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HOW WE MAKE OUR BREAD

Red Hen Bread considers itself to be one of the very few, truly artisan bakeries. Our breads are hand crafted, rather than commercially produced on assembly lines. Our breads have 5 basic ingredients – rather than twenty, like the mass produced products. We use no chemical additives, extenders or dough conditioners to keep it on the shelves longer. 

In fact, the flours we use are un-bleached and un-bromated to further reduce the un-natural chemicals associated with most breads. Did you know that bleached flours are subject to a chlorine gas bath in order to whiten them? But that, in turn, reduces the gluten content which is important to the elasticity of the dough. So to fix that, they add potassium-bromide to improve the dough’s elasticity so that it can handle the rigors of commercial baking operations. Yuk! (Potassium bromide is a potential carcinogen, associated with thyroid dysfunction and is outlawed in the UK). Crazy!

So have you, the consumer, truly seen resurgence with Artisan bakers – or have the commercial, mass producers simply “borrowed” the term? Let your taste buds do the talking! Try any bread, and then try Red Hen’s. We have no doubt we will add you to our customer list. 

HISTORY AND OUR PROCESS

In order to understand really great bread it helps to know a little bit of history. Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods known to man, dating back to the Neolithic era (9500 BC), when farming communities began to develop. The belief is that grains, a form of grass, were plentiful and were well suited for their particular regions. It is thought that these grains were simply chewed until it was learned that these grains could be ground and mixed with water to form a paste. This paste was formed into a flat and set over a fire, where it hardened and kept for several days.

That was the beginning, and leavened breads soon followed. The paste was most likely set aside and the natural bacteria in the air began to ferment on it causing it to rise. People also found that they could save a piece of dough from a batch and use it in the next day’s dough. Around 1000 BC the Egyptians isolated yeast and were able to introduce the culture directly into their doughs. They also developed a new strain of wheat that allowed for the production of a refined white bread – these two discoveries combined created the first truly modern breads.

From the Egyptians the technology spread to the Greeks and from there to the rest of Europe. The Romans took bread making to a new level, and in 168 BC the Romans legislated and formed the first bakers’ guild. It was called the “Collegium Pistorum” (pistorum translates into the phrase “to grind”). The government soon took control of the guild and bread became a regulated public commodity. 

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.    

At Red Hen, we use the same basic ingredients and process used for thousands of years to make our products. Water, Flour, Salt, Starter/Yeast, and the different herbs and spices to create our many different flavors of bread.

WATER

The most interesting ingredient. Water – how can that be the most interesting ingredient? Well, because of its slight variations in impurities from region to region and the effect those subtle variations have on bread-making. 

Pure water is a clear, tasteless, odorless liquid, when seen in bulk it is a pale greenish-blue color. It’s a poor conductor of heat and electricity and is almost incompressible. One of waters more important properties is its great solvent power. A huge number of substances will dissolve in water, or, in other words will become solvent.

The interesting part of this ingredient is that there is no pure water in nature unless existing water is modified. All water invariably contains other substances in its solution. Those substances will vary depending on where you are at. If you live in a rural setting the water will most likely have a higher amount of organic impurities from the vegetation, cattle, and concentration of farmlands. Other areas will have concentrations of rock formations. As these erode they will add higher quantities of minerals and salts. Excess of either of these conditions will impact your bread production. Salts and minerals prevent or slow down the fermentation action of starters and yeast, where the alkaline or softer waters affect the proteins and glutens to be more readily modified and degraded. 

It is said we have a high quality of water in Chicago as we have the luxury of living next to one of the Great Lakes. I know the debate will go on forever, but I am one that believes our water is very beneficial to our product.

FLOUR

There are six different classes of wheat; Hard Red Winter, Hard Red Spring, Soft Red Winter, Hard White, Soft White and Durum. These are important as each class has its own set of characteristics that determine the end product. The harder the wheat, the higher the protein content in that flour. These hard wheat’s are best used for breads and are what we use at Red Hen. Soft, low protein wheat’s are used in cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers, and Oriental noodles. Durum is good for pasta and egg noodles.

One of the questions we frequently get is whether a particular bread “is whole grain”? 

To answer that, it is important to know that a “kernel” or “berry “of wheat consists of three distinct parts; Bran, which is the outer covering, and represents approx 14% of the grain. Germ, the embryo contained inside the kernel, it represents approx 3% of the grain. And the Endosperm, the remainder of the kernel representing approx 83% of the grain, and from which white flour is made. During milling, the three parts are separated, milled and recombined to achieve different types of flours. We use variations of all, including whole wheat flours. It’s all good so why not use it!

Wheat flour is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates. Other than gluten flour, wheat flours derive 80% of their calories from carbohydrates. Calories from fat are never more than 5%. In addition, wheat flour provides from 3g to 15g of dietary fiber per 1-cup serving. Wheat flours also contain B-vitamins, calcium, folacin, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and other trace elements.

