Baking Bread: It’s a Perpetual Balancing Act

Last night, I watched a video of Paul Hollywood touring bakeries in San Francisco on a quest for San Francisco sourdough. He got bread from different bakeries all over the city apparently to see if he could find the epitome of sourdough and once he identified it, he’d go visit that bakery. Of course, it was going to be Tartine. That he saved the Tartine loaf for last in his evaluation was a total giveaway, which made that particular segment seem a little contrived.

The inevitability of Paul going to Tartine aside, one thing caught my eye when Paul showed the entire loaf. I was able to capture a screenshot from the video. Look at how flat that loaf is! Though the crumb is a classic, open Tartine crumb, the vertical rise in the bread is actually minimal. And if you look at the lower end of the loaf in the picture, it’s clear that the dough spread out – a lot – in the oven.

Then looking at a top-down view of the loaf (right), there wasn’t much opening from the scoring mark, which is another indicator that the loaf sprung more outward than up.

The reason for this is likely because Tartine dough is incredibly high-hydration. In some cases, and especially with their whole-grain loaves, the hydration levels exceed 90% (their flatbreads are over 100% hydration). At that level of hydration, no matter how well the gluten structure is developed to trap gas, the water in the dough will not allow the gluten strands to coalesce nearly as much as a lower-hydration dough. So as the dough bakes, it tends to spread out rather than rising up.

Mind you, I don’t consider this to be bad in any way, shape, or form. In fact, based on what I’ve gathered from studying the Tartine method, I’d expect a loaf like this to have little vertical rise and tend to spread out. But it’s a great illustration of the balancing act of baking. In this case, in Tartine’s quest to produce a highly-open crumb, they increase hydration and sacrifice vertical rise. Other bakers may not want this.

For me, I prefer a tighter, softer crumb and more vertical rise similar to the picture below:

It’s by no means a dense structure as evidenced by the sheer number of small holes in the crumb. And I prefer this because this kind of crumb structure will hold spreads like mayonnaise and mustard and have far less leakage when used with a sandwich as compared to a crumb that has lots of big holes. In my case, I sacrificed that open crumb structure that so many people seem to obsess over in favor of vertical rise and the ability of the crumb to hold spreads more effectively.

The point of all this is that I’ve found that it’s necessary to weigh the different factors that go into producing a loaf of bread. If I’m after a particular outcome, I have to constantly balance that with what I might have to sacrifice in another area.

For instance, like many, when I first saw pictures of Tartine bread, I wondered what it would take to produce bread similar to that. And after lots of study and experimentation, I finally got the method down to produce loaves with a super-open crumb such as the ones shown below:

I must have baked at least 50 loaves before I could achieve this consistently. A friend of mine whom I had given a loaf messaged me and remarked how it was like Tartine bread. What a compliment!

But despite my success in achieving that, personally, I didn’t like the bread. It tasted great and the long, final proof really brought out its sour characteristics. But from a practical standpoint, it frustrated me. Though it looked and tasted great, I felt that bread like this wasn’t very versatile. So I had to do quite a bit of rethinking and balance the desire for an open crumb with its practical use. So after weighing all the different factors, I decided to drop the hydration rates of my boules and batards to around 78%-82% depending on the flour blend I use.

I realize that for beginning bakers I’m probably sounding like the teacher in Charlie Brown: “Mwa-ma-wah-wah-mwa…” But if once you start baking with regularity and gaining knowledge and skill, you’ll see what I mean about the balancing act of baking bread.

The Importance of a GOOD Bread Knife

My main culinary knives – they’re all razor-sharp!

Though I’ve never cooked professionally, I have always believed in working with a great - and razor-sharp – knife when I’m cooking. And over the years I’ve slowly built up my collection to address specific needs as shown to the left. It’s a small collection, but those knives handle just about everything I do in the kitchen.

The knife that’s second from the right is my old faithful Wusthof chef’s knife that I’ve been using for over 30 years. It’s my trusty, all-around knife. I keep it well-maintained and super sharp; so sharp that several years ago, I wasn’t paying attention and chopped off the point of my index finger (but that’s another story – don’t worry, it grew back). Its gleaming edge is an indicator of just how sharp it is. 🙂

To its right is my Global Ni 9 1/4″ bread knife (it actually feels longer). I just purchased this a couple of weeks ago and after using it plenty since I brought it home, I’m kicking myself for not getting a real good bread knife a lot earlier.

