Making Bread More Flavorful

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:

BreadFlour BlendFlavor Notes
Sourdough 150% High-Extraction Bread Flour
25% Whole Wheat (sifted)
25% Kamut/Rye
This has the sourest flavor as I make my levain using whole wheat flour that has lots of bacteria in it.
Sourdough 260% 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 360% 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 150% AP Flour
25% Bread Flour
25% Kamut or Rye
Kamut and Rye both add nuttiness to the flavor and the bread flour provides chew.
Baguette 2,
Ciabatta
75% AP Flour
25% Kamut or Rye
This is actually the blend I use the most for baguettes and ciabatta.
Baguette 360% 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.
NOTE: All flour I use is certified organic

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…

On Additives

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

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Letting the Dough Speak to You

The very first bread recipe I ever learned was a whole-wheat sourdough recipe made from an offshoot of an original San Francisco sourdough starter that I got from the TA of my freshman Microbiology class in college over 40 years ago. Along with the starter, he included a recipe. And while the recipe had times listed, he stressed to all of us who got the starter that the times he listed were only approximate and he gave us telltales as to when to move on to the next phase. That was the only bread recipe I used for many years and I got pretty good at recognizing and feeling what was happening with the dough.

You see – and I know this sounds a little strange – the dough will speak to you if you’ll only listen. Unfortunately, so many folks, especially newbies to baking bread, follow recipes literally. If a recipe says to fold the dough 6 times over three hours, they’ll do it. If it says bulk fermentation will two hours, they’ll start pre-shaping it at two hours. In either of these cases, under the right circumstances, they’ll produce nice loaves. But then they’ll scratch their heads wondering why their next batches didn’t turn out the same.

As Jonathan of Proof Bread said in one of his videos, “…the dough will let you know what’s going on with it.” And it’s true. The dough will indeed let you know, but in a way, you kind of have to know its language. Luckily, its language is limited to a few words. I’m going to put a humorous spin on it.

“Look, I’m strong enough already…”

Of course, we’re talking about dough strength and gluten development here. When you’re folding your dough, or even using a mixer, your dough will tell you when it has had enough. Even with high-hydration dough, you’ll start feeling a bit of resistance from the dough; where you no longer can stretch it to the extent that you were able to a couple of sessions ago. A good telltale is how long the dough takes to relax and hit the sides of your container. If it’s a fairly slow rate and the mass generally holds its shape – like minutes – chances are it’s strong enough. You’ve built enough strength into the dough so now let bulk fermentation finish.

But what about all those recipes like the Tartine Country Loaf and its various spin-offs that say to fold the dough six times over three hours? Well, just as with rising times, how much or how little you fold your dough to build strength is dependent on a lot of different factors. That said, probably the most important factor is the flour or flour blend you use as water absorption properties vary from flour to flour, which in turn affect both the rate and the quality of gluten formation. For instance, with the flour blends I use, I’ve never done the full six folds when following the Tartine process – even if I take hydration over 80%! My flour forms gluten pretty quickly and my folding builds strength quickly.

As I write this, I’m baking two 1-kilo loaves of 75% Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour / 25% Azure Standard Dark Rye Flour hydrated at about 81%. The bread flour forms up gluten so efficiently that even at this high hydration, I only had to fold the dough twice last night! If I used my normal Azure Standard High Extraction flour, I’d have to fold it at least 4 times as it is not nearly as good at forming gluten due to the bran particulates in the flour even though it has almost 15% protein content. See what I’m getting at?

“Feed me! Feed me!”

Let’s make one thing really clear: Your starter is part of your dough. In fact, it’s the first part of your dough. Lots of books and articles have been written about feeding your sourdough starter, but I thought I’d take a different tack on the subject and demystify it a bit. No, I’m not going to suggest a different feeding method or schedule, but bear in mind that your starter will speak to you as well and if you’re listening, you may very well change your schedule.

One of the things I often hear people talk about is the lack of activity in their starter, and I see many comments similar to this: “I’m not sure what’s happening with my starter. It’s not very active and I’ve been feeding it every 12 hours!”

There are three main factors that affect activity in a starter (not in any particular order): 1) The density of the yeast in the starter matrix, 2) The amount of acidity in your starter, and 3) the ambient temperature. You can directly affect temperature. but you have to do a bit of finagling of the starter to affect items 1) and 2), and that is through feeding.

