Some discoveries are the result of years of research and toil, trial and frustration, testing and fine-tuning. Other discoveries are utterly serendipitous, lucky happenstance. My latest discovery in bread baking was of the latter sort.
It began with an edict from my doctor that we would have to address my elevated cholesterol level with something more effective than wishful thinking. Since my weight and diet were already within the guidelines for achieving healthy lipid levels, the doctor’s proposed solution was, predictably, medication. Not wanting to resort to drugs as a first option, I began to explore other methods to lower those pesky numbers on my lab report.
Adding more soluble fiber to my diet seemed like a good starting point since that strategy has been highly touted by mainstream medical groups. Soluble fiber also has a reputation for being good for the digestive system, which would be an additional benefit. Past experience had taught me that my body did not get along well with flax in any form – seed, ground, or oil. Consequently, I opted for psyllium husk, which also has received official approval as an aid for lowering total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL)¹, ². Sun Harvest had a canister of their store brand Whole Psyllium Husk that declared right on the label, “CONTAINS NO…gluten….” I purchased it and took it home, full of hope that this would help solve my problem.
The psyllium never had a chance to attack my superfluous lipids. The trouble was that I could not find a palatable way to use it. The whole husk variety I had purchased did not mix in liquids; it floated to the top. When I added it to cooked cereal, it made the cereal slimy. It looked like sawdust when I sprinkled it on top of salads, and it gave yogurt a texture that only a sixth-grader would describe in polite company. It was not long before I shelved the can of psyllium behind my baking supplies and forgot about it.
Months later when I was cleaning out my cabinets, I found the hapless canister of psyllium. Because my family throws away nothing that is remotely useable, I felt obligated to find a use for the can’s contents. I was baking bread that day and decided that it could not possibly hurt the dough too terribly if I added some psyllium to it. I substituted a small quantity in place of some of the flour and proceeded to bake the bread as usual, hoping that the loaf would not fall flat or be soggy due to the addition of the untested ingredient.
To my delight, the bread turned out better than usual. It rose slightly higher, was somewhat moister, and had good texture. Was it by chance, or could the psyllium fiber have had such an auspicious effect? Had anyone else tried psyllium in bread dough with good results? A search on the Internet revealed that scientists in Kuwait had experimented with using psyllium in wheat bread to increase its dietary fiber content and had found that the addition of the fiber had increased loaf volume and moisture content³ – the same results I had noted in my gluten-free bread. The Kuwaiti scientists had used up to 5% psyllium in their flour blend. I calculated the percentage I had used; remarkably, it had been slightly over 5%. It was an amazing coincidence.
The next time I baked bread, I made it exactly as I had before to see if the results were the same. They were. On the following bread-baking day, I used a slightly different flour blend but used the same percentage of psyllium husk. Again, the results were favorable. Hamburger buns made with psyllium-enriched dough allowed me to eat an entire hamburger without the bun falling apart. I was ecstatic! With success providing incentive, I began to use psyllium fiber with other flour combinations and in other kinds of baked goods to test the results. Though the addition of the ingredient made little difference in pancakes and cookies, in other baked goods the moisture content and texture were improved by using psyllium, and frequently the product rose better.