SALT

An extremely important ingredient, especially if you have ever tasted bread without it. Salt is important for several reasons; first, it gives something that would be tasteless – actual flavor. Second, salt is an important factor during fermentation. Thirdly, salt in its proper proportions helps in the retention of moisture, and that in turn effects the development of the crust and color.

It is important to remember that it’s the proper quantity of all the ingredients, their relation to rising times, and to the ultimate flavor and texture of the bread that you are trying to achieve will determine the necessary quantities of salt. So, you can see that salt is more than just a flavor booster, although I find it almost impossible to enjoy breads with no salt.

STARTERS / SPONGES / LEVAIN / YEAST

A starter is a mixture of flour, water, and other ingredients that's been colonized by wild airborne yeast and friendly bacteria.  These one-celled immigrants lend the starter--and the breads made with it--a special character.  Sourdough starter, for example, contains a strain of yeast that's tolerant of the lactic and acetic acids produced by the lactobacilli. Those acids give sourdough bread its characteristic tang.  The French use a soupy starter called a poolish to make their breads, while the Italians use a thicker one called a biga. Up until the late 19th century, all yeast breads were leavened with starters, and keeping a starter alive in its crock was a routine household chore. Properly maintained, a starter can last for decades, developing an ever more distinctive character as it ages. Our starter has been with us since we began baking bread, and continues to develop and grow with us.

Yeast, on the other hand is a one-celled fungus that converts sugar and starch into carbon dioxide bubbles and alcohol.   This has made it a useful ally in the production of bread, beer, and wine.   There are many varieties of yeast.  Bread is made with baker's yeast, which creates lots of bubbles that become trapped in the dough, making the bread rise so it's light and airy when baked.

SPICES / HERBS

We use a host of herbs and spices in our products. The reason is simple; we want to give some of our breads and pastries an added kick. Spices and Herbs are a great way to add that additional flavor and aromas to any product, while adding to its visual appeal. It’s important to know that Herbs are different than a Spice. The essential difference between an herb and a spice is where it is obtained from on a plant. 

Herbs usually come from the leafy part of a plant, can be fresh or dried, and are usually green. Herbs can be found in many places around the world, are generally from a temperate plant, and many can be grown in your own gardens.

Spices however, are obtained from flowers, seeds, fruits, bark and roots typically from tropical plants. They would be difficult to grow in our climate. Spices range in color from brown to black to red. Spices tend to have a more pungent flavor than the herbs.

It is possible for one plant to provide an herb and a spice. The plant, Coriandrum sativum, is an example that provides both a herb and a spice. The leaves are used as the herb, cilantro, while the seed is used as the spice, coriander.

At Red Hen, we use both herbs and spices. Some of the herbs we commonly use are, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme and Dill Weed. Spices we use, Pepper, Cinnamon, Cumin, Nutmeg, Cardamom, Salt, Ginger, Anise, and Cloves.

We also use a variety of fruits and vegetables to add special flavors, color, and texture to our breads and pastries.

OUR PROCESS

Our process at Red Hen is truly old school. Except for the assistance of a few mixers and gas, rather than wood fed ovens, we perform all our operations by hand. We select and weigh all of the ingredients by hand before mixing. Our doughs are allowed anywhere from 8 to 12 hours to grow and develop the complex flavors that only time and slow fermentation will give you. A flavor impossible to obtain with the forced process like most commercial bakeries.

After the dough has aged, in a temperature and humidity controlled room we weigh and cut each piece by hand. We than put it back on boards to rest and continue to develop its taste and flavors. Once it has had time to recuperate, we shape the dough into the many different products we produce like our baguettes, boules, batons, bollos, and rolls. We also do a variety of pan loaves, pullman, focaccia, braided loaves, and a full line of pastries. After forming, we again let the dough rest and grow as all that handling can de-gas it and cause it to lose some of the flavor and volume we are working so hard to achieve. 

At this point our knowledgeable bakers make the final call. They decide based on time, temperature, and humidity, and most important of all, the feel and texture of the dough, which products are at the perfect development and are ready to be baked. They go into our deck oven and are given a shot of steam to help produce the wonderful crust that we are looking for.
Simple!

So next time you are thinking about “which bread to serve” – think about our materials, our process, and our commitment to our craft. To us, it seems only natural to start a great meal, that you have spent a great deal of time and energy on, with some of the best bread you can find.

The response to artisan breads has been so great that the larger machine driven commercial bakeries now claim that their products are “artisan”. Don’t be fooled. They may look similar, but if it is flavor and craftsmanship you want – Red Hen is the bread for you. Our breads go together with your meals like a “wink and a smile.” Enjoy!