Crackers: satisfying, guilt-free treats

The Baltimore Sun

I'm ready to start a home-baked cracker revolution to match the bread revolution of the past 15 years. I've spent nearly two decades trying to persuade folks to bake their own bread and, most recently, asked the nearly impossible: Make 100 percent whole-grain breads at home. It's been a noble, uphill battle.

But I've encountered far less resistance in urging people to make their own whole-grain crackers - toasty, nutty, crisp, crackly crackers.

Why the receptivity? It's probably because crackers are far easier and faster to make than breads. But I also think a deeper reason is that they are so versatile, so easily substituted for chips and other snacks. Whole-grain crackers, at least the ones I've been teaching adults and kids to make, are the perfect, guilt-free treat.

They get their satisfying, toasty, nutlike flavor from the deep roasting of the grains' proteins and oils during the baking process. Crackers, properly made, have a long, loyal finish, with lingering, earthy flavors.

What I call four-seed snapper crackers are my all-time favorite cracker, made with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds and whole-wheat flour. The pumpkin, sunflower and flax seeds are finely ground, but the sesame seeds are left whole. Just a touch of honey or agave syrup adds the slightest sweetness.

A thin wheat cracker is made with 100 percent whole-wheat flour - not to be confused with enriched wheat flour, which is a tricky way of saying white flour.

Both are excellent for entertaining because, in addition to being easy to make, they're impressive: homemade crackers to go with your cheese plate or other appetizers.

Crackers can be naturally leavened with yeast, like Armenian lavash, chemically leavened with baking powder or baking soda, like many commercial cracker products, or totally unleavened, like matzo or Triscuits. They are usually crisp and flaky but don't have to be. They can be buttery or lean and mean, like saltines and other variations of "water crackers." Whole-grain crackers, regardless of the leavening method, have another major factor going for them: fiber, lots and lots of fiber.

The fiber in flour comes from the bran, the thin pericarp membrane surrounding the bulky endosperm of all grain, whether wheat, rye, oats, barley or even nongrain seeds such as sunflower, sesame and pumpkin. The fiber adds more substance and chew to crackers but, more important, it fills us up, decreases food cravings and has many other documented health benefits. It's good stuff. Of course, in white flour there is no bran - that's why it's white - and that's why it doesn't do any of the good things that whole-grain flour does.

Some quick tips when making crackers:

*Do not overmix the dough - the longer you mix, the tougher the dough (because of increased gluten development).

*Roll them evenly and thin (less than 1/8 inch) by using generous amounts of whole grain "dusting flour." Thick crackers have their place (think of graham crackers, the granddaddy of whole-grain crackers in America, invented by Sylvester Graham), but thinly rolled crackers bake faster and have more uses, such as with cheeses, dips and as chiplike snacks.

*These crackers can be garnished to be either sweet or salty/savory. For sweet, make a wash using equal parts water and honey or agave syrup (a natural sweetener derived from the same plant used to make tequila). For savory, use an egg wash, either whole or just the egg white, diluted with an equal amount of water. In either case, brush the rolled-out dough with the wash and garnish with either sesame or poppy seeds or sprinkle with your favorite seasoning salt.

Peter Reinhart wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

Thin Wheat Crackers

Makes about 4 dozen crackers

3/4 teaspoon sea salt (or 1 teaspoon kosher salt)

1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour, plus extra as needed

1/2 cup whole or low-fat milk (you can also substitute soy or rice milk as well as buttermilk)

2 tablespoons honey or agave syrup (you also can use brown or white sugar)

1/3 cup vegetable oil (canola, corn, soy, peanut, etc.)

1 egg

coarse sea salt for garnish

In a mixing bowl, mix the salt with the flour. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, honey (or agave) and oil. Pour this into the flour mixture and stir with a large spoon until the dough forms a ball and all the flour is absorbed. The dough will be very soft.

Knead the dough for a few minutes on a well-floured surface, adding more flour as needed until the dough forms a smooth ball and feels soft and supple but not sticky, like modeling clay.

Heat the oven to just below 300 degrees. Line 3 baking pans with baking parchment or a silicone baking pad. Divide dough into 3 pieces and form each into a ball. Set 2 of the dough balls aside and roll out the third. Dust the counter with flour and also the top of dough, pressing with your hand to flatten it.

Use a straight rolling pin (not a tapered pin) to work the dough to a thin oval or rectangle less than 1/8 inch thick. Every few seconds, lift the dough and dust under it with more flour and dust the top as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter or the pin. If the dough resists and shrinks back, let it rest for a few minutes and move on to one of the remaining dough balls. Repeat the rolling process with each piece of dough.

Combine the egg with 1/2 cup water to make an egg wash. Brush the top of the dough with egg wash and lightly sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Cut the dough into desired size for crackers with a pizza cutter or knife or pastry blade (you also can use a small biscuit cutter).

Transfer the crackers to the pans, placing them very close together (they will not rise or spread). Place the pans in the oven (you can bake them all at once or 1 at a time). Rotate the pans after 8 minutes (if baking multiple pans, switch shelves). After another 8 minutes, rotate again.

Bake an additional 6 to 8 minutes until toasted and light golden brown, 22 to 24 minutes total. If not brown, increase the temperature by 25 degrees and continue baking until the crackers are golden brown and stiff, not flexible. Remove from the oven and leave on the pan until cool and crisp.

Note: For sweeter crackers, eliminate the egg wash and sea salt, and instead lightly brush the crackers with equal parts honey (or agave syrup) and water. Continue to bake as described. The crackers can also be baked plain.

Adapted from "Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor" by Peter Reinhart

Per serving: 32 calories, 1 gram protein, 4 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 2 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 39 milligrams sodium

Analysis by the Los Angeles Times.

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