Generally, what you hear with regards to feeding your starter is you do it to get it active enough to use for baking. But as with dough strength, you can’t be a fundamentalist about the schedule. For instance, many starter instructions say to feed your starter every twelve hours, and people will do it religiously and then wonder why their starter never bubbles up much. The probable cause for this is that the starter’s not ready to be fed and instead of increasing the density of the yeast in the starter, they’re actually decreasing it.

The starter will tell you when it’s ready to be fed. Look for telltales such as doubling in volume (usually the peak), or if there is a noticeable “ring” around the top of the starter where the starter has peaked and then receded. Or if you’re using a fairly liquid starter, look for a proliferation of bubbles on the top surface. This is the starter telling you it’s ready to be fed.

On Discarding…
A question that often gets asked is why we discard half the starter when feeding. Most people answer that we do this because if we kept on adding more and more flour and water, the sheer amount of starter we’d produce would be unmanageable. That is true, but there’s a bit more going on than just that simple explanation. In fact, two very important things are accomplished with feeding: 1) We reduce the acidity in the starter, as acid is a yeast inhibitor, and 2) We reduce competition from other microbes to allow the yeast to flourish.

Yeast exists to eat sugar and multiply. And its ability to do that requires fairly ideal conditions. Its environment can’t be too acidic, which is the other microbes’ way of keeping the yeast from taking over. And it has to have reliable and abundant access to fuel. By discarding, then adding fresh flour and water, we are providing fresh food, but also reducing the acidity in the starter and we’re creating a more favorable environment for the yeast to flourish. When yeast is able to operate optimally, it releases inhibitors of its own, thus becoming the dominant organism in the starter.

We want yeast to be the dominant organism for bulk fermentation. But for final fermentation, we want the other organisms, specifically the lactobacillus bacteria to be dominant. That is why pop our shaped loaves into the fridge to attenuate the yeast activity and allow the bacteria to hold sway. Cool stuff!

Activity 24 hours after activation of the Giza starter from Sourdoughs International.

Yeast: “You’re on MY time…”

I recently ordered a couple of different starters from Sourdoughs International and yesterday (9/17/2022), I finally got the time to activate their Giza starter that was propagated from yeast captured from an ancient bakery unearthed at the foot of the Great Pyramid. This was part of a National Geographic project. Check out the link to find out more about the starter.

Anyway, I activated it yesterday and went to feed it this morning after letting it sit in a warm environment for 24 hours. To my utter amazement, the starter was not just bubbly, but even a bit frothy! That was totally unexpected. Before I activated the starter, I made sure to completely sterilize my container to ensure that the microbes in the starter were the predominant organisms. Well apparently, they’re not only the dominant organisms, they’re incredibly active! Then about an hour after discarding and feeding the starter, I noticed how much it was expanding. At this rate, I think it will peak after just four hours!

The activation instructions mentioned that I shouldn’t expect much activity after 24 hours and the starter shouldn’t be ready for baking for 4 to 5 days. But at this rate, I’ll probably be ready to make some dough tomorrow!

The point of this is that yeast operates on its own schedule. We can read and follow instructions all we want. But if the yeast is ready, it’s ready. On the flip side, some yeast is slower on the uptake and takes longer to get going. For instance, my original starter that I have been nurturing for the last couple of years has always been a little lazy at the start of fermentation. I’ve tried rebuilding it and refreshing it, but it still just operates on its own schedule. It has actually been ideal for long fermentation periods, and as it is pretty sensitive to a cold environment when I retard the final fermentation, there’s lots of flavor development.

With this new Giza starter, I’m going to have to work out a new baking schedule since it is so active. I reached out to Sourdoughs International to inquire about the incredible activity of the culture, and they confirmed that it is very active. This is just SO cool!

Delayed-Fermentation Technique for Yeasted Dough

Surprisingly enough, I’m not going to provide a recipe here but talk purely about a technique I’ve been using to bake the last few batches of my baguettes. The technique has totally changed my approach to baking baguettes, let alone baking straight dough with yeast. Based on the Pain a l’Ancienne technique of using ice water at mixing time to inhibit yeast activity, the technique employs temperature to affect the dough, providing yet another means to develop flavor.

