I recently had a conversation at a party with a friend and fellow home baker who started our conversation by saying, “Oh, I never make yeasted bread. It’s just too simple and it tastes so bland.” Then after wolfing down several pieces of baguette that I had brought to the party she remarked, “This bread has a slightly sour tang to it. What kind of sourdough starter did you use?”
Willing myself to not roll my eyes, I smiled and said, “That’s a yeasted loaf. No sourdough. In fact, I didn’t even use a poolish.” I SO wanted to be snarky. But I behaved myself, and instead took a more conciliatory stance: “On the surface, sure, a straight dough is very simple to make. But there are lots of things you can do to completely transform it.”
Of course, she asked, “How?” So I spent the next several minutes – actually, it was more like an hour in total – discussing different ways I’ve learned to affect the flavor of my bread. But while some things I’ll share below are specific to yeasted bread, there are a couple of nuggets that could be used for any bread that you make. Note that though they’re numbered, the tips aren’t in any particular order.
1. Move beyond white flour
Like many, my first real bread book was “Flour Water Salt Yeast” by Ken Forkish. There was a section in the book where he talked about finding a flour to call your own. I was just starting out making no-knead bread at the time, so I didn’t pay too much attention to that section. I just wanted to learn the technique. But literally within a month, I was starting to get bored of making white bread. So I started experimenting with different blends of flour. Here are a few blends that I use:
|Bread||Flour Blend||Flavor Notes|
|Sourdough 1||50% High-Extraction Bread Flour|
25% Whole Wheat (sifted)
|This has the sourest flavor as I make my levain using whole wheat flour that has lots of bacteria in it.|
|Sourdough 2||60% Kamut|
40% High-Protein Bread Flour
|This is a difficult one to make as Kamut has a different kind of gluten. But the flavor it produces is nutty and the crumb texture is super-soft.|
|Sourdough 3||60% High-Extraction Bread Flour|
40% White Whole Wheat
|The crumb structure on this one is not very open, though the crumb is super-soft due to the white whole wheat flour that also imparts a subtle sweetness to the flavor.|
|Baguette 1||50% AP Flour|
25% Bread Flour
25% Kamut or Rye
|Kamut and Rye both add nuttiness to the flavor and the bread flour provides chew.|
|75% AP Flour|
25% Kamut or Rye
|This is actually the blend I use the most for baguettes and ciabatta.|
|Baguette 3||60% AP Flour|
10% High-Extraction Bread Flour
30% Whole Wheat (sifted)
|I use this for my sourdough baguettes. As with Sourdough #1, the levain is made from whole wheat.|
While fermentation will certainly drive flavor, I’ve found that the most significant impact on bread flavor comes from the flour blend that’s used. If you do create a blend, keep in mind that your processing technique may change as different flour has different protein content or, in the case of Kamut or rye, will not create gluten, or at least a protein that contributes to the dough structure. It may take you a couple or a few times baking with the blend before you get it down.
Note above that I list 25% Kamut or Rye. This is because both of these flours behave similarly in that they contribute very little if any to the dough structure. But they dd some incredible taste to the bread! Kamut adds a
2. Play With Hydration
Hydration affects the texture and density of the bread. And while texture and density aren’t flavors, they can affect our perception of flavors. For instance, a heavy, dense bread concentrates flavors, while an airy, light crumb tends to have much subtler, more delicate flavors. With the bread I make, I try to strike a balance between flavor concentration and texture. The crumb of my boules and batards isn’t super-open, but it’s still light and airy – it just doesn’t have a lot of big holes. To achieve consistent results, I’ve had to play with the hydration. But as a rule of thumb, the more whole-grain flour I use, the more water I’ll add. For instance, the hydration for Baguette 1 is 76%, while the hydration for Baguette 3 is about 80% (these are a challenge to shape).
3. Retard Bulk Fermentation
People who make sourdough are well-versed in long, slow fermentation and the flavors it can impart as the bacteria in the flour (and in the air) get a chance to release organic acids into the dough, and the enzymes have time to break down starches and convert them to sugar. We can do the same with yeasted dough. For instance, with my Pointage en Bac baguettes, I start bulk fermentation at room temp, then slow it down in a fridge that’s set to about 39℉ – 42℉. This doesn’t completely stop yeast fermentation, but it significantly slows it down to allow the enzymes and bacteria to better compete for resources.
Lately, I’ve been really getting into the Pain a l’Ancienne technique of delaying fermentation from the get-go for my baguettes. This involves using ice water at mixing to prevent the yeast from metabolizing. I then further retard in the fridge set at 36℉ for up to 48 hours. Yeast fermentation is allowed to occur only after this long rest in the fridge. This makes for an absolutely complex-tasting bread!
