Experimenting with spelt is a rather new to me. I’ve always associated it as a heart healthy food, full of fiber and nutrients, but not a flour that I would eagerly incorporate into bread. But, as I was reading Ed Wood’s World Sourdoughs From Antiquity, (an intriguing book with a wealth of information on ancient baking techniques and ingredients) I came across this categorical statement in favor of the grain: “Spelt is, however, a remarkable grain that produces terrific sourdough breads. The flour produces a soft, satiny dough with minimal kneading.” The next logical step after reading that was to go out to the store and purchase myself some spelt flour to test out Wood’s assertion. I also did my homework and read up on the grain. Here is what I found out…
Spelt, or Triticum spelta, is a species of wheat. Its earliest documented use is from around 5000 B.C. in Transcaucasia, north of the Black Sea. However, it has been found more abundantly in Central European Neolithic (2500-1700 BC) and Bronze Age archaeological sites. Later, in the Iron Age (750-15 BC) the grain became dominant in southern Germany and Switzerland and ultimately spread to southern Britain by 500 BC. During the Middle Ages spelt was popular in Switzerland, Tyrol, and Germany. Later, spelt was first planted in the United States in the 1890s by Amish farmers in Ohio, who grew it primarily as livestock feed. It lost popularity in the 20th century and was rapidly replaced by bread wheat. In the last few decades, however, the organic farming movement has embraced spelt because it requires fewer fertilizers than bread wheat for a successful harvest. Health food companies have also taken an interest in it. In the 1980s Wilhelm Kosnopfl, at the time the president of Purity Foods, funded a research initiative on spelt at Ohio University and then created a plant in Okemos, Michigan with the sole purpose of providing spelt to health food stores.
Spelt flour is used almost solely in sourdoughs in Europe. Unripe spelt grains, though, are dried and eaten as Grünkern, or literally “green grain,” in Germany. Other popular spelt products include crackers, cookies, and pasta. Producers of Dutch jenever distill gin prepared with spelt. Likewise, spelt-brewed beer is found in Bavaria. Spelt is slowly becoming more common and popular in the United States. I hope it continues on this trend because I plan to make it a staple in my sourdough baking.
Spelt has a rich, nutty flavor that compliments sourdough wonderfully. Some assert that spelt has a low mixing tolerance and thus kneading times should be kept short. I did not experience this with the following recipe, but if your gluten in your dough seems overworked, perhaps you should experiment with your kneading times. I crafted the following recipe using experience and my understanding of sourdough baking. I am far away from most of my bread books this summer so I often have to rely on creativity when playing with new ingredients. I am eager to return to my bread baking books to see what they have to say about spelt. Delighted with how this bread turned out, however, I will see to it that it becomes a loaf often seen in my kitchen.
Yield: ~1600 g
300 g 100% hydration, ripe sourdough starter
500 g all-purpose flour
300 g spelt flour
455 g water
13 g salt
Dissolve the starter in the water, mixing them together to form a frothy liquid. Add to this the flours. Knead until thoroughly combined. Let rest or autolyse for 20-30 minutes.
Add the salt and continue kneading until the dough reaches a medium level of gluten consistency or passes the window pane test.
Allow the dough to ferment in an oiled container for 3 hours, folding at 1 and 2 hours.
Divide the dough and shape into tight balls. Let rest for 15 minutes, allowing the gluten to relax. Shape the dough into boules. Proof seam-side up in a floured proofing basket for 1.5 to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 500°F with a steam pan. Over turn the loaves onto a peel, score them, and then place in the oven with steam. Turn down the oven to 450°F and bake for 20 minutes with steam. Remove the steam pan and bake for another 30 minutes without steam. Turn off the oven and crack the door. Leave the loaves in for 10 minutes longer. Remove the loaves from the oven and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before breaking into.