Since my first discovery of this marvelous dough enhancer in June 2008, other people have experimented with psyllium fiber as an ingredient in bread. Foodnavigator.com announced in May 2009 that researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Milan had published results of their experiments with psyllium fiber in gluten-free bread dough. A quote from the researchers’ publication stated, “Psyllium fiber generally enhanced the physical properties of the doughs, due to the film-like structure that it was able to form, and the most complex among the experimental formulations looked promising in terms of final bread technological and nutritional quality even when compared to two different commercial GF mixtures.”4
When I share the news of my exciting discovery with celiac friends, their first response is typically, “Isn’t psyllium the main ingredient in [pick one: Metamucil, Konsyl, Fiberall]?” Readily apparent in their faces is shock and aversion to the notion of spiking bread dough with an ingredient found in laxatives. Although I am forced to admit that psyllium fiber is the active component in the product they cite, I reassure them that the amount used in bread is less than they would take as a dose of the product in question. The amount of psyllium in a recipe for a 1 1/2-pound loaf of bread is approximately 36 grams. InteliHealth.com records that when using psyllium fiber for medical purposes, “For lowering cholesterol levels, the most studied doses have been 10 to 20 grams per day… Studied doses for treating constipation or diarrhea fall between 7 and 30 grams per day.”5 Calculations based on those figures shows that those concerned about the laxative effect of psyllium would have to eat between one-fifth and four-fifths of a loaf of bread each day to detect an effect, and I would have to eat between one-fourth and one-half of a loaf per day to lower my cholesterol.
Regrettably, I have yet to impress my doctor with lower numbers on the lipids scorecard, but due to my desire to reduce those numbers accompanied by a hereditary reluctance to throw anything away, I found a remarkable ingredient to improve the texture and rising properties of gluten-free bread – a discovery that was nothing less than serendipity.
Kuwaiti researchers used up to 5% psyllium. To use the same amount, use 3 teaspoons psyllium husk per 1 1/4 cups of flour. That is approximately 2 1/2 teaspoons psyllium fiber per cup of flour.
Rather than add psyllium to the full amount of flour, I lessen the amount of flour by the amount of psyllium I wish to add so that the total amount of dry ingredients is unchanged.
Note: If using a food processor, use the cutting blade rather than the dough blade. If using an electric mixer, use the beaters rather than the dough hook.
Measure dry ingredients into bowl of food processor or large mixing bowl. If using a food processor, pulse several times to blend dry ingredients; otherwise, stir dry ingredients by hand until blended.
With food processor or electric mixer running on low speed, slowly add eggs, oil, and 1 3/4 cups of warm milk. Mix until all ingredients have been thoroughly combined. The dough should be slightly softer and stickier than cookie dough but thicker than cake batter. Add more milk if necessary, but do not add too much, or the baked product will have a doughy center.∗
Grease and rice flour a loaf pan. Fill the loaf pan to within 1/2-inch of the top of the pan with dough. Any leftover dough can be pressed into tart pans or jelly doughnut pans to be baked as rolls. Wet hand or back of large spoon with water and use it to press dough into the pan and smooth the top.
Place pan under a cake cover or other large, domed lid, or put the pan in a large plastic bag that can be inflated and sealed. Allow dough to rise for one hour.
Preheat oven to 400°. Bake loaf 50-55 minutes, covering bread with foil during the last 20 minutes to prevent excessive browning. Bake rolls 12-15 minutes.
Variation: Teff-fiber bread
Reduce brown rice flour to 2 cups and add 1/2 cup teff flour.
∗ Potato flour is hydrophilic (absorbs moisture readily), and the dough will get firmer the longer it stands. Resist the temptation to keep adding liquid to keep this dough as soft as other gluten-free bread doughs, or the baked bread is likely to fall and have the consistency of bread pudding!
¹J. W. Anderson, L. D. Allgood, A. Lawrence, et al., “Cholesterol-lowering effects of psyllium intake adjunctive to diet therapy in men and women with hypercholesterolemia: meta-analysis of 8 controlled trials,” Am J Clin Nutr, vol. 71, pp. 472-479, February 1, 2000.
²“Psyllium (Plantago ovata, Plantago isphagula)” Medline Plus 01 February 2008. 18 August 2009 Psyllium
³“Psyllium optimizes baking quality of bread” The Free Library 01 December 2004. 18 August 2009 article
4 S. Daniells, “Protein-fibre combo offers ‘promising’ gluten-free options” Foodnavigator.com 18 May 2009. 18 August 2009 article
5 “Psyllium (Plantago ovata)”” Aetna InteliHealth 22 June 2005. 18 August 2009 article