Trust Your Dough: Part III of Working with High-hydration Dough

As I’ve been sharing in the past few posts, I’ve been experimenting with super-high hydration dough to test the limits of my flour blend. It has been a real learning experience. One big thing is that really wet dough doesn’t respond like lower hydration dough. Whereas a lower hydration dough will come together and it’s easy to create a nice gluten network pretty much immediately, it’s not so with dough above the 85% hydration level. In fact, right after mixing, the dough is somewhat of a gloppy mess. It looks like pancake batter and even feels like it.

For instance, the loaf shown in the picture above was about 90% hydration. I was admittedly a little skeptical about the dough when I first mixed it. And after it had fully fermented, I didn’t even know if it would even shape! But I knew that the gluten strands were forming as I folded the dough. I could feel it. And damn if it didn’t spring up in the oven! VERY COOL!

Yesterday, I decided to push it even further and made a 95% dough out of the same flour blend. Because it was so wet, I decided to do the initial mix in my mixer. I’m so glad I did because after I got all the ingredients incorporated, the dough looked even more like pancake batter! Over the course of six folds over a 3-hour period, I definitely could feel the gluten forming as I folded.

But I have to be honest. Even though I could feel the gluten developing, the dough was still like a super-thick batter. When it came time to preshape and shape the dough, it was incredibly difficult to shape, and the resulting loaves were, let’s say, a little on the flat side. I got oven spring alright, but it was way more out than up. So I think exceeded the hydration limit with that particular flour blend.

But in spite of the difficulty in working with such a wet dough, I resisted the urge to tweak, though I could tell I probably wouldn’t get the most ideal results. And even though I’m fairly experienced as a baker, I had to see it through. I won’t lie. There were a couple of times while I was folding – if you could call it that – where I was tempted to add a bit more flour to the mix. But this was an experiment to test the hydration limits of that flour blend, so I let it go.

But despite the relative flatness of the loaves, I wouldn’t call the experiment a total disaster. The loaves rose up, which meant I could expect a reasonably open crumb, which I got. And quite frankly, the taste of the bread was magnificent. I used whole wheat levain this time around and this particular flour was packed with lactobacillus bacteria, giving the bread a gorgeous tang.

That “tang” means acid, and acid breaks down gluten, which may have been a contributor to the lack of gluten strength. So it’s one thing to consider for future bakes. I will either have to add vital wheat gluten to make sure there’s extra protein and perhaps still drop the hydration level just a smidgen.

As I think about this experiment, I look at all the time I’ve spent learning these past couple of years and it makes me smile. For me at least, the beauty of baking isn’t in the end product. The beauty is in the process and understanding all the variables that go into producing a loaf of bread. Though I’ve experienced failures or setbacks, they’ve all served to teach or reveal to me some subtle nuance. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion.

Happy baking!


Still Splitting Hairs

In my previous post, I quoted the following originally from a New York Times article:

Mitchell Davis of the Beard Foundation believes that the bagel, like ketchup, is a product ill served by current food trends. ‘‘The effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result…’

While that article focused on bagels, the same can be applied to bread. Having done a real deep-dive into ancient bread making techniques over the last several months, I’ve developed a sensitivity to innovating too much. As I mentioned in my article, when I bake bread based on traditional recipes, I do my best to stick to the traditional ingredients and techniques.

Take, for instance, the humble baguette. While technically, it has only been recognized as a specific loaf called a “baguette” for only a couple of hundred years, it is steeped in a tradition of French long loaves that date back a few hundred years. And in 1993, the French government ratified into law (known as the Décret Pain) the ingredients that define the class “pain de tradition Française” of which baguettes are a part, as being made of flour, water, salt, and yeast.

That said, there is a little grey area with the leavening agent as Article 2, Section 2 states:

Fermented with yeast suitable for breads (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and a starter, in the sense of article 4 of this Decree, or either yeast or a starter;

That kind of opens the door to using a sourdough starter to leaven the bread. But the general interpretation of a “starter” seems to be more along the lines of using a poolish, which is a yeasted starter.

