I'M READY to start a home-baked cracker revolution to match the bread revolution of the last 15 years. I've spent nearly two decades trying to convince folks to bake their own bread and, most recently, asked the nearly impossible: make 100% 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 (kids love making crackers, by the way -- a great family activity), are the perfect, guilt-free treat.
They get their satisfying, toasty, nut-like 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 sunflower, pumpkin 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% 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 over-mix the dough -- the longer you mix, the tougher the dough (due to increased gluten development).
* Roll them evenly and thin (less than one-eighth 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 in 1822), but thinly rolled crackers bake faster and have more uses, such as with cheeses, dips and as chip-like 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.
* Bake them low and slow so that the crackers dry out without getting brown too early. In a conventional oven, set the oven to just below 300 degrees. Rotate the pans every 8 minutes to ensure an even bake. To get a little more browning on the crackers, increase the heat to 325 degrees after they have dried sufficiently to be crisp, about 20 to 25 minutes. They will further crisp as they cool.
* After they thoroughly cool, store the crackers in an airtight container, either a tin, jar or resealable plastic storage bag. They will stay fresh and crisp for at least a week (if they last that long, which I doubt).
* You can use either regular whole wheat flour (sometimes sold as "traditional" whole wheat) or the newly popular white whole wheat, which is a lighter colored strain of wheat with a slightly sweeter, less bitter flavor than traditional wheat. King Arthur Flour and Bob's Red Mill offer this at many markets.
* Cracker dough can be kept in the refrigerator for at least three days before rolling it out if you decide not to roll it all out after mixing. The flavor actually improves on Day 2 and 3.
I have been teaching how to make the four-seed snapper crackers in baking classes all over the country and in kids cracker workshops. They have less oil than the thin wheat crackers that I also love to bake yet are extremely (and, yes, simultaneously) tender and crisp because the seeds contribute their own natural oils.
Both of these crackers are easy to make at home, even for those who have never baked a loaf of bread in their life. The thin wheat cracker is my own knockoff of the iconic Kraft Nabisco Wheat Thin -- only better (I'm being boastful -- I love those classic Wheat Thins and all their new flavors but love making my own even more). The four-seed snapper cracker is unlike any cracker you can buy anywhere, totally original, which is to say that the big cracker companies have not yet written the final word on how to do a cracker -- there are, I am confident, new frontiers yet to explore.
Peter Reinhart is the author of "Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor."