pH Meter? Meh. I Think I’ll Pass

Imagine that! Great bread without using a pH meter!

Over the past several months I’ve been running across articles and videos espousing the use of a pH meter to measure the acidity of your sourdough dough; more specifically, to use pH measurements to drive the bread-making process. From what I can gather, lots of people have jumped on this bandwagon. Me? I won’t be one of those folks.

To be honest, I’m writing this after watching a video from a popular YouTuber who suggested that using a pH meter might be the best way to make bread in 2021. Just looking at the title my first reaction was, “That’s an absolutely ridiculous assertion!” Tell that to Apollonia Poilane or Chad Robertson or Nancy Silverton. Their bread is world-renown. Even Jeffrey Hamelman, Director of Baking at King Arthur and author of the wonderful book, “Bread,” makes no mention of using a pH meter, though he speaks of relative acidity.

And while the video was informative – at least for his dough and process – I couldn’t help but think that presenting science experiments like this kind of defeats the notion of artisanship and craftsmanship. Also, suggesting a pH number to target doesn’t take into account the density of the yeast in a starter. After all, acid is produced by the lactic- and acetobacillus bacteria. When you’re measuring pH, you’re measuring those microorganisms’ by-products. But what if you have a relatively higher density of yeast? If you’re going for a specific pH number and you have a lot of yeast, by the time you get to the number, the gluten may have been consumed.

Then another question came to mind: If this is the best way to make bread in 2021, are you discounting and diminishing the THOUSANDS of years of bread-making prior to this?!!!

I think you can tell that I’m a little annoyed by the suggestion. And it further annoys me that so many people take shit like this as law and have run and purchased an expensive gadget based on this one person’s experience. Luckily though, not everyone agreed as one person replied:

I keep thinking you are complicating a very simple process. After all sourdough bread-making goes back over 6,000 years. Those ancient bakers didn’t have all these gadgets or even temperature-controlled ovens and still made wonderful bread. I know you are trying to reduce some of the art of bread making into some sort of formula but I think you’re simply going to frustrate yourself. The reality is that bread-making is much like playing an instrument. You can read all the books available and listen to those who know how to play it, but the only way of mastering that instrument is through practice and patience. Bread making is very similar.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. As a part-time professional musician, I know this very well. Though I’m constantly learning new things, I also practice – a lot. And I still gig at least once a week. What I’ve gained through years and years of playing is an intuition about what works and doesn’t work when I play.

For instance, I was once in a shop jamming with this dude and after we finished trading guitar solos, he asked me – he was a jazz dude – what modes I was playing. I told him that in the first part I was kind of sticking to a Lydian motif, but when he changed the key, I think I switched to a Mixolydian. But I immediately followed that by saying I really didn’t intellectualize it until he asked. He chuckled and said, “Spoken like a player. I really liked that phrasing.” Mind you, this dude was a killer player so to hear that compliment was pretty awesome. But I digress…

The point is that as the person in the comment above suggested, baking is similar to playing an instrument. Even Hamelman talks about developing intuition in his wonderful book, “Bread.” And while I believe certain tools like a pH meter can provide valuable feedback, I don’t buy into the notion that the use of a tool is the be-all-end-all answer to making great bread. Like mastering an instrument, you gotta bake…

And that brings me to my final point. At the end of the video, the dude said to not use his numbers but to find what works for you. Sound advice, but then in the comments he went and bandied about his own pH number as the pH level to shoot for. But bear in mind that the optimal pH will always vary for the type of flour you use. For his bread, he used nothing but high-protein white flour for both his starter and final dough. As another user commented:

I think there are way too many variables involved in this to make an accurate guide. For example I have no 13% protein flour available, after 7 hours bulk fermentation I have sticky soup, after 100% increase I have sticky soup. So you can’t recommend to use your exact process to figure out the right pH value for someone else’s dough.

You also use a liquid starter that I imagine contains much more bacteria than yeast and therefore I wonder how that even works out for you. Obviously it does, according to your results, but I’m 100% sure I could not reproduce those same results. I also never use 100% white flour and with addition of whole grain rye everything changes…

I’m so glad I’m not the only one to call BS…

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