Now, why does this even matter to me at all? Simply because what I’ve learned about baguettes is that they’re not defined by their shape, but by their dough. I know, you see a long, thin loaf of bread with diagonal scoring along the length, and you immediately say, “baguette.” And I suppose that to the consumer, it doesn’t matter. But now, when I see “sour” or “sourdough” preceding “baguette,” I know, based on my research, that loaf is technically “pain au levain” or bread risen with a levain.

Furthermore, circling back to “the effect of artisanship does not always produce a better product,” I’ve often found myself innovating for innovation’s sake. It’s not that the end product is bad by any means. But at least for me now, when I call a certain bread a particular type, I want to make sure that I’m not coloring outside the lines.

One of the things I was concerned about when making my baguettes was the mix of flours I was using. I typically use a combination of 60% high-extraction flour and 40% AP flour – both unbleached, so the crumb of my bread tends to be on the brown side. Luckily, the Decret Pain states in Article 2, Section 1:

Made only from a mix of wheat flours suitable for making bread, safe water and cooking salt.

I admit that I’m being a bit parochial. It’s actually a little out of character for me to so strictly observe tradition. If you knew me as a contemporary Catholic liturgical musician, you’d know that I’m not much of a traditionalist. Even in my career as a software engineer, I forged my path in technology as a visionary and innovator.

But with bread, it’s a completely different story. Don’t get me wrong, I have a few different types of bread that I make that are innovations on traditional recipes. But when it comes to making traditional bread, I’m pretty parochial. I have a real “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.

Some might say it’s limiting. But there’s a lot to be said about mastering the traditional techniques. As I journey forward in bread making (and yes, I have aspirations of eventually doing this professionally), I want to make sure that my technique is steeped in tradition.

Plus, some of the techniques are just downright difficult to master. Take the ancient Italian bread, Pane di Altamura, for instance (shown to the left). This is 100% durum wheat bread from the Altamura region of Italy. It is a very distinct-looking loaf, sporting a pompadour of sorts. The dough itself, like pretty much all Italian bread, is uncomplicated, as is the dough processing. But learning to shape that bread is a different story altogether. It has taken me several bakes to even approach what it should look like.

There are no instructional videos that teach how to shape Pane di Altamura, so I’ve had to watch slowed-down videos, of which there aren’t very many. And though the bread is distinguished by the region where it comes from, different bakers achieve the pompadour in slightly different ways. But luckily I did run across a video that had a close-up view of how one baker shapes his bread and I’ve been using that.

The point to this is that with this particular bread, there’s really no room for innovation. I suppose I could eventually tweak things here and there, but before I can do that, I need to master the basics first.

Speaking of tweaking, a few months ago I had a realization that I got to the point where I was innovating so much that I wasn’t getting consistent results. I was making tweaks everywhere. But it wasn’t until I stopped myself and stuck with a method that I started getting consistent results.

This was evident in my baguettes. I was trying a lot of different techniques and my results, while tasty, weren’t consistent at all. I now focus on two production methods depending on when I want to bake. I use a pointage en bac or slow rise method for flavor development that I learned from Chef Markus Farbinger (which is also my normal two-day method) or, if I want a same-day bake and a more grain-forward taste, I use the baguettes de tradition method that Jeffrey Hamelman presents in his book “Bread.”

But in both cases, I use the same shaping technique that I learned from Chef Farbinger. Now, no matter what dough development technique I use, my baguettes come out looking the same. It’s comforting because as simple as the ingredients are in baguettes, they’re probably the most challenging bread to get right. And shaping is absolutely critical, which is why I use the same technique for both dough production methods. Besides, if it’s good for a master chef, it’s certainly good for me. 🙂

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all against innovation. But as with anything in life, you have to be well-versed in the foundational aspects of different bread before you can branch out. But here in America, it’s almost expected to “do your own thing” and there’s this seemingly pervasive attitude to innovate for innovation’s sake. And I think that’s where many people run into the proverbial brick wall or worse – they come up with some pretty funky creations (the funkiest I’ve seen are blue croissants).

At least for me, I do heed those words Mitchell Davis wrote: The effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result.