My previous bread knife is more of a general-purpose utility knife that I’ve used for lots of other things besides bread. It’s a Mercer Culinary Offset Serrated knife (shown below). It was cheap – under $20 – but I love it and still use it daily.

And though I love this knife, a negative thing about it is that it doesn’t hold an edge very well, and I have to sharpen it at least once a month with a rat tail diamond and keep it constantly honed while using it. But it’s great for dicing tomatoes and peppers, and since it has a non-reactive blade, doesn’t need to be cleaned and dried after use. So I let the family use this knife. 🙂 They don’t get to touch my good knives!

And because it’s a general-purpose knife, it was designed for compromise between a variety of uses. One of those compromises is the flexibility of the blade. It’s great when working with fish or meat, but for slicing bread, that flexibility makes it difficult to cut consistently-sized slices.

The Global Ni, on the other hand, is absolutely rigid and is reinforced by the slightly convex grind which limits or even eliminates the lateral movement of the blade while you slice. Furthermore, it is truly a one-sided blade (convex on the inside (your finger side) and flat on the outside), made for a righty, so as a right-hander, I have lots more control. On top of that, while my Mercer is sharp, the Global Ni is scary-sharp. I’m actually able to cut slices that are less than 1/4″ wide! Talk about control!

On top of that, my Global Ni’s blade tapers from tall at the heel of the blade to slightly narrower at the tip. This promotes a back-and-forth slicing action much like a chef’s knife but without the acute sweep in the front third of the blade. This makes for a more triangular blade profile, and as the triangle is the most stable shape in nature, the vertical movement of the blade is pretty much eliminated.

Okay, okay. As usual, I’ve started to geek out on stuff that may not at all be of importance to some folks, so I apologize if I seem to be a bit pedantic. But I just love knives and while I was writing this post, I had a conversation with a bladesmith in Ashland, Oregon named Michael Lishinsky of Wildfire Cutlery. I’m commissioning a custom knife that’s a riff on a traditional Japanese Honesuki Maru (aka Hankotsu) and had to confirm handle and blade dimensions with him.

Most folks don’t really put too much thought into getting a good knife. But here are some good reasons to consider one:

  • While you can get sharp edge on even a cheap knife, the steel used in good knives is of much higher quality, which allows the edge angles on those knives to be much lower making them scary sharp. It’s counter-intertuive, but the sharper the knive, the safer it is as the chance of it deflecting while you’re cutting is significantly reduced. Ever have a blade slip on you when you’re slicing an apple?
  • Good knives generally retain their edges much longer as the steel they employ is harder than their cheap counterparts. They do require a bit more care, but think of it like having a nice car. You’ll tend keep a nice car clean on the inside and out, whereas with an old beater, you might not apply the same amount of care.
  • Great knives are made to last a lifetime. I talked about my 30-year-old Wusthuf above. Cheap knives don’t last nearly that long and that also makes them dangerous. A friend of mine recently was washing one of his cheapos and didn’t know the handle had delaminated from the tang. The blade came away from the handle, slipped out of his hand, and seven stiches later… Needless to say, he took my advice and invested in a couple of good knives.

When you go searching for a good knife, know this: You don’t have to spend a fortune for a good knife. You’ll sometimes hear of people spending $2000+ on a knife. That’s ridiculous and borders on the my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours territory. And while I love Japanese knives, I only have two, and I spent less than $200 on both of them combined (I got them on sale at a local cutlery store).

As far as blades are concerned, forged knives are better than stamped knives as forging works at the molecular level of the steel and thus makes the metal stronger. But I’m not partial to hand-forged vs. machine-forged knives. Hand-forged knives tend to be more expensive. I wouldn’t avoid one if I saw a good deal and I really needed a knife, but I’ve been absolutely happy with the knives I have and they’re all machine-forged.

With respect to metal, carbon steel is harder and sharper than stainless but requires a LOT more care. You to wash and dry carbon steel immediately after each use and you should avoid making long contact with citrus as that will corrode the knife. But carbon steel can be damn sharp!

