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A Journey Into Bread Baking World

100% barley sourdough experiment

Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains and it is heavily used in food industry still: brewing, baking, there are even some barley based dishes. But it is rarely used for making bread - wheat and rye replaced it centuries ago.

That got me curious… How does 100% barley bread look like? How does it taste? Is it even possible?

This is a very long post. It touches barley history in bread making, then goes into chemical property description, analysis of available bread making methods and explains everything I went through trying to make my very own loaf of 100% barley sourdough bread. This is not just a recipe post, it’s a write down of my journey to bake something people rarely bake while trying to avoid common mistakes humans were making for centuries.

Some history before baking

I obviously started by searching for any information I could find online. Most of today’s barley use in bread making is just adding a bit of it to wheat breads. Usually barley replaces 10-20% of wheat, so it serves as nothing more than a flavouring.

Bread like products from this grain were made since Ancient Egypt, but we don’t know much about processes used back then and quality of such products was probably extremely low. Barley was a last resort through out the history.

Barley can be found in many places, but from what I’ve managed to gather its primary use was to dilute more expensive wheat or even rye. Different times, different places and cultures, but no true love for barley…

Somehow it became more popular on British isles. The grain started appearing somehow regularly in regional literature around XV century and the last recipe of barley bread I’ve found was published only about a century ago. My guess is that British isles had plenty of barley and used quite a lot of it for beer brewing. So they might have had some leftovers which they started using to make bread. Is it true though? I don’t know, sadly. There are some articles mentioning barley breads in Britain since Iron Age, but I couldn’t find any reliable sources of this information.

Most of barley bread descriptions I’ve found say that it had a hard crumb and unpalatable taste. Some do note sweetness though, nutty notes and even say that it might be tastier than a wholegrain wheat bread. Looking at the recipes I’ve managed to find, I came to a conclusion that most of them are inconclusive, imprecise or even completely wrong. No wonder that bread made by following them looks, feels and tastes like crap…

Barley chemistry

The main reason why some grains are widely used in bread making or not used at all is chemical composition of the grain. Wheat is super popular because of its gluten development properties and mild taste. Wheat breads are light, beautiful and tasty. Even though all related cereals like rye and barley contain gluten complex, only wheat can produce enough of it during kneading and fermentation to create familiar bread crumb. Here’s a quote from Elke K. Arendt, Emanuele Zannini, in Cereal Grains for the Food and Beverage Industries, 2013:

Compared to wheat flour, barley flour is less able to form a gluten complex upon hydration and mixing, owing to the substitution of gliadins with hordeins.

Fibre is another large group of chemicals which interferes with gluten development. The same book has the following to say about effects fibre has on gluten development:

Fibre, especially insoluble fibre, may mechanically interfere with gluten network formation in the dough (Salmenkallio-Marttila et al., 2001; Gill et al., 2002b), causing gas cell rupture (Courtin and Delcour, 2002) resulting in a reduction of bread volume (Anjum et al., 1991). Both soluble and insoluble fibres tightly bind high amounts of water, which may make water less available for the development of the gluten network and may result in less steam production during baking (Gill et al., 2002b).

That leads us to only conclusion - we can’t develop gluten in barley breads and we should focus on polysaccharide development instead. This is similar to rye bread baking where most of the crumb is formed by pentosans which are further strengthened by starches during initial phase of baking. This is described in Procedures for Breadmaking Quality Assessment of Rye Wholemeal Flour by Sylwia Stępniewska:

Pentosans play a main role in developing the dough properties at temperature below 45 ◦C, while starch has an influence on the structure of crumb when temperature exceeds 45 ◦C. Rye starch gelatinizes at temperatures of 55–70 ◦C, which converges with the range of temperature for optimal α-amylase activity.

Another barley similarity to rye is the abundance of enzymes. This is the reason why barley and its malt is used during mashing stage of beer brewing and why diastatic flour is also made from barley. Enzymes present in barley and rye transform complex carbohydrates like starch and pentosans into simpler ones like di- and monosaccharides (maltose, glucose, etc). In short they turn wet flour into a sweet sugary syrup. They are the reason why many rye dough development processes are complex yet super fast.

Applying rye baking methods

Rye baking methods are tailored to developing polysaccharide crumb while inhibiting excessive enzymatic activity. I decided to follow the simplest method for my first attempt to avoid ruining everything midway. Since I’ve never worked with pure barley and information is scarce, I decided to be safe than sorry. Even though I can see how complex processes like scalding can have a positive impact on barley flavour, it was too risky for a first try. So I decided to follow Russian Sour Rye method, but made a few adjustments.

I’ve found one Russian blog with a description of their own barley experiment and they note that they got a delicate and nutty flavour. Their bread variant is a mixed barley and wheat bread on a rye sourdough starter with honey. Not exactly what I was trying to make, but their flavour description got me thinking that pre-fermenting 50% of flour like it is done for Russian Sour will ruin the flavour of the final loaf. Nutty and delicate do not go well with excessive sourness so I cut down pre-fermented flour amount to 30%.

I also didn’t know how good barley is at water absorption. So I started mixing the dough with only a portion of water. I’ve managed to incorporate the same amount water as used in Russian Sour recipe in the end without any issues, so 70% hydration feels like a good spot. At least for my specific barley flour.

There were no other changes to the recipe. It is as simple as a bread recipe can be, so there is a very small room for mistakes or adjustments.

Recipe

So this is what I came up with. I’m baking a 600g loaf as usual. I will go into more details about each stage and I will also describe all of my findings along the way.