Those who bake sourdough are familiar with retarding fermentation for flavor development. But that typically occurs during final fermentation after the yeast has mostly finished its job of expanding the dough. Contrast this with the Pain a l’Ancienne technique where the yeast doesn’t get a chance to metabolize all that much from the get-go, allowing the amylase enzymes to break down the starches into sugars and letting the bacteria do their thing in producing organic acids and other by-products.

With the delayed fermentation technique, we mix with ice water; that’s right. Ice water.

The end result is that lots of sugars are released into the dough – more than the yeast can metabolize – and the result is a relatively darker crust due to the sugars caramelizing and a much more rich flavor from the organic acids released by the bacteria! So here’s the technique…

I highly recommend using a mixer for this technique. This will serve two purposes:

  1. It will take a lot less time than mixing by hand and doesn’t give the dough a chance to warm up significantly.
  2. It allows you to get some good gluten development before you put the dough into the fridge.
  • First off, mix all the dry ingredients together with the paddle attachment.
  • Make ice water and make sure you make enough that will meet your recipe’s requirements.
  • Attach the dough hook, then add all the ice water needed for your recipe to the bowl.
  • Starting with the slowest speed, start bringing all the ingredients together. Once the dough starts to come together, stop the mixer, then scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue mixing until there are no dry ingredients. In some cases, you may have to scrape the bottom of the bowl and flip the dough to make sure you get everything.
  • Turn the mixer up another notch to work the dough. Let it run for at least two minutes or until the dough starts climbing up the hook. That should give you plenty of gluten development to start with.
  • Transfer the dough to a sealable container. I put my dough in a glass mixing bowl that I then place in a jumbo Ziploc bag.
  • Put the dough in the fridge for 8 to 24 hours. It will probably rise just a tiny bit, but nothing significant.
  • Remove the dough from the fridge and allow it to almost double. This can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours.
  • Divide and preshape. Bench rest for 20-30 minutes until the dough has relaxed enough to be shaped.
  • Shape the dough into your desired shape and final ferment. This can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours depending on the hydration and your ambient temp. My baguettes this morning took only 45 minutes for final fermentation. Poke test the dough for readiness.
  • Bake as normal.

Though I listed a bunch of steps, the process isn’t all that complicated. But the results are astonishing. This process is a keeper!

The Many Faces of Baguettes

Click on a picture to see its recipe. The baking method described in the recipes may differ from what I discuss here. That’s because those were the ways I baked them initially. But in the last 6 months, I’ve taken to standardizing my flour blend(s) and formulas. I vary the technique to achieve different results.

I’ve been very open that my favorite bread to make is the baguette. But as you can see, I bake several different types. But with just a few minor exceptions, I bake all my baguettes pretty much the same way: 12 minutes with steam @ 475°F, 15 minutes @ 425°F. The only difference is with sourdough baguettes that go both longer on steam (20 minutes) and a little longer – 25 minutes – at 400°F for curing. As for the other types, as you can see from the pictures of some of the batches I’ve baked just in the past few months, they show different crust colors, almost as if they were baked differently. I can guarantee you that they weren’t.

And to drive the point home further, except for the Tartine baguettes, the rest of them obeyed the same, basic formula:

Flour100.00%
Water76.00%
Salt2.00%

So what differs between all the different types of baguettes are the dough development and fermentation techniques employed for each different type. The most significant effect on crust color comes from fermentation. The darker crust baguettes are not the result of longer bake times, but rather the amount of sugar released into the dough due to the longer fermentation times of either the whole dough or preferment.

For instance, the Baguettes a l’Ancienne, Sourdough, Pointage en Bac baguettes all undergo very long and cold bulk fermentation times. This allows more sugar to be released into the dough than can be metabolized by the yeast. Those crusts caramelize nicely and hence have the darkest crusts. The Tartine-Style baguettes are a little lighter as less sugar is released as the combined preferments only account for 28% of the total flour. The Poolish baguettes are fairly close in color to the Tartine-style, but they’re just a bit lighter as the preferment accounts for only 25% of the total flour. And finally, the Baguettes de Tradition are the lightest as very little sugar is released into the dough. This stuff is SO very cool!

To be honest, seeing how dough can be affected by so many different variables never ceases to amaze me and keeps me completely obsessed with dough; pushing me to try different things to see their effect on the finished bread.

As far as baguettes are concerned, I used to think that a baguette was a baguette. And though intuitively and intellectually I knew there were differences, it wasn’t until I started baking different kinds that I really knew just how different they could be – even from the same formula! It’s stuff like this that keeps me baking!

The First Rule of 90%+ Hydration Dough: Don’t Mess With It! Part II of Working with Extreme Hydration

In “Tartine-Style 50% Whole Grain Sourdough: Experimenting with Extreme Hydration, First Stop 85%,” my goal was to push the limit of the flour I use to see just how far I could take it. I postulated that 85% hydration was the outer limit for my flour, but to be completely honest, I was wrong. The loaf shown in the pictures above was hydrated to just over 90% hydration. The flour blend I used was 10% Whole Wheat (from the starter), 54% Bread Flour (Bob’s Red Mill), 36% Whole-grain Kamut Flour.

I was amazed at how the loaf maintained its structure enough to get a really great oven spring! I was a little unsure when I poured the dough out onto my loading board. It really spread out. But the important thing I noted was that despite the dough spreading out, it was still domed which meant that there was a structure to the dough. And rise up it did!

I’m going to keep pushing to find the outer limit of the hydration my flour can take, but one thing that has occurred to me in my high-hydration experiments is that the success I’ve been experiencing with the loaves I’m producing probably has a lot more to do with my technique than the flour itself. And that brings me to the crux of this post.

An important thing I’ve learned working with super-high hydration dough is to only manipulate it to accomplish what I need for a particular step and after that, leave it alone! When I’m stretching and folding the dough, I only do it enough to where I can feel the tension in the dough. And I also have learned to stretch the dough a lot slower than I normally stretch a less hydrated dough lest I degas it too much. Oh I stretch it as far it will stretch, but I don’t tug on it hard – just a slow and smooth motion.

With this batch of bread (I actually baked a few loaves with this batch of dough), I didn’t stretch and fold the Tartine method of six folds over three hours. I felt enough strength had built up after three folds. So I let the dough sit for 3 hours until it was almost doubled (my starter was a little sluggish that day).

When preshaping, I only preshape until the skin has been pulled a little taut and smooth. I don’t try to develop tight skin on the ball. And then I let it rest until it has relaxed. Depending on the weather, this could be 30 minutes or it could take an hour for the dough to relax.

With shaping, I use a stitching technique I learned from watching several videos of Chad Robertson shaping his bread at Tartine. Though it isn’t Chad Robertson, this video demonstrates the technique really well. It’s a gentle technique that creates structure but doesn’t degas the dough much and uses gravity and the natural tackiness of the dough to seal the bottom seam. Another way to get a great look at the technique is to watch John Favreau’s “The Chef Show” when he visits Chad Robertson’s Manufactory in Los Angeles.

Then finally, a long, 12-24 hour rest in the fridge for final fermentation will allow the flavors to develop and dough to perform its expanse.

Again, I want to stress that I only touched the dough when I absolutely needed to. The dough is so wet and delicate that I didn’t want to pop too many bubbles. Messing with the dough too much would undo all the hard work the yeast had done to create those wonderful gas-filled pockets!

Calculating Dough Yield – You Have to Work BACKWARDS!

I’ve touched upon this before that I’ve always had issues with recipes because they always list out the ingredients like 1000g of flour, then say, “Divide the dough into two equal pieces.” I suppose that’s fine if you’re just baking for your family and you don’t really care about things being truly equal. But when I started baking a lot and especially when I started Dawg House Bakery, dough yields and loaf weights became VERY important to me.

With regular recipes, even though they might include the baker’s formula, oftentimes they simply say, “Use this much of this and this much of that, etc.” It makes it incredibly difficult to calculate yields based on that approach, especially if you’re baking a dozen or more loaves. So I’ve taken to working backward. And by that I mean I figure out what I want to bake first, like 8 loaves @ 800 grams apiece, then work backward from there. And THAT is where the baker’s formula comes into play.

