You cannot predict where researching and writing a recipe will lead. Last week the path led to Anchor Brewing in San Francisco.
A recipe for Hubert Keller’s upcoming cookbook called for pale malt. Pale malt??!! I knew malt was made from barley and that brewers use malt in great quantities. Wikipedia, while helpful to an extent, left many questions unresolved. Not the least of which was a source for pale malt so I could test the recipe.
The receptionist at Anchor Brewing was kind. She listened. She put me through to the voicemail of the brewmaster, Mark Carpenter. He called me back! And listened. And offered his help.
Getting out of the car across the street from the brewery (conveniently located fairly close to my house), I was enveloped by the characteristic smell of breweries: malt. It’s a smell I associate with European cities, not those in the US. But as the craft brewery trend expands, this smell, which was once part of the American landscape, is returning. At Anchor it is a light, slightly sweet scent. Does everyone who lives within a few blocks stay hungry all the time?
“Here, taste some,” said Mark as he gestured toward a zip-up bag of pale malt sitting on his desk. We each took a few grains. Crunchy and lightly sweet with, yes!, a malted flavor. He described it as “malted milk balls without the sugar. Or less sugar.” He explained that pale malt is barley grain that has first been sprouted, and then dried. It is never husked. (Important detail.) And, because malted barley is never heated above 160°F to preserve its natural enzymes, it’s catnip for yeast. Beer yeasts. Bread yeasts. Sourdough yeasts. Can you tell where this is going?
Mark described the role of those pesky (for a cook) husks: In the brewery, the malt is soaked and warmed and stirred and stirred until all those barley enzymes and sugars are dissolved in the water. The water is decanted off the barley solids. Without the husks acting as natural filters, the barley water, or way too much of it, would stay trapped in the solids. Brewers call the barley water, wort, and it is what gets spiced and flavored with hops, for instance, and then fermented.
My recipe called for simmering the malt until tender, 3 to 4 hours! But that temperature would kill the enzymes. What would be the difference in flavor between boiled malt and malt cooked at temperatures between 140°F and 160°F? G suggested a double boiler method: I heated water to 160°F, poured it over the malt, and suspended the bowl above a pot of hot water which I could heat as needed to keep the soaking malt warmed to the correct degree. What a revelation! The simmered malt was only slightly sweet and tasty, but the malt kept in the sweet spot temperature wise: it was distinctly sweet and fresh tasting. It took a day to get around to baking bread and by then, the little sprouts had grown longer. Still those husks. I’m delivering the loaf to Mark today. I hope he has good teeth.
The recipe I was working on describes a risotto made from pale malt. Hmmmm. All those husks. I’m not sure any amount of cooking will soften those so the research on that topic continues. But Mark helped me brainstorm an alternative: a risotto of pearl barley with barley malt syrup stirred in at the end of cooking. It was delicious! Even my did-you-put-anything-weird-in-it G loved it.
Meanwhile, though, thanks to Mark and pale malt, I’ve rediscovered one of the most ancient food-alcohol relationships: beer and bread. In ancient—and not so ancient—times, bakers used beer yeasts for their bread. I’m not sure I would recommend putting the cooked, whole malt in bread. You might have to stop and spit out the chaff too often. On the other hand, all that fiber would have a beneficial effect on cholesterol counts as it scrubs out the digestive system.
The answer, I think, is to compost the malt and bake bread with the malt soaking liquid. The barley sugars caramelize making the already crunchy, crackly crust developed by the no-knead method even more delicious. And the aroma!! That tantalizing malt scent wafts through the kitchen as the loaf bakes. The crumb seems transformed, too, a little softer, more tender. Now I understand why barley malt (the syrup and the powder) is a baker’s best friend.
The aroma insists, insinuates: chocolate. Remember Ovaltine? Perhaps my next experiment will be a chocolate cake made with cocoa and pale malt soaking water.