Barley Flour, Pita, and “Oven Spring”

While the common barley flour used by the ancient Israelite lacks some of the qualities by which wheat flour makes such good loaves, even limited practice yields strategies of preparation that help barley flour produce the most leavened and appetizing possible bread.

As some of you know, the subject of bread production in Israel and the ancient Near East has seized my attention. While getting acquainted with the subject, one of my early projects is spending time learning to handle barley flour. While wheat flour would have been preferred where available (as today), barley flour was more affordable to the common family and, at certain times of the agricultural cycle, even the sole available grain. My Arrowhead Mills barley flour arrived a couple of days ago, courtesy of Amazon.

Dough preparation and cooking method:

The cooking method that I am starting with seeks to imitate use of the cylindrical clay oven, or tannûr, against the side of which one slaps a flat “patty”: the flat patty cooks very rapidly against the heated surface, until the cook judges it done and removes it. I am using an oven and pizza stone, heated to about 550-570 degrees Fahrenheit (285-300 C). Patties take about 2-5 minutes to cook, depending on size and leavening.

For leavening, I am using a sourdough starter that I created from white flour in February 2008 and have fed since. I use just a small smear of starter so that only a negligible few grams of white flour contribute to the barley loaf.

I use 1/2 C barley flour with 1 T olive oil and 1/2 t salt to produce four pita-like loaves.

Working with barley flour:

(Here I deal with leavened loaves. Unleavened barley bread is as easy and as uninteresting as unleavened wheat: a flat, crisp loaf. Nice for dipping into stuff, though.)

Modern recipes reflect the difficulties of working with pure barley flour: they all use a relatively small portion of barley flour, mainly for flavor, while relying on wheat flour for its material properties: more gluten, with its elasticity and potential for a good “rise.”

Barley flour has relatively little gluten. Therefore, even when you knead it a lot (layering the strings of gluten and creating overlapping web-like matrices of strings), it does not assume the strength of kneaded wheat dough. Since the dough does not “hold together” well, the gasses created by the yeast tend to just “ooze out” of the dough altogether: fewer bubbles, less “rise.”

Early discoveries:

So far, I find two inter-related strategies that help solve the problems in working with unmixed barley flour:

  1. The first is the concept of “oven spring.” When dough first heats up in the oven, the yeast responds by “going into overdrive,” metabolizing very quickly and producing bubbles rapidly before getting too hot and dying off. This is why a baker slashes the skin of a (large, non-pita) loaf before baking: it allows the expansion to happen and prevents unsightly rupturing of the skin. My point here is that “oven spring” allows for a peculiarity of pita preparation: we allow the dough to rise, then smoosh down most of that rise when we flatten balls into patties. This proves to be okay, because “oven spring” will buy us a final, rapid rise, helping to produce a tender loaf. The intense heat of a clay tannûr (or pizza stone) yields an awesome “oven spring.”
  2. The second, related, strategy is to be gentle in making flat patties of the pita-like bread made for slapping against the cooking surface. A rolling pin smooshes the dough down too much, losing almost all of the bubbles produced during the rising period. Also, the rolling pin crushes and tears at the already-crumbly barley dough, opening fissures through which the essential gasses of the “oven spring” will escape. But, by working the risen balls of dough with my hands, I can be gentle, preserving as much as possible of the lengthy “rise,” and also keeping the surface smooth and without fissures in order to contain the precious gasses of the “oven spring” during cooking.

The current result is a pretty tasty, tender, hand-sized pita with a flaky crumb and enough larger bubbles to make it interesting. Unlike a wheat-flour pita, it does not have the whole-patty rise that produces the characteristic “pocket” associated with the pita.

Future experiments will begin to achieve a more organized character, with attempts at different amounts of hydration and, eventually, working with molds.

[Barley Flour, Pita, and “Oven Spring” was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/03/19. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Needles in Haystacks

A friend likes to joke about the beginnings of her research on the biblical Book of Job. She was delighted to find that her initial searches produced great big lists of results: phrases like “good Job”; “Job approval”; even, “How to be happy in your Job.”

My latest research project, on which some of you have already been wonderfully helpful, is bread production in ancient Israel and among its ancient Near Eastern neighbors. Right now, I have the ATLAS database open in front of me (the serials database of the American Theological Libraries Association).

Did you know that, in the Christian religious scholarly literature that dominates such a database, there’s this whole big interest in “bread” that has nothing to do with bread molds, clay ovens, fermentation, or varieties of grains?

[Needles in Haystacks was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/03/17. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]