kind. But maybe part of its attraction lies in the way that baking bread from scratch , allows us to express something essential about being human - living in a world inhabited by things we've labored to produce, things that once existed only as ideas, transformed into objects, our efforts externalized, evidence of our existence and efficacy as human beings. It may be something we need right now. Especially when those things we make – like loaves of sourdough bread - have the power to sustain us.
What is Japanese Milk Bread?
One of the exciting things about learning to bake bread is that there are endless variations. Sourdough is a great choice, especially if you can't find yeast. But it’s not the only option. When everyone else seemed to be making sourdough, I was feeling so overwhelmed with everything that the thought of a baking project that required me to keep something alive indefinitely was more than I had energy for. I eventually gave it a go and immediately forgot to feed it. I will try again, but in the meantime, I've been making milk bread.
Japanese milk bread is an enriched bread made with milk and butter (though not quite as much butter as you would find in a brioche). It tastes slightly sweet and has a soft, fluffy crumb that rises tall, and when you tear off a piece, the texture resembles a cheese pull. I find the texture of milk bread to more closely approximate that of processed American white sandwich bread than many of the “sandwich bread” recipes I've tried. So it's a great homemade sandwich bread option if you are looking for that white, wonderbread-style, soft texture. The reason for its soft texture is the tangzhong roux method - a Japanese baking technique that involves cooking a mixture of flour and milk to create a thick paste that is added to the rest of the bread ingredients, as you would a starter. Sandwiches made with milk bread benefit from crunchy elements like slaws or cucumbers or crunchy fried batters to create textural contrast.
A lot of milk bread recipes call for powdered milk and bread flour. Bread flour can be used with this recipe, and if you do the bread will rise higher more easily and the addition of powdered milk does help with softness and flavor - but you can still make milk bread successfully even if you can't get your hands on those ingredients. The texture may not be exactly the same as traditional Japanese milk bread, but it is still very soft with a light and airy crumb. The warmer and more humid your kitchen is, the more success you will have with all purpose flour. If you do use all purpose, make sure to do everything you can to facilitate a good rise by keeping the conditions around the bread warm and moist - I've got some tips for doing that in the recipe!
Storing Milk Bread
I’ve read that the tangzhong method keeps bread moist for longer, giving it a longer shelf life. But I found that this bread begins to lose its softness after about 3 days. If you aren’t going to eat it all within a few days, I recommend freezing one of the loaves. Slice the bread and store it in a freezer bag for up to three months. Any bread that does begin to dry out makes an ideal base for a baked French toast, bread pudding or strata.
Japanese Milk Bread
Ultra-light, soft and fluffy, slightly sweet enriched bread made with milk and butter. The texture of milk bread more closely approximates that of processed American white sandwich bread than many other “sandwich bread” recipes. Sandwiches made with milk bread benefit from crunchy elements like slaws or cucumbers or crunchy fried batters to create textural contrast.
Yields: 2 Loaves
For the Yeast Mixture
- 1/2 cup or 120 grams granulated sugar
- 4 teaspoons or 14 grams active dry yeast
- 1 cup or 240 ml whole milk, warmed (can sub 2%)
For the Tangzhong Roux
- 1/3 cup or 45g bread flour (can substitute all-purpose flour, see note)
- 1/2 cup or 120 ml whole milk (can sub 2%)
- 1/2 cup or 120 ml water
For the Dough
- 5 cups or 650 bread flour (can substitute all-purpose flour, see note)
- 2 teaspoons or 8 grams table salt
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 8 tablespoons or 120 g unsalted butter, room temperature
- Neutral flavored oil for brushing the dough
- Proof the yeast: In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, stir together 4 teaspoons of active dry yeast, 1 cup of milk and 1/2 cup granulated sugar. Set aside for 10-15 minutes until the yeast foams up.
- Make the tangzhong: While the yeast is blooming, put 1/3 cup flour in a small saucepan. Slowly whisk in 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/2 cup water until combined. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally. Allow to simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside, covering the top with a layer of plastic wrap. (If your mixture is lumpy, you can push it through a sieve before setting it aside.) **The tangzhong can be made a day ahead and stored in the fridge overnight, just be sure to bring it to room temperature before adding it to the rest of the ingredients.**
- Make bread dough: Add 5 cups of flour to a large bowl. Measuring the flour by weight produces the best result. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, spoon the flour into a measuring cup, level the top, and run the flour through a fine mesh sieve and into the bowl. Whisk in the salt. Add the yeast mixture, the tangzhong, and the eggs to the bowl with the flour and salt. Mix together with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until it more-or-less comes together (it should be a loose, wet dough).
- Pre-heat the oven to 170F.
- Knead Dough: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Mix in the room temperature butter and knead to incorporate, 12-15 minutes. This step looks and feels like a big mess. Just keep kneading as you normally would with a less wet, buttery dough, and it will come together towards the end of the 12-15 minutes. A bench scraper is immensely helpful for this process. Don’t be tempted to add too much more flour as you knead, the dough should be wet and somewhat loose.
- First Rise: Turn off the oven. Place the dough into a large, clean, well-oiled bowl and turn to coat with the oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place into the cooling oven. To help the dough rise (especially if you have used all-purpose flour): On the bottom rack of the oven, place a small tray or cake pan and fill with boiling water from the kettle. Close the oven door and allow the dough to rise until doubled. About 60 minutes.
- Divide dough: Remove dough from oven and turn out onto a counter to deflate. Divide into 6 equally sized balls - a kitchen scale is really useful for this. Brush the tops of the dough balls with more oil, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for 15 minutes. Grease two 9-by-5 inch loaf pans, set aside.
- Shape bread: Working one ball of dough at a time, roll each ball out into an oval, fold the top edge of the narrow side of the oval down into its center and the bottom edge up into its center. You will have a rectangular shape. Starting with the narrow end of the rectangle, roll into a log, pinching together the seam. Settle dough roll into the prepared loaf pans (3 dough rolls per pan), seam side down with the rolled edges of the logs facing the long sides of the pan.
- Second Rise: Brush the tops of the dough with more oil, to prevent a crust from forming, cover with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise until it rises up over the edges of the pans. About 40-60 minutes. The exact time this will take depends on the temperature and humidity level of your kitchen, be sure to wait until the dough is higher than the edge of the pans. While the dough rises, remove the top rack from the oven, leaving only the bottom rack and preheat the oven to 350F.
- Bake bread: Brush the tops of the bread with milk and place onto the bottom rack of the oven. Bake until the tops are golden brown and the internal temperature of the loaves reaches 190-200F, about 40 minutes.
Note: Bread flour is best for this bread, but it can be made will all-purpose. If you do use all purpose, do everything you can to ensure that the dough gets a good rise: make sure all ingredients are room temperature, leave to rise in a warm, humid place, and don’t add too much extra flour as you work with the dough - allow it to stay wet and loose.