We like to say we have San Francisco’s smallest brewery: a corner of a room off our kitchen, parallel to our pantry, wedged between the cleaning supplies and the door to the trash chute. It may be tiny, but it’s totally functional, and every couple of months, we get another batch of beer going in there.
This past weekend, Pete started a rye IPA, and in the process, he happened to mention that he’d read about people baking bread using their spent beer grains. I already had beer bread on the brain, and so the Great Spent Grain Baking Experiment was born.
There are a ton of spent grain recipes online, but my limited experience baking yeast breads and my nonexistent experience with spent grains made it tough to judge which one would be the best. So I didn’t even try to choose. Instead, I baked three different bread recipes and pitted them against each other in a vast whole-grain carb-off. (The results of which I’ll be eating for weeks; anyone wanna come over?) I also ended up making a couple of pizza dough rounds, some crackers, chocolate chip cookies, and soft pretzels, but I’ll talk more about those another day.
First, some spent grain basics:
When we brew beer, it’s actually just like brewing tea — but giant, and with things like oats and barley instead of herbs. When that’s done, what’s left is a whole lot of soggy, slightly sweet, and still totally edible whole grains. (In the past, we’ve just composted the spent grain, for lack of a farm full of livestock to feed it to.)
I used wet spent grains, but they can also be toasted/dried in the oven. Some people swear by that; others say you get more of a beer-y flavor by using them wet. Frankly, I went with wet because it was easier. Toasting seemed like a commitment.
I mixed all of these breads in my stand mixer with the dough hook. I’m sure they could be mixed by hand, too, but I like the feedback I get from the mixer (dough still sticking to the sides of the bowl? add more flour!). If I were a more confident breadmaker, maybe I wouldn’t need that, but I’ll take any safety net I can find.
My grain mix included oats, rye, and a few different types of barley, all of which came from San Francisco Brewcraft. The grain mixture went through a grinder once at the shop, but after we were done brewing, I ran it through the food processor to get it a bit smoother before baking. I also drained any especially wet bits in a wire mesh strainer.
Okay! Let’s see some bread.
I liked the straightforwardness of the Braukaiser recipe: 1/3 bread flour, 1/3 wheat flour, 1/3 spent grain, yeast, water, salt. It seemed like a good, basic start as I tried to figure out the proportions. Because I can’t just leave well enough alone, though, I split the wheat flour portion between wheat and rye flour, added about a teaspoon of caraway seeds, and stirred a touch of molasses in with the proofed yeast right before I added it to the dough. I needed to add an additional cup or so of flour, which was pretty standard across all of these recipes.
This loaf didn’t rise much, and I think I might have let it sit for too long while I was pre-heating the oven. But it pretty much punches you in the teeth with rye flavor, which is what I was hoping for. Some of that’s the caraway, of course, and a little is probably the rye flour, but I like to think it takes advantage of the rye in the spent grains, too. I worried I’d burned it but it actually came out just a touch underdone. I’d make it again, but maybe in a couple of smaller loaves next time.
The second recipe stood out to me because it used the most spent grain, and believe me, I had a lot of spent grain to use up. It intimidated me because it called for making a starter rather than just proofing the yeast, and I’m not sure I did it right — I’m actually making another loaf of this as I write this post, and I’m still not sure I did it right — and the bread took forever to rise. But when it did eventually start rising, there was no stopping it!
Yeah, that’s right. Two loaves. For reference, my original dough ball was about the size of one of those.
I used mostly bread flour in this one, though I switched to all-purpose for the last couple of cups, and ended up using a little more than six cups of flour total. My only changes to this recipe were to add some chopped fresh rosemary and thyme and some rosemary salt from our CSA.
These loaves looked amazing and smelled even better, so it’s a huge bummer that I drastically underbaked them. In my defense, they sounded hollow, which is apparently the universal signal for bread done-ness, but … they weren’t done. They do make fantastic toast, though, and they would have won the taste test hands-down if they’d been baked through. I’m giving this one another shot in a loaf pan and testing the inside with a thermometer this time; if I can get it to work, I can imagine making this recipe after every batch of beer we brew.
This recipe used the most water of any, and looking back, I probably could have just eliminated some of it; I ended up adding a lot of extra flour. I didn’t make any other changes to the recipe, but I did shape it into dinner rolls instead of a regular loaf.
I’m so happy with how these came out — and happy I decided to use it for rolls. This recipe isn’t very exciting as written, it doesn’t use a ton of the grain, and I’m not sure what I would have done with a whole loaf of it. But as homemade hamburger buns? Perfect! (We sacrificed one for the picture below. And then we ate it plain.)
Next time: pretzels, cookies, crackers, and pizza!