As for bread knife-specific traits, I’d look for these primary traits:

  • Blade length should be longer than the widest bread you make. A 10″, while pretty long, will cover most bread except for huge miches. F. Dick makes a 12″ bread knife that is amazing. It’s like a mini sword. And you get one, you wouldn’t be lying when you said you have a 12″ Dick.
  • Taller blades, at least 1″ provide much more control when cutting.
  • The blade should be absolutely rigid, no matter how much you spend. A flexible knife will make cutting straight slices challenging.
  • While it may seem pointy-tipped teeth would be better, I found that rounder tips provide more edge contact and, with bread at least, will throw far fewer crumbs while cutting.

Tartine Bread Open Crumb: The Truth Finally Comes Out

Crumb shot from “Tartine Bread”

There’s this absolute fixation on creating big holes in the crumb that I often see in online home baking forums that I’ve always found a little annoying. Everyone seems to want to get this huge, open crumb structure, just like what they’ve seen in the book, “Tartine Bread.” Having an open crumb is good. But at least to me, it’s only good to a certain point. After that, it just becomes a work of art.

For my bread, I definitely want some holes in it, and I want to get what I think is a moderately-open crumb with a mixed set of holes because I know the bread will be nice and airy and that I’ve built a good gluten structure that will allow those holes to form. But I don’t want a predominance of large holes because I like my bread to be able to hold spreads like butter, honey, mayo, mustard, and jam. With a predominance of large holes, that shit just goes right through the bread! It’s impractical and frankly, the only thing you can really use it for is dipping it into olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Not a bad thing, but it’s definitely limiting.

So what I prefer to achieve is a crumb similar to the picture below. It’s open and there are a few large holes but for the most part, the “openness” is driven by the plethora of smaller holes. This bread will hold spreads quite effectively!

30% Kamut, 40% high-extraction 30% bread flour I baked a few days ago

Luckily, I’m not alone in this thinking but the ideal crumb seems to be like the Tartine-like craters you see in the book. But here’s the thing: Even Tartine doesn’t achieve that 100%!

WHAT THE F$%K?

Even though I’m obsessed with dough, I love to cook in general. And I especially love to watch different chef shows. Yesterday, I happened to be watching John Favreau’s “Chef Show” and in particular, his episode where he and Roy Choi went to Tartine in Los Angeles. They visited all the different departments at the restaurant and the final segment had John help prepare flatbread and shape a batch of Tartine Country Bread dough.

At the beginning of the segment, John showed a photo of a nice loaf of sourdough he made then commented, “Then the crumb…” at which point, Chad Robertson said, “…People always ask me how we do that, but truth be told, we only put the photos out there of our aspirational loaves. We don’t put the other ones out there. <chuckle> Even we struggle with getting that. <more chuckles>.”

“WHAT THE F#$?!!!” I said out loud, and my wife asked me why I was having such a strong reaction. I replied, “Because SO many home bakers want a bunch of holes in their goddamn sourdough because THAT guy on the screen published a famous bread baking book and all the pictures of his bread were cratered with holes, and that has somehow become the ideal with home bakers. To hear him imply that even he can’t get it 100% is a total WTF moment for me!” We actually both laughed at that.

Hearing that was a real eye-opener and frankly, it was hilarious as I imagined all these home bakers who see this show having the same reaction. But it’s also a bit shocking to have heard Chad Robertson say that because at least from his books, he makes it seem as if every damn loaf Tartine produces comes out like the frickin’ pictures! Well now we know the TRUTH! Too funny!

Happy Baking!

Diastatic Malt Powder – Should You Use It?

As the King Arthur site puts it in their diastatic malt powder product page…

Diastatic malt powder is the “secret ingredient” savvy bread bakers use to promote a strong rise, great texture, and lovely brown crust. Especially useful when flour does not have barley malt added, as is true for most whole wheat flour and many organic flours. Active enzymes in diastatic malt help yeast grow fully and efficiently throughout the fermentation period, yielding a good, strong rise and great oven-spring. Add only a small amount: 1/2 to 1 teaspoon per 3 cups of flour. Try using it in yeasted doughnut batter or in soft pretzels!

Actually, diastatic malt is the secret ingredient added by millers that’s in most of the flour that you can buy in a grocery store – even King Arthur flour. As the KA product description further states, “Especially useful when flour does not have barley malt added, as is true for most whole wheat flour and many organic flours.” I can attest to this: It really is useful.

But what is it?

Essentially diastatic malt powder is made from sprouted barley or wheat grains that are then heated to kill the sprouts but retain the enzymes (amylase) that break down starches into sugar, specifically glucose molecules. Yeast loves glucose!

