Here we are following the time-tested method of creating pre-doughs that is discussed at length in Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads. The recipe is rather adaptable. A little extra fat creates a soft, airy crumb and slows staling; honey sweetens; buttermilk adds acidity and a pleasant tang; and orange juice tempers the faint bitterness in whole wheat without adding orange flavor. None of these things, however, is necessary for good bread. To keep things super-simple and super-cheap, omit everything except the flour, yeast, salt and water, and substitute water for the other liquids.
If you’re not accustomed to eating 100 percent whole-grain foods, you may want to substitute unbleached bread flour for a portion of the whole-wheat flour. Keep in mind that whole-wheat flour absorbs more liquid than white flour, so reduce the liquid somewhat if using white flour. You can always add more water later.
Homemade Whole-Grain Bread Recipe
Makes a 1-pound loaf.
1 3/4 cups (8 ounces) whole-wheat flour
1/4 tsp (.03 ounces) instant yeast
3/4 cup (6 ounces) cool water
8 ounces whole-wheat flour, OR 1/4 cup (2 ounces) whole-wheat flour PLUS 6 ounces combined total cooked and uncooked grains (see our Cooking Grains chart)
1/2 tsp (0.14 ounces) kosher or sea salt
1/2 to 2/3 cup (4 to 5 ounces) buttermilk or yogurt (wet grains require less liquid than dry grains)
2 tbsp (1 ounce) orange juice
All of Sponge recipe
All of Soaker recipe
1 tsp (1/8 ounce) salt
2 1/4 tsp (1/4 ounce; 1 standard packet) instant yeast
1 tbsp (1/2 ounce) unsalted butter, softened
2 tbsp (1 ounce) honey
Extra flour and water for adjustments
The Day Before Baking
Make the Sponge: Mix ingredients together to form a ball of dough. With wet hands or a mixer with the dough hook attachment, knead the dough for about 2 minutes, then let it rest for 10 minutes. Knead again for about a minute. Cover and refrigerate immediately for at least 6 hours. (This can also be done up to a few days before use.)
Make the Soaker: Mix ingredients together to form a loose, wet ball. Cover and leave at room temperature for 6 to 24 hours. (You may also make this a few days before baking, in which case it should be refrigerated.)
The Day of Baking
Make the Loaf: About an hour before you begin mixing your bread, remove the soaker (if it has been refrigerated) and the sponge from the refrigerator to allow them to come to room temperature.
Cut or tear the sponge into about a dozen pieces, and roll each in the soaker before adding it to the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted first with a paddle, then with a dough hook after the dough comes together. Add the remaining ingredients except the butter and honey. Mix on first speed for 2 minutes, then increase to second speed and mix for another 2 minutes. Add the honey and butter, and mix for another 2 minutes. Let the dough rest in the mixing bowl for 10 minutes.
On a floured work surface, knead the dough by hand for a few minutes, adding extra flour and water as necessary to create a soft, slightly sticky dough that is strong enough to resist pulling yet is still malleable. The dough initially feels slack and wet but becomes stronger through resting, kneading and shaping.
Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to a buttered or oiled bowl, turning the dough to coat it. Cover loosely and let it rise for about 45 minutes. It should be about 1 1/2 times (not double) its original size. If at any point you must interrupt the rising process, simply refrigerate the dough and add about 20 minutes to its remaining rising time when you remove it.
Transfer the dough to a floured work surface, form it into a loaf and place it into a greased 9-by-5-inch or 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan. Cover and allow it to rise for about 45 minutes. Again, it should be about 1 1/2 times (not double) its original size going into the pan. Allowing dough to over-rise weakens its structure, resulting in smaller and misshapen loaves. The dough should be allowed to rise to its fullest extent after it goes into the oven.
While the loaf rises, preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. For the best results and the most consistent heat, preheat the oven with a baking stone or unglazed tiles (found at hardware stores) on the bottom rack and a cast-iron pan on the top rack.
Lightly mist or brush the top of the loaf with water. With a swift, confident motion and a sharp, serrated knife or bread-slashing tool, quickly slash the top of the bread down the middle or make a few diagonal cuts, aiming for a quarter-inch-deep cut. Slashing the loaf gives a place for the dough’s gases to escape. If you don’t do this, the dough will decide where to puff up all on its own.
Working quickly, place the loaf pan on the stone in the center of the oven. Immediately add about one-half cup of hot water to the heated cast-iron pan, covering your hand and arm with a kitchen towel to prevent a steam burn.
Lower the temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 20 minutes. (You can spritz the oven walls with a mister early during baking, but be fast and limit your spritzing to only once or twice.) Rotate the pan and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes. For a crisper crust, prop the oven door open slightly with a spoon for the final 5 minutes of baking.
The bread is done when the top — including the portion under your slash — is golden brown, the bottom sounds hollow when thumped, and a thermometer inserted into the loaf reads 195 degrees or above.
Remove the loaf from its pan immediately and transfer to a cooling rack. Allow the homemade whole-grain bread to cool at least an hour before slicing.
Read more: Learn more tips and tricks for making delicious and nutritious whole-grain bread in Homemade Whole-Grain Bread: You Have to Try This Amazing Recipe.