Sticking with Tradition

I recently read an article on Medium discussing how Boichik Bagels in Berkeley was voted the Best Bagel in America by the New York Times. I don’t know that I’d agree as my local bagel shop that I’ve been going to for almost forty years has great bagels. But I’m not here to debate that. What struck me in the article though was the following:

…When the New York Times last considered West Coast bagels in 2015, their conclusion was that West Coasters couldn’t make a good one because they tried too hard to innovate. Rather than putting in years of practice to hone and perfect old-world techniques — and to obsess over tiny details like the alkalinity of their water — they tried to create new twists on the traditional bagel, adding in sourdough starter, cooking up gluten-free varieties, and the like.

With bagels, Mitchell Davis of the Beard Foundation told the Times in 2015, “the effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result.” A great bagel is fundamentally traditional, steeped in long-developed cultural trends and a peoples’ collective memory. It’s not something that benefits from “updating” or from the artisanship and personalization which West Coast chefs often bring to their trade.

Reading those two paragraphs above struck me like ton of bricks!

Though my return to baking started out with just wanting to make a decent loaf of bread, my journey since then has led me to doing my best to replicate old world techniques in the modern age. It harkened me back to a recent conversation where a close friend suggested that I make sourdough baguettes.

I make sourdough baguettes from time to time, but technically, baguettes are typically yeasted breads, using a poolish preferment, or a simply a straight dough as in the pointage en bac or baguettes de tradition methods. To me at least, baguettes using a levain are different. Don’t get me wrong. I love the taste, especially when I use one of my botanical starters. But I normally call the bread I make with levain Sourdough French Bread as opposed to being called a baguette. By French law, breads made with a levain are called “pain au levain.”

I realize that I’m splitting hairs, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my journey: I don’t like to mess with tradition with certain loaves. I may try different methods; for instance, I’ve learned 5 different approaches to make baguettes, but for the most part, I do my best to stick to the traditional methods where I can. This especially rings true for the ancient Italian bread that I make like Pane di Como Antico, or Pane di Altamura. These have literally been made for thousands of years. Who am I to tweak them?

That said, I’m not a curmudgeon. I innovate all the time, experimenting with different flour mixes or adjust protein levels or hydration or even levain amounts. But if I’m making something I intend to call by its traditional name, I pretty much follow the traditional method.

As Emily Winston, owner and chef of Boichick bagels said:

I wasn’t trying to be an innovative chef, and I wasn’t trying to make something new. I don’t have a horse in that race,” Winston said. Instead, she was “trying to make something that already existed…

That totally reverberates with me. With the traditional recipes I use, I really don’t want to be an innovator. Obviously, I can’t copy everything that was done hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and I certainly don’t have a stone hearth oven. But I do my best to observe the ingredients and processes that are in the recipes. I’m trying to make something that already existed, that has hundreds or even thousands of years of tradition behind it, not to mention bakers who have devoted their entire lives to making that bread. For me at least, I think it’s super important to carry on that legacy where I can.

Happy Baking!

Working Backwards… Or, Thank Goodness for Formulas!

Once I started getting into more advanced recipes, be they sourdough or straight dough, and especially reading books like Jeffrey Hamelman’s “Bread,” which focus heavily on production, it made me start thinking in terms of yield. That is, how much dough should I produce based on the size (weight) of the loaves I wanted to make.

For months, I kind of flailed around using a kilo of dough for pretty much everything, then dividing it up into equal portions. But frankly, that wasn’t very efficient, and it certainly lend itself to consistency from bake to bake.

Why? Simply because if you tweak anything, it changes the weight of the final dough. For instance, let’s say I always use 1 kilo of flour. If I’m making baguettes, I know that I want my hydration to be 75%. Easy enough, the final dough’s flour and water will weigh 1750g. But what if I wanted to drop the hydration to 65% using the same amount of flour. That weight would drop to 1650g! See what I mean?