Overall formula

Ingredient % Weight
Barley Flour 100% 348.84g
Water 70% 244.19g
Salt 2% 6.98g
Total 600.00g

Sourdough

Ingredient Weight
Starter 20.93g
Barley Flour 94.19g
Water 73.26g
Total 188.37g

Final dough

Ingredient Weight
Barley Flour 244.19g
Sourdough 188.37g
Water 160.47g
Salt 6.98g
Total 600.00g

Time required: 11-12 hour sourdough build, 2 hour bulk fermentation, 45-60 minutes proofing, 40 minutes baking = 16 hours including mixing and shaping.

Grinding my own flour

So my first step was to actually grind some barley flour myself. I couldn’t find any barley flour anywhere close to me. I either had to wait for it to be delivered from Shipton Mill or pay a lot on top to order from Amazon and get it quick. Another issue with barley flour is that no seller specifies what exactly is milled and what are the contents of their product. I don’t like to buy a cat in the bag, so I decided to grind my own.

I decided to use pearl barley as my source of the grain. Pearl barley is more or less standardised across Europe, it is whole grain with husk removed and can be bought in any supermarket. I bought a 500g pack and ground 360g. I used my food processor with a grinder attachment.

Barley grain turned out to be a lot harder than wheat and rye and my food processor struggled a bit. I managed to grind it into a fine meal, but my processor is not capable of turning it into a fine flour. Well, rye meal works like a charm in bread baking, so I decided to proceed.

Sourdough build

I got my rye starter from the fridge at 8:00 and mixed everything together. Wet barley flour smells like grass with a note of wet wheat. A very unusual smell for a dough, but it is quite pleasant and very fresh.

The mixture felt like a mix of white rye dough and rye meal dough - quite grainy yet also pasty. But it was less sticky than rye.

Dough mix

11 hours later I was ready to mix my dough. Sourdough was looking good, had a smell similar to rye sourdough, but with a grassy note to it. It has risen, but noticeably less than rye version would. It also had loads of cracks which made it look like a cracked dry soil. It made me thinking that barley dough will struggle to hold the gas and it will limit the dough expansion quite significantly.

I mixed the dough using my normal method I’m using for all rye breads: pre-heated mixing bowl and water, diluted salt, then sourdough, then started mixing in barley flour by portions. The dough was getting thicker just like the rye one would, but it was a lot easier to mix. It was also less sticky and I managed to finish mixing without wetting my gloves.

Once mixing was done, I rolled the dough into a ball, moistened its surface and let it ferment for 2 hours at +30C. I added some moisture to the surface every 30 minutes because it was drying out super fast even inside covered bowl. I guess heating system in my home dries out air a bit too much.

The ball got bigger in two hours and was full of cracks on its surface. That’s a sign that fermentation is going well. It is also a sign that dough can’t hold gas properly. The ball kept it shape, so I’ve made a decision to proof it without a form.

Shaping and proofing

I did a quick shape the same way I shape my rye breads: fold into a ball, shape into oblong with dull ends, done. Then I put it under inverted bowl and let it proof for 60 minutes at +30C. I was moistening dough surface every 30 minutes as I did during fermentation stage before. I’ve also prepared barley flour wash by combining 5g of barley flour I had left with 15g of cold water.

Baking

My oven was pre-heated to +280C. I’ve used all of my flour wash to cover the surface of my loaf and fill all the holes and cracks. I forgot to prick my loaf before baking and that has lead to crust cracking in a few places.

I put my future bread into the oven, sprayed some water inside and baked at maximum temperature for 8 minutes. I dropped the temperature to +210C and vented the oven carefully to get rid of excessive heat. I baked the loaf for 30 more minutes until it reached internal temperature of +93C and sounded hollow when thumped from the bottom.

The last step before taking bread out. I took it out for a minute to spray its surface with plenty of water and put it back into the hot oven for 2 more minutes. I took it out after that and let it rest on a wire rack for 10 hours before cutting.

The final result

The crumb is dense, but very soft. If it was rye, such dense crumb would be totally inedible. It also falls apart easily like a dry bread, but it is very moist. Crust is soft and super yellow in colour. Loaf has fresh grassy smell with notes which are similar to rye breads. The taste is indeed delicate with hints of nuts and honey sweetness. It also reminded me of some kind of porridge. I’m glad I’ve reduced the amount of pre-fermented flour - excessive sourness would definitely destroy the flavour. But with my ratios sourness complements the nature of barley flavour just enough.

Three days later barley bread left overs are still moist and soft, but the flavour has become more sour and less delicate. I believe its shelf life should be very long, just like rye breads.

That was a very interesting experiment, I learned a lot and I’m very pleased with the result. I’ve never tried barley breads before and I like the flavour so far. But it definitely needs improvements.

The very nature of this barley bread calls for additional sweetness. Next step would be to try and make the same loaf but also scald part of the flour to enrich the dough with di- and mono-saccharides. That should make this bread a bit sweeter, but without turning it into a sweet pastry. It should also improve crumb density a little bit as simpler carbohydrates will make the dough stickier and it should be able to hold a little bit more gas.

I would also replace 10% of barley with very strong wheat flour. That should also improve gas holding properties of the dough and should produce a noticeably better crumb without affecting barley flavour much. Wheat flour wash should also improve the rise as it can help trapping the gases beneath the crust while also making crust crispier.

Some spices might augment barley flavour. I’m thinking about turmeric powder, coriander seeds, cardamom and cloves. A touch of honey might add some missing sweetness for those who are not ready for complex scalding process.

All in all barley proved that it is a great grain for baking breads when using proper dough development methods. Barley bread has vibrant colour and very interesting taste. My recipe is far from perfect, but I hope I will be able to improve it.