Simply put, diastatic malt powder helps yeast feed, which helps them multiply, which means more yeast are feeding and multiplying, and helps produce more CO2 gas, giving your bread a better rise. In short, more food, more sex, more gas. 🙂

So the question is, should you use it?

It’s not a necessary ingredient, especially if it’s already in the flour you’re using. For instance, here’s the nutrition label for King Arthur Bread Flour:

If you look at the ingredients list, you’ll see that the last ingredient is malted barley flour. That’s diastatic malt powder. And though it’s not necessary, I’ve found that incorporating it into the flour blends that I use for sourdough loaves helps the rising action as I use 100% certified organic flour. It helps me manage the fermentation process a little.

I vary the amount I use depending on the weather. In cold, winter months like it is currently, I use about 2.5%. In warmer months, I’ll use 1%. But if it’s a really warm day, I’ll dispense with it altogether. My aim with it is to maintain consistent rising times throughout the year, as I don’t have the luxury of baking in a temperature-controlled environment.

As far as taste is concerned, even at 2.5%, if there is any change to the taste of the bread, it’s very subtle. I have noticed though that when I use more of it, my crusts seem to be a little more pliable. But that’s more a hypothesis and perception than actual fact. I’d have to do side-by-side tests.

It is purported that diastatic malt powder produces a softer crumb. To be honest, I haven’t noticed a significant difference in the crumb when I use it. I develop my dough and use specific blends of flour and bake my bread to no more than 195ºF to always achieve a soft, moist, and springy crumb so it’s very likely any influence on the softness will be subtle at best for my bread.

And as far as subtlety is concerned, bear in mind that diastatic malt’s effect on the rising action is also subtle. It’s not as if your yeast going to go crazy when you use this stuff. It does give the yeast a little boost, that’s for sure, and in bread that’s risen with commercial yeast, they will be noticeably more active as things will happen faster (which is why I never use when I make baguettes). But you’re not going to suddenly see huge Tartine-like holes in your bread when you use it. That’s more due to technique and high hydration than the rising action of the yeast.

I recommend using diastatic malt powder. But use it sparingly and experiment with it to see if it works for you. As I mentioned, its effect is subtle, but used judiciously, can be quite useful to your baking process.

30% Kamut Flour Roasted Garlic-Rosemary-Parmesan Pure Levain Bread

Last week, my daughter called me from Portland, OR, and asked if I could make her favorite bread: Garlic-Rosemary-Parmesan sourdough that she could take back home with her after her upcoming visit home. As if I need a reason to bake… So of course, I told her that I would.

But this time, I wanted to do something a little different. When I’ve made this bread in the past, I’ve fortified the natural yeast with some commercial yeast. But this time I wanted to only use a starter and develop the dough using the Tartine method that employs a relatively small amount of a young, active levain and ferments at a fairly warm temperature: 80°-82°F.

I also wanted to challenge myself and bake larger loaves than I normally bake with this recipe. My standard loaves are 700g, but I wanted to make 900g loaves with this batch. That doesn’t seem as if it’s a big difference, but my experience in the past with using olive oil in the dough is that larger loaves tend to collapse a bit as oil is a gluten formation inhibitor so I stuck with making smaller loaves that wouldn’t collapse under their own weight.

Okay… I have to admit that after thinking about it, I was just being chicken-shit. I didn’t want to alter my original process. But as I wanted to add more flavor complexity by using 30% Kamut flour which – at least in the brand that I use – is notoriously weak, I knew I had to change my approach. Really, all this entailed was to delay the addition of the olive oil until after I had developed the gluten a bit. And by doing that, I got insanely good results! Combine that with bassinage, and the results were amazing.

Let’s dive into the formula/recipe:

Overall Formula

Bread Flour70.00%
Kamut Flour (If you don’t have Kamut, use whole-wheat flour)30.00%
Water70.00%
Olive Oil5.00%
Salt2.00%
Yeast0.00%
Garlic6.00%
Rosemary0.25%
Parmigiano Cheese*20.00%
Total Percentage203.25%
*I caution the use of Parmigiano Reggiano as it will liquify during the bake. I’ve instead learned to use Grana Padano or shredded American-style Parmesan (like Sargento). The only challenge with using this harder style of cheese is that it will really affect the structure of the dough, and you have to be extremely gentle with your stretch and folds!