So what I needed was a way to calculate the ingredient amounts I’d need based on the final weight of the dough. For instance, if I’m making baguettes, my 20-22 inch baguettes should weight 350g apiece. If I want to make 8 baguettes, then I should produce 8 X 350 or 2800g of dough. That’s all well and good, but how do I calculate how much flour, water, salt, and yeast I’d need? This is where the baker’s formula comes into play.

Basic Calculation

Let’s take a simple straight dough baguette formula. In Hamelman’s book, the overall formula would look something like this:

Flour 100%
Water 76%
Salt 1.8%
Yeast 0.25%
Total: 178.05%

When I first saw a formula listed like this, I have to admit that I was totally confused about the number that added all the percentages together. What I later found out is that number is the key to calculating the amount of flour in a recipe based on the final weight of the dough! You simply divide the final dough weight by that number, and you get the total flour in the recipe!

So taking my need for 2800g of dough, the flour I’d need would be 2800 / 1.7805 which calculates to about 1573g, rounded-up. From there, it’s easy to calculate the water, salt, and yeast.

Factoring in a Preferment

A mistake that I used to make and what I see in some books, a lot of blogs, and forum posts is treating a preferment (starter, levain, poolish, biga, etc.) as an ingredient. For instance, saying to use 10% starter. A preferment is simply not an ingredient. It’s a dough development stage; that is, it is part of the overall dough formula and thus the weight of its constituent contents is what’s meaningful, not the preferment itself.

Why is this important? Think about it this way: Let’s take the 1573g grams of flour that I’d need to make my baguettes, for example. 10% of that would be 157g. But if we add 10% of that to the recipe, treating the preferment as an ingredient, we’ll completely throw off our weights. Remember, we’re after a final weight of 2800. If we add 157g to that, we go up to 2957g. Not good.

Furthermore, different preferments will have different hydration rates. If we use a 200% hydration liquid starter, that’ll completely screw up the hydration that I want to be at 76%; not by much, but enough to make a difference in how the dough performs.

So the better approach to take is to consider the flour content in the preferment as a fraction of the total flour, then subtract the flour and water in the preferment from the overall flour and water to keep the final weight the same. With this method, we ensure that the preferment is truly a fraction of the overall dough and not an added ingredient.

The spreadsheet below is something I put together to help me calculate my ingredient amounts for pretty much any kind of bread that I make. I’ve included various other ingredients that I might use. It all goes into the calculation. It’s also available on Google Spreadsheets. Just copy all and paste it into a new sheet.

This has become an invaluable tool for me in calculating exactly what I need to bake all sorts of bread.

Arnold Palmer: “The Road to Success Is Always Under Construction”

Those who know me know I have kind of an obsession about golf. I learned the game kind of late – at 18 years old – but from the moment I picked up a club, I was hooked. Absolutely hooked. I even moved to Las Vegas in the hopes of eventually becoming a PGA teaching pro. That didn’t happen for me for lots of reasons but my love for the game of golf has never wavered.

One of my golf idols throughout my playing career has been Arnold Palmer. To me, he was a man of the people. Though he had four green jackets from winning The Masters four times, he was always known to be totally accessible to his fans. But not only that, he carried a wisdom with him that he readily shared.

Arnie’s words of wisdom that I shared in the title of this post have inspired me through the years. I don’t remember when he said them (and I realize this quote is also attriuted to Lily Tomlin), but I remember that when I heard them, it was during a particularly difficult time in my life where I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do. And upon hearing those words, I was inspired; inspired to keep on charging forward, to keep on working. To never quit.

I’m at that point with my bread making right now. I’ve started working with more difficult formulations and techniques and while the bread is coming out delicious and to the untrained eye it looks fine, I’m not satisfied. I’m not getting an ear with my many of my loaves as of late and it bugs me.

But this afternoon, I sat down at the TV to watch the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament and right before a commercial break, they showed a statue of Arnold Palmer with the quote right next to it. I just smiled because I knew that though I’m frustrated right now, I just have to keep on working at it.

Plus, I realized that I should know better. I’m working with much more advanced formulations and techniques and I need to practice before I get the results that I’m expecting I should get. It’s a road that’s definitely under construction!

Happy Baking!