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:
It will take a lot less time than mixing by hand and doesn’t give the dough a chance to warm up significantly.
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!
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 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:
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.
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 stop fermentation, but it significantly slows it down to allow the enzymes and bacteria to compete better 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.
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
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:
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!
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!
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:
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:
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 Flour
Preferment Total Weight
Based on that, here’s what the final dough ingredients will look like:
736g – 92g = 644g
589g – 92g = 497g
736g * 2% = 15g
736g * 25% = 184g
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
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.
Diastatic Malt Powder (optional)**
*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.
*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%.
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.
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.
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.
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…
As I’ve shared in the past, I’ve been baking bread for over 40 years, but it wasn’t until the pandemic lockdown that I had the time to devote to developing my artisan bread baking skills. And looking back over the last almost two years, it’s daunting to think that I’ve literally spent hundreds of hours mastering the craft; and I still consider myself a mere fledgling artisan bread baker.
Like many during the lockdown, my initial instruction came from Ken Forkish’ excellent book, Flour Water Salt Yeast. Though not very technical it helped me start getting a feel for the dough development process and for that, I’m ever grateful. I still refer to it for recipes.
On one such occasion recently, I revised the section where Ken wrote about making a dough you can call your own. I wrote about that a few months ago and while I still make lots of bread with my reference flour blend, soon after I wrote that article, I started making more and more use of Kamut flour.
Kamut is actually not a type of flour but a brand. The actual wheat type is known by its common name of Khorasan (Triticum polonicum) and is an ancient grain that can trace its roots to ancient Mesopotamia in an area known as the Golden Crescent. The kernel of this grain is roughly three times the size of most modern wheat varieties. And while it contains gluten, it’s of a type that is much more digestible than other wheat varieties and it is packed with B-vitamins.
Health benefits aside, Kamut has a wonderful flavor when incorporated in a flour blend. The bread that results has a slightly nutty flavor and when risen with a natural leaven presents a lovely fruity aroma. The crumb of bread made with Kamut is soft yet springy with a wonderful chewy texture. And as it is a rather thirsty flour even after a full bake (as shown above), the crumb retains a bit of moisture. Bread that I make using Kamut are among my most favorite.
But the main reason I love making bread with Kamut in the flour blend is that it is super-hard with which to work. The gluten that is formed with Kamut is incredibly delicate. And even though the Kamut flour I use has about 12% protein content, which you’d think could accommodate higher hydration, the delicate nature of Kamut’s gluten can a bit of an inhibitor to taking it above 75% hydration.
In light of that, Chad Robertson says in Tartine No. 3 that he takes his 60% Kamut dough past 90% hydration. But looking that the pictures, I believe he compensates by making smaller loaves though his recipe implies making 1-kilo loaves. Based on experience, medium-format loaves with that kind of hydration using that much Kamut will not have much vertical rise. You’ll get nice holes – which is what Tartine bread is known for – but not much vertical rise. For example, look at the pictures from Tartine No. 3 of the 60% Kamut bread below:
You’ll notice that there’s not much vertical rise in the cross-section. It’s a beautiful crumb that’s consistent with a highly hydrated dough. And though I don’t know how big those loaves are from the picture, I have made this recipe and experimented with 93% hydration for the 1-kilo loaves. Even though I built up lots of dough strength, they still spread out a lot. So I’m thinking that the loaves shown in the picture to the left above are significantly smaller than 1-kilo loaves so they retain some vertical rise.
As for me, I do a 40% Kamut, 30% Bread Flour, and 30% High-extraction Flour. The hydration is 75%. That blend and hydration offers the best balance of flavor and dough strength to give me great oven spring and a reasonably open crumb.
And given that Kamut’s gluten is so delicate, I’ve taken to final proofing at 39-40°F for up to 36 hours to allow plenty of time for the gases to expand in the dough. I’ve also learned to bake very gently during the first 20 minutes with steam at 400°F. Once I remove the steaming container, I up the temp to 425°F and bake for 35 minutes until I get a nice tri-color crust.
I mentioned above that I love working with Kamut because it’s a difficult flour with which to work, but I think another big reason is that it has taken me so long to master this blend and make consistently good loaves with it. And that in itself has been a revelation into the intricacies of bread baking. There are so many variables. And while it’s possible to establish methods that are common to many different kinds of bread, working with Kamut, I’ve had to make slight adjustments to my basic methodologies to accommodate the flour.
But I have to say that mastering this blend has given me an immense amount of satisfaction. And that satisfaction is what keeps me going and keeps me exploring!