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…

I’m Sorry But…

The following is meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. Every now and then my “outside voice” surfaces and I need to vent. 🙂

…I will not mix dough with my bare hands if I can avoid it, but if you want to do it, go right ahead! That doesn’t mean I use a mixer every single time. I don’t. But I do use a Danish dough whisk for mixing up batches of dough, both large and small when I’m mixing by hand. It’s incredibly efficient and it keeps things – as in my hands – neat and clean! Plus, it’s just so much faster at getting ingredients incorporated with each other. No scraping dough off my hands, or rubbing them with flour to remove the dough. No brushing my fingernails to get all the dough out from under them.

Now I realize that there seems to be this romance about mixing the dough with your hands. Ken Forkish talked about getting close to the dough and feeling how it transforms, same thing with Chef Markus Farbinger in his video series. The way they present compels you to always mix by hand. And that said, I’m a big advocate of that when you first start out. It’s important to feel that transformation. But from lots of experience now, I can look at a dough mass and pretty much know how it will feel. So mixing by hand? Hell no! I’d rather be clean.

Stretch that dough!

…If the instructions say to stretch and fold your dough, STRETCH YOUR DOUGH! The whole point of doing the stretch and folds – and especially the stretching – is to align the gluten molecules to help build strength and structure in the dough. If all you’re doing is folding over the dough mass and not stretching the dough, you will not develop sufficient structure. So stretch your dough as far as it will go without tearing it. (BTW… I love the extensibility of my baguette dough to the left, and no, not because it looks phallic)

Close your fingers!

And for goodness’ sake, use closed fingers when tugging on your dough! (see picture to the right). I’ve spoken with so many people that say they keep tearing their dough when they stretch it. When I point out that they should be using closed fingers, it’s usually the culprit.

…Yes, I use a stand mixer. So sue me! This is REALLY tongue-in-cheek but I recently spoke with someone who kind of scoffed at the idea of me using a stand mixer to mix my ingredients. But once I explained that I was mixing a few 3-kilo batches, they changed their tune quickly. Look, I’m not against hand-mixing but when I’m on a schedule doing a big bake, I have to be as efficient as possible. If I can cut down some time by employing some automation, as long as it doesn’t impact the quality of my product, I’m going to use it! And make no bones about it: I chuckle when I see these chefs talk about mixing by hand and I see a 40-liter mixer in the background.

…There’s more to bread than frickin’ sourdough!. And yes, it really is okay to use commercial yeast. Okay… I admit that this is really my outside voice coming out, but I have to say that this is a subject that gets me mildly annoyed. The positive thing about the shutdown was that it got lots of people into making bread – especially sourdough. But it also created what I call sourdough zealots who think that EVERY bread has to rise with a sourdough starter otherwise it’s not real bread. Which is bullshit, of course. Baguettes and ciabattas typically use commercial yeast as leavening agents as do many many other types of beloved bread.

Also, you have to understand that while you can indeed replace commercial yeast with sourdough starter, you have to change a few things. First of all, if you’re going after a specific yield, both your flour and water amounts change. Furthermore, rise times will change with sourdough, generally getting longer. The recipes and formulas were developed with the stated ingredients. My advice is to master the process with the commercial yeast first, then make the tweaks to the formula. It’s not as cut and dry as it seems.

…You need to make your bread look good too… I know that the most important thing in making bread is that it tastes good. But the implication of the word artisan means that there is a certain visual aesthetic to the bread. For example, I can’t stand looking at misshapen baguettes. It’s like fingernails scratching a blackboard to me. And mind you, this is just me, but I want my bread to both taste and look good. It’s not about achieving a “professional” look per se. It’s about reflecting and demonstrating the craft behind the bread. For me, it just has to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. After all, we bakers spend hours creating our bread. How it looks should reflect the work we put into it.

…You dough doesn’t have a disease that requires inoculation… I’ve quipped on this in the past so I won’t rant on it too much. But coming from a microbiology background, the term inoculation has a specific meaning and that is to introduce a pathogen (or antigen) into a living organism to trigger its immune response to create antibodies. Unfortunately, lots of people have bandied about this term in the sourdough world so much, seemingly in an effort to use big words, that it’s now common. When you mix sourdough starter into a dough, what you’re doing is feeding the starter not trying to trigger an immune response!