Now, most people look at a formula and only look at it from the perspective of calculating the non-flour ingredients, for instance, salt is 2% of the total flour. But the real secret of a formula lies in the sum of all the percentages. Let’s look at a basic sourdough baguette formula that I use:

Flour100.00%
Water80.00%
Salt2.00%
Total %182.00%

When I first started using formulas, I didn’t understand that Total % figure. Like most, I just looked at the non-flour ingredients. But once I learned that if you divide the total dough weight by that Total %, you get the flour amount that you need, it was a total game-changer!

For instance, let’s say I want to make 4 baguettes at 335g apiece before baking. The total dough weight would be 1340g. Now, if divide that by the 182% total percentage, the total flour in my recipe would be:

1340 / 182% = 736g

From there, it’s easy to calculate the rest of the ingredients!

If we were doing a straight dough, the numbers would look like this:

Flour736g
Water589g
Salt15g

For this amount, I just know from experience to use about 6-7 grams of yeast, so I don’t really factor that into my calculations, but typically it’s around 1% or less depending on the weather (the warmer it is, the less yeast I use).

But What About Using a Preferment or Sourdough Starter?

This is where it gets a little tricky because the preferment is technically part of the total flour and water, not a separate component. You will hear some bakers say that a preferment is the early stage of the dough. You still calculate the total amount of the preferment based on the total flour, but you have to subtract the flour and water of the preferment from the total flour and water when figuring out what you’ll need in the final dough. Otherwise, you’ll throw off your total dough weight.

For my sourdough baguettes, I want my starter to be 25% of the total flour. As my starter is 100% hydration, here are the calculations:

Preferment % of Total Flour25%
Preferment Total Weight184g
Preferment Hydration100%
Preferment Flour92g
Preferment Water92g

Based on that, here’s what the final dough ingredients will look like:

Flour736g – 92g = 644g
Water589g – 92g = 497g
Salt736g * 2% = 15g
Preferment736g * 25% = 184g
Total Yield1340g

For your convenience, I’ve created a Google Spreadsheet that you can use to calculate your ingredients. You won’t be able to edit the document, but you can copy it to your own spreadsheet, then edit it as you see fit. BTW, the calculations in the spreadsheet that you will first see are for creating 2 X 1000g Tartine-style 40% Kamut loaves. If you’re new to baking, I don’t recommend this recipe! At 90% hydration, the dough is VERY tricky!

To be honest, I have about 30 different sheets for the different kinds of bread that I bake. When I’m developing a new recipe, I always use a spreadsheet like this. It takes the guesswork out

Tartine-Style 50% Whole Grain Sourdough: Experimenting with Extreme Hydration, First Stop 85%

After re-reading Tartine No. 3 recently, I got inspired to start experimenting again with super-high hydration sourdough production. My typical hydration for sourdough is 75%, but Tartine goes even past 90% hydration! My earlier forays into 90%+ hydration were a little discouraging. I produced pretty flat loaves that, though possessed of a really open crumb, didn’t have much vertical rise. Then I saw some pictures of full loaves of Tartine and realized they had similar results!

But for me, I wanted to find a balance between extreme hydration and maintaining some oven rise. So I decided to do some tests, of which this is the first. The loaves in the pictures above were made with 85% hydration dough. I have a feeling that that is probably the limit of the type of flour I’m using, but the next bake, I’m going to push it to 90%.

These turned out a lot better than my previous forays. And part of that – I think – is due to the baskets I used. I watched some videos of both Tartine and several other bakers that were making high-hydration oval loaves and they all used what appeared to be 14″ baskets. So I got a couple. I think it makes a difference as it allows the dough to expand. But I won’t be absolutely sure until I make loaves using a standard oval basket and a long basket at the same time.

Baker’s Formula

Flour100.00%
Water85.00%
Salt2.00%
Diastatic Malt Powder (optional)**2.00%
Total Percentage189%
*Levain percentage factors the flour from the levain into the total flour
**Depending on the flour bread flour I use, I’ll add malt if there’s none added by the miller.

Final Dough

Flour
50% Bread Flour (13.8% protein), 30% Whole Wheat, 20% Kamut
935g
Water775g
Salt21g
Levain*267g
Diastatic Malt Powder21g
Total Dough Yield2020g
2 X 1000g loaves + 20g wiggle room
*Levain is calculated as 25% of the total flour which can be arrived at by taking the target dough weight and dividing it by the total percentage, so 2020 / 189%.