4. Retard Final Fermentation
While retarding final fermentation follows the same basic principles as retarding bulk fermentation, it’s a little trickier because we’re using commercial yeast. Commercial yeast has been literally bred to be fast-acting and resilient, even in harsh environments.1 So timing when you place your dough into your fridge is critical. I’ve found that as a rule of thumb to always place my loaves in the fridge once the dough has expanded about 50%. It takes a while for the dough to equalize to the cold environment, so you have to have enough runway to account for the yeast activity while the dough cools. I’ve found that if I let it get past that point, my dough will be overproofed when it comes out of the fridge. So now, if by chance I let it get past that point, I just let it finish and bake the bread.
That caveat aside, once the dough equalizes, you mitigate the competition from the yeast and the bacteria and enzymes can do their thing. Pizzaiolo’s know this technique very well, with some letting their pizza dough undergo cold fermentation for up to five days!
5. Salt Stress Yeast
When yeast is placed into a saline environment, it undergoes what is called osmotic shock. During this period, the fungus ceases fermentation while it builds up protection against water from being leached from its cells. Once that protection has been built, the yeast then can go about its business converting sugars into gas and it also becomes impervious to later osmotic events.
I now only use salt-stressed yeast when I’m making dough for Baguettes a l’Ancienne or other bread where I want to delay bulk fermentation simply because once I remove the dough from the fridge, I don’t want the yeast to undergo osmotic shock. I want it to start producing gas bubbles ASAP. The thing about pre-stressing the yeast is that it produces glycerol. An increased presence of glycerol has been shown to increase fermentation activity and also increase the gas-retention abilities in the dough.2 Gas is flavor!
6. Be Gentle With Your Dough
As of late, I’ve been doing my best to handle my dough in a much more gentle fashion. After a couple of batches where the bread turned out a little dense, I realized that the loaves were turning out that way because of how I handled the dough. I was degassing it by being too rough. So I made a conscious decision to handle the dough in a much gentler fashion. For instance, look at the ciabatta in the picture above. With that batch, I did my best to be gentle with the dough and the results, as you can see above, pretty much speak for themselves.
When you see a professional baker manipulating dough, it looks as if they’re throwing it around. But I realized that they’re just going fast because they’ve done it thousands of times. I started picking up speed myself as I got used to the particular tasks, but I realized that I also increased the physical pressure I was placing on the dough. By being aware of how I was manipulating the dough, I’ve greatly improved the texture and density of my crumb. And as with hydration, texture, and density affect flavor.
7. Experiment with Different Sourdough Cultures
A sourdough culture has the potential to affect the flavor of the bread in a variety of ways. The more starter you use, the more the grain of the culture affects the flavor. The less you use, the rising will be slower and flavor development will come predominantly from the bacteria in the final dough. But where the culture originates from can also play a factor as the combination of yeast and bacteria differs from region to region.
For instance, when I cultivate a culture from my immediate vicinity, the resultant bread isn’t very sour and the rising action is moderate. On the other hand, when I’ve made cultures from longan fruit, those microbes go crazy. The rising action is much higher and the microbes impart both sweet and sour flavors, though the sweetness could very well be coming from the fruit juice itself. If I make a starter from an original San Francisco sourdough culture, the bread has the distinctive San Francisco sourdough tang. Contrast that with a starter from Eastern Europe that has a very sour flavor.
By the way, if you’re interested in cultivating international cultures, look no further than Sourdoughs International. They have a collection of dry starters from all over the world and even have an Egyptian culture from antiquity that was captured from an unearthed ancient bakery at the foot of the Giza pyramids. It’s on the way to me as I write this!
But even if you don’t experiment with different starters, varying the amount of starter you use will affect the flavor of your bread. Note, that your rising times may vary wildly if you do this, so you’ll have to eyeball how your dough rises. And also note that the more starter you use will not necessarily make your rising go faster. In fact, the higher acidity may very well slow down fermentation. As always, use your senses – especially your sight and touch – to monitor your dough’s progress.
The one thing that really excites me about using different starters is that all of them vary in their microbe density. Some starters, such as the Giza starter I mentioned, seem to have a high density of bacteria, so the bread comes out particularly sour. On the other hand, one of my Italian starters is much more balanced and I’ve trained it to favor the yeast and other microbes in the starter that release esters, giving it a slight banana-like aroma (that’s actually frickin’ amazing, btw).