Levain

Mature Starter50g
Flour50g
Water50g
Levain Required for Recipe134g*
I will detail the levain build below

Final Dough

Bread Flour579
Kamut Flour248
Water (85°-90°F)559
Olive Oil45
Salt18
Yeast0
Garlic54
Rosemary2
Cheese179
Levain134
Total Yield1,818
2 X 900g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp80°-82°F
Total Flour894
Total Water626

Build the Levain

Since I store my starter in the fridge, I invariably have to employ a two-stage levain build to ensure my levain is active. Typically, I’ll create 1:1:1 levain, usually about 30g mature starter, 30g water, then 30g AP flour. Once that peaks, I’ll feed it with more flour and water to get me to the levain weight I need. Then once it peaks again (and passes the float test), then I’ll proceed with the final dough development.

In both cases, I use very warm water – about 90°F – to ensure that the yeast is happy. And I ferment the starter in a warm environment to maintain the warmth. The idea at this stage is to emphasize yeast activity over bacterial activity.

Build the Final Dough

Roast the Garlic. Peel the garlic you need, then wrap in foil with a little olive oil, then roast at 375°F for 30-40 minutes. Or… I just cut the top off a whole garlic cluster, pour some oil over the top, then wrap it up in foil and roast it.

Initial Mix/Autolyse. Reserve 50g of the water. Add the rest to the levain and dissolve the levain completely. Add this liquid to all the flour and mix thoroughly until no dry ingredients remain. Rest for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Second Mix/Bassinage. Dissolve the salt in the remaining water, then pour it over the dough. By now the garlic should be cool and soft. Squeeze out what you’ll need then dump it onto the top of the dough. Sprinkle the rosemary and cheese evenly over the dough. Using a squeezing action, work the ingredients into the dough until everything is fully incorporated and the ingredients are evenly distributed. Once the bassinage water is incorporated, add the olive oil.

Bulk Fermentation. 3 1/2 to 4 hours in a warm environment to maintain an 80ºF dough temperature. If you’re going to do an overnight final proof in the fridge, bulk fermentation will be done once the dough expands 25-30%. If doing a same-day bake, allow the dough to almost double.

Folding. Fold twice at 50-minute intervals. Since there is whole-grain flour in the dough along with bits of cheese and herbs, be gentle with your folding. It is absolutely crucial that you do not stretch to the point that you tear the dough!

Note that I used to instruct to fold the dough every 30 minutes ala Tartine. Because of all the cheese and rosemary in the dough, I now only recommend performing two stretch and fold sessions.

Divide and Pre-Shape. Divide the dough into two 900g pieces. Pre-shape into rounds and bench rest them for 15 minutes, or until the balls have sufficiently relaxed for shaping.

Shaping. Shape into rounds or ovals and place into appropriate baskets.

Final Fermentation. If you’re going to do a cold ferment, place your bannetons in the fridge for up to 24 hours (the longer the ferment, the more sour the dough). You could experiment with taking final fermentation out to 36 hours, but make sure to check the dough! For my fridge, 24 hours seems to work well and give me some nice sourness. If you’re doing a same-day bake, do the final proof in a warm environment for about an hour to an hour and a half. Poke test the loaves to make sure they are ready. That last time I baked these, it took almost two hours for the loaves to finish proofing.

Bake. Bake at 400ºF with steam for 20 minutes. Remove the steaming container, then bake for 30-35 minutes at 425º or until the crust becomes a deep, burnished brown. This is a gentle bake that will not burn the cheese or brown the garlic too much.

Using Salt-Stressed Yeast

Yesterday I posted an article discussing that salt does not kill yeast. It’s a myth that has somehow propagated across the baking world. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the relationship between salt and yeast. I’ve even read articles where even well-known bread chefs really didn’t have an understanding of how salt truly affects yeast. Pretty amazing.

In my research on the subject, I came across a number of articles from academics and laypeople discussing and experimenting with salt-stressing yeast prior to mixing and how it affected the rise and texture of the dough.

What is salt-stressing the yeast?

Basically, it’s a process of exposing the yeast to a slightly saline environment to make it go into osmotic shock. When it gets shocked like this, its reaction is to produce chemicals that protect it from leaching. Once it gets over the shock, it becomes resistant to further osmotic shock events. What this means with respect to baking bread is that salt-stressed yeast can then be added to high-salt or high-sugar dough and still function.

