I have woefully neglected my bread-making over the last couple of years. Even though I’ve always to be that person that baked fresh bread every single week, it just didn’t happen. We’ve been keeping a steady stream of grocery store bakery bread in the house, and a couple of weeks ago I decided to revisit my attempt to keep our kitchen stocked with homemade bread. Around the same time, one of my best friends texted me and asked if I had a good whole wheat bread recipe that she could use for making her daughter’s sandwiches for school lunches. She had made the honey-oatmeal bread, but we both agreed that it was better suited for toast – a little bit too heavy for everyday sandwiches. I told her I hadn’t come across anything that I loved, each whole wheat bread recipe that I tried was on the heavy and dense side, not the light and fluffy variety you want for your run-of-the-mill turkey sandwiches.
On Friday, I asked for suggestions and I got tons of responses – thank you! I went ahead and tried the Cook’s Illustrated version, since it was specifically formulated to be a soft and light sandwich bread. Not surprisingly, it was everything I was looking for in a loaf of whole-wheat bread suitable for everyday sandwiches.
The one caveat with this recipe is that it is more time-consuming than its white bread cousin, American sandwich bread. You’ll definitely need to plan ahead to make this, but if you have been on the hunt for a great whole wheat sandwich bread, then you’ll love that you found this. Plus, the recipe yields two large 9×5 loaves – you can use one right away and pop the other one in the freezer. Depending on how many sandwiches you go through each week, you could have enough bread for at least two weeks worth of lunches.
The day before you plan to make the bread, there are two components that you’ll need to prepare. The good news is that they each only take about 5 minutes to mix together!
The biga (pictured below, immediately after mixing and then the next day) acts as a bit of a starter, which helps to develop the flavor of the bread. The soaker, meanwhile, is a combination of whole-wheat flour, wheat germ and milk, and softens the bran, which creates a less-dense loaf of bread. It also helps to cut the bitterness in the flour, giving the bread a sweeter flavor.
On the day that you bake the bread, there are three different raising times, though very, very little actual hands-on time. After the dough is partially risen the first time, it is folded onto itself multiple times just like the ciabatta bread I made recently. After that, it is left to finish its initial rise, then the loaves are shaped and left to rise again before baking.
To say that I am thrilled with this bread is an understatement. While a thick and hearty bread is great for toast or some “special” sandwiches, I’d rather get filled up by what is between the slices of bread than the bread itself, if that makes sense. This bread is absolutely perfect for your everyday sandwiches, whether you’re eating at home, taking something to work, or packing a lunchbox. It’s light, fluffy, and tastes just wheaty enough with a hint of sweetness.
1. Prepare the Biga: Combine the bread flour, water and yeast in a large bowl and stir with a wooden spoon until a uniform mass forms and no dry flour remains, about 1 minute. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature overnight (at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours).
2. Prepare the Soaker: Combine the whole-wheat flour, wheat germ and milk in a large bowl and stir with wooden spoon until a shaggy mass forms, about 1 minute. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Return soaker to the bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight (at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours).
3. Prepare the Dough: Tear the soaker into 1-inch pieces and place in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook.
Add the biga, honey, salt, yeast, butter and oil. Mix on low speed until a cohesive mass starts to form, about 2 minutes. Increase speed to medium and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn out dough onto lightly floured counter and knead for 1 minute. The dough will be very soft and slack. Transfer the dough to a large clean, lightly greased bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature for 45 minutes.
4. Lightly flour your fingertips. Gently press down on center of dough to deflate.
Holding the edge of the dough with your fingertips, fold the dough over itself by gently lifting and folding edge of dough toward the middle. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and fold again. Turn the bowl and fold the dough 6 more times (for a total of 8 folds).
Cover and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes.
5. Adjust the oven racks to middle and lowest positions, place a baking stone on the middle rack, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Spray two 9x5-inch loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray. Transfer the dough to a well-floured work surface and divide into 2 equal pieces. Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, pat each into an 8x17-inch rectangle. With the short side facing you, roll the dough toward you into firm cylinder, keeping the roll taut by tucking it under itself as you go. Turn the loaf seam side up and pinch it closed. Place the loaf seam side down in the prepared loaf pan, pressing it gently into the corners.
Repeat with the second piece of dough. Cover the loaves loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature until almost doubled in size, 60 to 90 minutes (the top of the loaves should rise about 1 inch above the edge of the pan).
6. Place an empty baking pan (not glass!) on the bottom oven rack and bring 2 cups of water to boil on the stove. Using a sharp serrated knife or single-edge razor blade, make one ¼-inch-deep slash lengthwise down the center of each loaf.
Pour the boiling water into the empty loaf pan on the bottom rack and place the loaves on the baking stone.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees (177 degrees C). Bake until the crust is dark brown and the internal temperature registers 200 degrees F (93 degrees C) on an instant-read thermometer, 40 to 50 minutes, rotating the loaves 180 degrees and side to side halfway through baking.
7. Transfer the pans to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Remove the loaves from the pans, return to the wire rack, and cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. The bread should be double-wrapped in plastic wrapped and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days. The loaf can be wrapped with an additional layer of aluminum foil and frozen for up to 1 month.