8. Use a Levain AND a Poolish
In my ever-popular Tartine Bread Baguettes post, I shared how Chad Robertson uses both a poolish and a levain to ferment his baguettes. I’ve used this technique for different kinds of loaves other than baguettes, and I love it! The levain adds the sour component to the flavor profile, while the poolish provides a nuttiness, plus a much more powerful rising action than the levain due to the commercial yeast. I’ve found this technique to be ideal for lower-hydration dough. It can get a little crazy with high-hydration dough as things will happen a lot faster, but it’s still manageable.
At least for me, using this technique almost invariably produces a chewy crumb. And that is an awesome thing because the chewiness gives you time to savor all the toothsome goodness that the preferments bring to the bread. Combining this technique with different blends of flour makes for an incredibly complex flavor profile. In the picture immediately above, I used a blend of 10% Rye, 40% High-extraction, and 50% Organic, Unbleached AP Flour. It was a powerful combination!
9. Vary Your Bake Times
Out of all the different techniques, this has the potential of really messing up your bread if you’re not attentive. If you read or participate in bread-baking forums, you’ll occasionally see references to the Maillard Reaction. Put simply, this is the browning process when heat is applied to food and how it affects taste. With respect to bread, as the crust browns, it opens up a whole new world of flavor. The nuttiness you get from a baguette or other crusty bread is due to the Maillard reaction.
There is a thing in artisan bread circles to bake the crust to a really deep color – or at least part of it. For instance, take a look at the loaves below:
Some folks might look at these loaves and say I burned them, but they tasted anything but burnt. In fact, those loaves were absolutely packed with flavor! There is a real depth and complexity in the flavor of bread when it is baked long enough to get this dark. I’ve literally baked hundreds of loaves, so I know just how long to bake them to achieve this effect. But I will admit that it took several burnt loaves before I got my own technique down. Even if you lengthen your bake time, there’s no guarantee you will actually like it. But give it a try.
To achieve this, bake at your normal temp. For most folks, this is going to be at 250ºC/475ºF. Lengthen your initial time at that temperature by 5-10 minutes to start with. Then once you get to the desired darkness, immediately reduce the heat in your oven so cooking continues, but browning doesn’t. For me, that’s 425ºF.
10. Vary Your Salt
Salt is one of those universal flavor components used in pretty much every food. And varying it can sometimes have dramatic effects on your bread. I typically use 1.5% or 2% salt in my bread, and never go beyond 2% with sourdough as salt attenuates the yeast action and really slows things down with natural yeast.
And no, contrary to popular belief, salt does NOT kill yeast. In order for it to kill yeast, it has to be in a super-high concentration. I don’t know how this myth originated, but it’s wrong. Do a search on “salt stressed yeast” and you will find peer-reviewed research papers on the subject and yeast’s tolerance to salt. Sorry, but science rules here…
With yeasted bread, it is possible to up your salt to 3-5%. If you salt-stress the yeast before mixing, you can go up to some crazy saltiness. But I’ve found that beyond 3%, the bread is too salty. See the section above “Salt Stress Yeast.”
On the other extreme is using no salt. Tuscan bread is saltless and it is insipid. The popular story behind this is that apparently, back in the Middle Ages, salt was heavily taxed, so the Tuscans chose to use it sparingly and stopped putting it in their bread (by the way, no one really knows the true story). To this day, bread in Tuscany is saltless. But they make up for it by making rich and flavorful sauces meant for dipping bread into.
Personally, I’ve made Tuscan bread and sorry, I’ll be sticking with adding a bit of salt to my dough…
All the techniques I shared above focused entirely on producing flavor in the dough naturally. But you can use additives such as roasted garlic, herbs, nuts, dried fruit, etc. I don’t consider doing that cheating, but additives could hide what could be rather insipid bread without it. So my advice with using additives is to not start using them until you can produce great-tasting bread that can stand on its own.
The low-hanging fruit to produce more flavorful bread is to experiment with different flour blends. For me, once I started doing that, it changed the game entirely for me. Using whole grain pretty much forced me to up my hydration. But then that got me thinking about modifications to the fermentation process. What a rabbit hole! But stuff like this gets me out of bed every morning. There’s always something to tweak!
1Money, Nicholas P., The Rise of Yeast: How the Sugar Fungus Shaped Civilization Oxford University Press, 2018
2Elham Aslankoohi, Mohammad Naser Rezaei, Yannick Vervoort, Christophe M. Courtin, Kevin J. Verstrepen, Glycerol Production by Fermenting Yeast Cells Is Essential for Optimal Bread Dough Fermentation, Plos One March 2015