It’s Lent. Time for Bread Bowls on Fridays!

I’m a cradle Catholic and though I don’t consider myself to be particularly devout, I still do my best to observe the traditions on which I grew up. One of those traditions is not eating meat or poultry on Fridays during the season of Lent. For my family, that has meant eating soup. Normally, we go to our church as they have Friday soup days, but this Lent, we’ve been staying in and either preparing our own soup (which actually means me doing the cooking), or we buy freshly prepared soup from our local Safeway (the tomato bisque is the BOMB!).

Last week, I made a batch of clam chowder. When my son came home from lacrosse practice he asked me what was for dinner, and I said, “Clam chowder.” He immediately asked, “In a bread bowl?” When I gave him a negatory, I could see his heart sink. I think he figured since Dad was a baker, I’d naturally make bread bowls. So… lesson learned, and this week, though I bought the soup, I decided to make bread bowls to make up for not having them last week.

These are not sourdough bread bowls. I could easily do those, but it being a fairly full-scheduled week, I didn’t have the time to get a levain going. So I decided to keep it simple and make a straight dough and make little boules from that. Now, not wanting to fuss with a recipe, the best I could come up with was a riff on my standard baguette recipe, but use a good amount of yeast. I also wanted to make the bread in less than three hours, so using plenty of yeast would get me there. Yeah, it’s a quick bread, but I wasn’t too concerned about making a particularly flavorful bread because it would get all its flavor from the soup.

Ahhhhh! The smell of yeasty bread! As much as I love sourdough, there’s nothing quite like a nice yeasty bread. It’s pretty amazing. Here’s the recipe!

Overall Formula

Total %178.50%

Flour Blend

AP Flour (King Arthur)60.00%
High-extraction Bread Flour (Azure Standard)40.00%

For flour, a specific brand isn’t that important. But for bread flour, I’d recommend using a fairly strong flour that has more than 12% protein content as this dough is pretty high in hydration at 75%.

Final Dough

AP Flour458g
High-extraction Bread Flour306g
Water ~90°-95°F573g
Total Yield1364g
6 X 225g loaves

Mix. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add all the salt and yeast, then mix all the dry ingredients until everything is evenly distributed. Make a crater in the middle of the dry ingredients, then pour all the water into the bowl. Using a Danish dough whisk or your hand, using a circular motion in the water, work the flour and water together, grabbing a little flour off the sides as you make circles. This is a lot like mixing pasta dough by hand. Once you’ve pulled all the flour off the sides of the bowl, use a rounded bowl scraper to scrape under the dough and turn the dry ingredients at the bottom into the dough mass. Once there are no dry ingredients left, cover your bowl with a cloth and place it in a warm place to rise.

Bulk Fermentation. 1.5 – 2 hours.

Fold. This dough only requires a single stretch and fold session after 45 minutes. There’s so much yeast, that after the first 45 minutes, the dough will be close to doubled. Using gentle motions, stretch and fold the dough until the entire mass lifts off the bottom of the bowl. Your dough will have developed all the strength it needs. After that, cover the bowl again with a towel, then let it sit in a warm place for another 45 minutes or until the mass is close to double in size.

Before dividing, preheat your oven to 475°F.

Divide and Preshape. Pour out the dough onto an unfloured work surface. Scale-out 225g pieces, then using your scraper, shape the pieces into rounds. No need to create a super-taut skin. Once preshaped, let the loaves bench rest uncovered for 15 minutes. The dough will spread out, but will still be nicely domed on top.

Shape. Lightly sprinkle the tops of the pieces with dusting flour (I use a 50/50 rice/AP flour mixture). Turn each piece onto the floured side then shape it into a boule. With dough at this hydration, I prefer to use a stitching technique similar to the Tartine shaping method to create a good internal structure, then use my bench scraper to form it into a round, making sure to tuck all the seams from stitching under the round.

Final Fermentation. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, then evenly space the rounds on the baking sheet. Once placed, you can optionally dust the tops with dusting flour, then cover the rounds with a towel and let rise for 30-45 minutes. But poke test after 30 minutes! Because it was warm in my kitchen today, I was bake-ready in just less than 30 minutes!

Bake. Bake with steam for 12 minutes at 475°F. After 12 minutes, remove the steaming container, then turn down your oven to 425°F. Bake for another 15-20 minutes until the loaves are nice, golden-brown.