The Process

Make the Levain. Like Tartine, I prefer to use a young levain because I like the nutty flavor characteristics of a young levain and prefer to develop sourness during final fermenation. Even if I end up fermenting the dough enough to make it sour, it won’t be overpowering. For this particular recipe, I take about 50g of mature starter (I maintain a separate mother) and combine it with 150g flour and 150g water (warm enough to get my dough to about 80°F). Levain is ready when it passes the float test (anywhere from 2 – 5 hours depending on weather).

Initial Mix/Autolyse. Reserve about 50g of water, then mix the rest with all of the flour (if you’re using diastatic malt powder, add it now so the enzymes have a chance to break down the starches in the flour). When I use whole grain flour, I will typically autolyse for 2-4 hours, in parallel with my levain maturing.

Final Mix. Add all the levain, salt, and reserved water to the dough. Mix thoroughly until all ingredients are fully incorporated.

Bulk Fermentation. 4-6 hours depending on ambient temp or rate of fermentation or until the dough has expanded about 30-35% of its original size. There are a lot of variances in the timing. With the loaves shown above, they took a long time to bulk ferment, even at 80°F.

Divide and Pre-Shape. Divide the loaves into 1-kilo pieces, then work into rounds, developing a little surface tension. Bench rest uncovered for 20-30 minutes until the balls have relaxed.

Shape. Shape into rounds or ovals, then place into baskets.

Final Fermentation. 12-24 hours at 39°-42°F. The longer you go, the sourer the bread. I’ve taken loaves out to 36 hours but by that time, the acids started breaking down the gluten and I didn’t get much oven spring.

Bake. Bake at 475°F for 20 minutes with steam (if using a Dutch oven, then 20 minutes with the lid on). Remove the steaming container, then bake for 25-35 minutes dry at 425°F or until the crust has baked to a deep, golden brown.

Baking Is Like Playing Music

I was watching an excellent video on making poolish baguettes by King Arthur Baking Ambassador, Martin Philip. Though I feel I’ve really gotten the hang of baguettes, there’s always something to learn, plus I wanted to get affirmation on the techniques I’ve learned and employed to this point. While not much was new to me, it was great to get some insights into when the dough was ready for final shaping and also learn a new way to shape!

But about three and a half minutes into the video, he said something so compelling that I had to write about it. Basically, he drew an analogy between music and baking. It was one of the aptest insights about bread making I’ve ever heard. Here’s the video (I’ve queued it to where he makes it):

I love the analogy he drew between a recipe and a sheet of music, especially when he said that “a recipe is like musical notation in that it’s notes on the page and the notes on the page will get you close to the song, but they’re not the song. It takes time. It takes practice before you can interpret things before you can become a good musician… or a good baker.”

Dammit! I’m going to be using this for all sorts of lessons, not just baking bread!

I just love the analogy! The recipe’s ingredients are the notes and the directions are the notation of the notes on the page. With a piece of music, you have to learn it and play it several times before it sounds like a song. At first, because you’re unfamiliar with it, you’ll flail and stop and start, or play sections over. But as you get used to the flow of the music, it starts sounding like a song.

Such is the case with a recipe; especially if it’s brand-new. I remember the first time I tried making baguettes. I was proficient with dough development and knew what to look for and I wasn’t at all intimidated by the 75% hydration. And I’ve since learned that dough development is the easy part! But when it came to shaping the dough into loaves – eek!

I had prepared by reading and watching videos about the technique. But having no experience with shaping baguettes, let’s just say it was a helluva lot harder than all the books, articles, and videos may have indicated. Oh, I was able to elongate the loaves all right, but they were a little… misshapen to say the least. It took me about 10 bakes to start getting comfortable with shaping and probably another 40 to 50 bakes and breaking my oven before I gained a level of proficiency and consistency.

And taken holistically, it took me all that time to understand the dough development and processing as well. Though I mentioned above that dough development is the easy part, dough behaves differently in different environmental conditions. For instance, in warmer weather, I tend to stick to the base hydration of 75%. But in colder weather where the dough can be a little stiffer, I’ll add a couple to a few percentage points of water so that the dough feels like I think it should.

Repetition breeds familiarity.

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.

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…