For standard, straight dough, using salt-stressed yeast shortens fermentation time. With the typical straight dough, when you dump everything together and mix it, the yeast initially goes through osmotic shock. There is a lag period where the yeast needs to recover from the shock, then it becomes active again and starts producing gas. With salt-stressed yeast, there’s no lag as the yeast has already gone through osmotic shock and it starts fermentation immediately.

Another effect of using salt-stressed yeast is that the chemicals that get released apparently act as a natural dough conditioner, increasing the gas-retention ability of the dough and producing a softer crumb.

Of course, after going down the rabbit hole of salt-stressed yeast, I had to try baking bread with it. So I took my traditional poolish baguette recipe and baked the loaves above. I bake a lot baguettes and I have to say that the crumb was indeed softer with the salt-stressed yeast. What about the fermentation time? It was shorter, especially bulk fermentation. Normally my dough finishes bulk fermentation in about 3 hours at 78ºF. This dough took less than 2 hours to finish bulk fermentation, so the yeast activity was definitely higher.

The reason I used a poolish method was that since I was expecting a faster bulk fermentation, I wanted make sure there was some taste in the dough which the poolish would provide. Luckily I did that because the bread would have probably turned out insipid. Given that this technique really picks up the yeast activity, in the future, I will use less yeast to ensure flavor development.

But with regards to texture, wow! This technique is really awesome!

How to Salt-Stress Your Yeast

The scientific experiments that were run used a 7% saline solution, so I wanted to duplicate that in my own bake. So here goes:

  1. Take the weight of the salt and divide it by 7% (0.07). This will give you the amount of water you’ll need to create a 7% solution.
  2. So measure out that amount of water calculated above (I recommend that it is at least 95ºF so the salt dissolves), then dissolve all the salt called for in your recipe into the warm water.
  3. Once all the salt is dissolved, add all your yeast to the solution, mix it well, then let it stand in a warm environment for at least 30 minutes, up to a few hours.
  4. When you’re ready to mix, add the rest of the water called for in your recipe to the solution. Mix this well.
  5. Add the liquid to your flour and mix. That’s it!

Busting a Myth: Salt Does NOT Kill Yeast!

At least not at the concentrations we normally use in baking.

When I started baking bread 40 years ago, at least when I created yeasted bread, I proofed the yeast and then threw everything into my bowl at the same time, salt and all. So I found it strange that when I started baking again in earnest during the pandemic that so many people on the forums would say to keep your salt and yeast separate because salt kills yeast.

Folks, I’m just going to say it: Salt does NOT kill yeast, nor does it inhibit its activity – at least not in the way most might think. As I indicated at the top, in order for salt to kill yeast, it would have to be in a pretty high concentration to do that. If someone tells you that salt kills yeast, they’re sadly misinformed.

But before I go on, let me give the backstory on why I’m writing this post. Last night, I was flipping through channels trying to find something to watch and ended up just watching reruns of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. In this one particular episode where Guy was visiting a Whole Foods-like grocery in Sioux Falls, SD called Looks, the chef making the pizza dough mentioned osmotic yeast as the yeast he uses so he can up the salt content of his dough.

Uh-oh… though I had seen that episode before, for some reason osmotic yeast triggered a geek moment and I proceeded to get on my computer and go down the rabbit hole to understand the term. What I found out was that the term osmotic yeast is actually a bit of a misnomer and that the chef probably made it up. Not a big deal. What he really meant was that he was using yeast that had already gone through osmotic stress so it was resistant to later osmotic stress challenges.

So what is osmotic stress? When yeast encounters saline or even a sweet environment, it goes through what is called osmotic stress as it reacts to the higher saline or sugar concentration; as both salt and sugar leech water from their environments. Yeast reacts to this by producing glycerol to help protect its cell walls from further osmosis – or leeching.

During this period, there is little to no CO2 production, which is why people might think salt or sugar inhibits the yeast. I suppose that the osmotic stress period could be considered an inhibitor period, but once the yeast has protected itself, it goes back to its normal course of business and starts producing gas. How long this period lasts is affected by the ambient temperature.

Now the interesting thing about the yeast producing glycerol is that not only does it protect the yeast’s cell walls from further osmotic stress, but it’s also released into the dough which purportedly aids in the dough’s strength and extensibility (though glycerol’s role in dough development is still being studied). Kind of cool stuff! Now back to osmotic yeast…

Pre-stressed yeast has been proofed in a saline solution to bolster the cell walls and produce glycerol. This means that when it is added to a dough, there is no lag period where the yeast has to build up a tolerance to the saline environment. It has already gone through the stress so it just starts acting.