Serve. Let the loaves cool for 15-20 minutes (they’ll still be nice and warm), then take a loaf and cut a large circle on the top. Using either a spoon or your fingers, gently hollow out the loaf. Fill it with your soup!


An “Easy” Dough Calculator

Here’s the link to the spreadsheet. You can’t edit it, but you can copy it to your own Google Sheets.

Being a software engineer by trade, I have a penchant for using technology to aid in automating manual tasks and baking is no exception. One thing I did early on was to create spreadsheets for calculating ingredient amounts based on my desired yield and a baker’s formula. I actually created a bunch over time, but there’s one dough calculator I created in particular that I seem to use the most. It’s displayed a the top. If you’re interested, click on the link above and copy it!

The calculator is split into 5 major sections:

  1. Loaf Calculation
  2. Formula
  3. Preferment
  4. Flour Blend
  5. Final Dough

One of the reasons I started building my dough calculators was that I wanted to bake bread to a certain, specific yield like 4 loaves at 335g apiece, then calculate the ingredients I’d need based on the target yield and the baker’s formula. This is in contrast to recipes you’d normally find in books and online where the ingredients are listed out and you have no idea about the yield other than, “Divide the dough into two equal pieces.”

That has always rubbed the more exacting side of my personality the wrong way. And especially when I started baking at higher volumes, I needed to know how much I was going to bake first. Then I’d figure out ingredient amounts based on that. Thus, I started creating dough calculators.

I use this calculator when I’m experimenting with different flour blends or different kinds of preferments. It takes all the guesswork out of figuring out what I need. Note that it is specifically meant for basic loaves that have no inclusions. This accounts for about 95% of what I bake such as sourdough boules and batards and baguettes.

Let’s step through the various sections:

The first two sections of the spreadsheet deal with the yield I’m after and the base baker’s formula. Just these two elements can drive all the ingredient amount calculations as the total flour can be obtained by simply dividing the target dough weight by the Total %. The Process Loss % field is a fudge factor for the total yield. There will always be some dough weight loss in processing, so adding a 1% or 2% fudge factor ensures that you can create all the loaves based on the dough weight.

Note that Yeast is included as an entry. If you’re making naturally leavened bread, this should be set to “0.”

The next section deals specifically with the preferment. You will provide the percentage of the total flour you’d like your starter to be, then set the hydration of your starter. A typical liquid starter is 100% hydration. A biga, on the other hand, will be around 75% to 80% hydration. Once you enter those things, the flour and water you’ll need to produce the starter, along with mature starter OR yeast will be calculated. Note that these calculations will produce more starter than you actually need for the recipe, but this is something that should be done anyway to account for process loss or starter sticking to the container.

The starter amount is meant to create a 1:5 ratio starter, the starter weight being 20% of the combined weight of the flour and water. But note that this is merely a guideline. If you’d rather do a 1:3:3 or whatever, that’s entirely up to you. You’ll just have to provide the amount of starter required in the ingredients list.

If you’re creating a poolish, the yeast you’d use is listed. I personally base the amount of instant yeast I’ll use for a poolish to 0.3%. You can change this in the cell formula if you use a different amount.

The last two sections of the calculator deal with the flour blend and the ingredients which really go hand-in-hand. This provides an easy way to figure out how much of a particular flour you want contributing the flour blend as a function of percentage. The grey line labeled “Preferment” is the percentage of the total flour that is already spoken for by the preferment. All the numbers should add up to 100%. The cell will be colored red if there is any variance.

Finally, we have the Final Dough ingredient list and the amounts required. The flour blend amounts are provided. The Total Yield is provided as an accounting measure to ensure everything adds up to what we expect. Though not shown, Total Flour and Total Water are displayed below the ingredient list and yet another check.

I invite you to copy the calculator. It has proven an invaluable tool for me!

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!

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

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

50% Bread Flour (13.8% protein), 30% Whole Wheat, 20% Kamut
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.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s dive into the formula/recipe:

Overall Formula

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


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

Final Dough

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

Build the Levain

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

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

Build the Final Dough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busting a Myth: Salt Does NOT Kill Yeast!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pH Meter? Meh. I Think I’ll Pass

Imagine that! Great bread without using a pH meter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Way to Bake?

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

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

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

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

Here’s the technique I used:

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

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

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

Happy Baking!

My Love Affair with Kamut Flour

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!

Happy Baking!