In my dive into the rabbit hole, I came across this excellent article that provides a mildly-technical layman’s perspective of salt-stressed yeast and how it is used in baking. I encourage you to read it! When I make baguettes next, I’m going to salt-stress my yeast first! Another great thing about that article that I linked to is that it has references to lots of scientific research showing the effects of salt-stressed yeast on fermentation. I read through many of the abstracts and articles and they’re pretty eye-opening! The author also shows how to salt-stress your yeast before you mix! Can’t wait to try it out!

Admittedly, I haven’t read through all the science on this as of yet, so while I understand the basic mechanics, I’m by no means an expert on the subject. So I encourage you to do some research on this subject as it completely busts the myth that salt kills yeast!

Don’t Just Fold Your Dough!!! STRETCH and Fold It!

This is going to be a short one…

After reading lots of forum posts from people saying things like, “I stretch and fold my dough like Ken Forkish says in Flour Water Salt Yeast, and my dough still seems like batter,” then seeing replies from other folks about lowering hydration, I thought I’d address it here.

Before you even think about playing with hydration numbers, look to your stretch and fold technique first. Most beginning bakers only fold the dough, but they don’t actually stretch it. You have to stretch your dough to its extents without tearing it, then fold it over.

For example, look at the picture to the left. As you can see, I’m really stretching the dough. And though it’s difficult to tell from the picture, I’ve actually pulled the dough out about 12″ from the base dough ball. Then I folded it over the main mass. While stretching the dough, I could feel the dough strengthening.

Also, another point of confusion with stretching and folding dough is the number of times you should do it during a session. As a rule of thumb, I will do stretches and folds until the dough no longer wants to be stretched, and as I stretch the whole dough mass wants to come along. For the stiffer, lower-hydration dough, that could be 3 to 4 stretches and folds. But for wetter dough, like the 82% dough shown in the picture, that could be 12-15 times!

Forkish talks about turning the dough over onto its folds after the end of a folding session. You really can only do that when you’ve created lots of tension through stretching.

What about protein content?

Though related, it’s a slightly different topic and yes, a soupy, soppy dough could be the result of using flour that can’t support the hydration levels called for in a recipe. But I’ve found that developing dough strength – or lack thereof – tends to be the culprit.

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…

A New Way to Bake?

The other day, I watched a YouTube video by FoodGeek who did an experiment in which he turned his oven off during the first 20 minutes to see how it affected oven spring. He apparently learned it from a bakery that swore by this method. The results of the experiment were pretty amazing. In both cases (Dutch oven and baking stone) where he turned his oven off, the oven spring with both loaves was magnificent, especially with the Dutch oven loaf that had huge holes.

I was going to do that myself with my latest bake but instead decided to just lower the temp of my oven during the first 20 minutes. The reason for this was that my oven doesn’t retain heat very well, so turning off my oven entirely would cool it down way too much for my liking. And the results? well, they were pretty amazing as you can see in the pictures above.

The first thing I noticed when my loaf came out of the oven, was that it was nice and puffy all around. Compare that to this loaf that I baked earlier from the same batch of dough:

No doubt, that has a great oven spring as well, but you can tell that it’s not quite as much as the loaf up top as its ends slope down a little more severely though both have excellent crumb structures.

Here’s the technique I used:

  1. Preheat oven to 485°F for an hour to ensure my stone has come fully to temp.
  2. 5 minutes before baking, add water to my steaming container to make sure the loaf enters a steamy environment.
  3. Quickly transfer the loaf to my stone.
  4. Immediately turn the oven down to 400°F and set the time to 20 minutes.
  5. After 20 minutes, remove the steaming container, vent the steam, then bake at 425° for 40 minutes until the bottom third of the crust is a deep mahogany in color.

So why do I think this works so well? I think the main reason is that the lower temp means the loaf comes up to temp much more slowly, which allows the yeast to stay in their super-active zone (between 90°F and 140°F when they begin to die off). Combined with the steamy environment, that lets the loaf expand – a lot!

Admittedly, I’m going to have to do this a few more times. I’ll be making baguettes next, so I’ll attempt the technique with those. I’ll keep you posted!

Happy Baking!