That’s right. Read to learn more about preparing the ingredients for baking.
It isn’t hard to find a recipe on the Internet that would be like: take two cups of flour, a nibble of yeast, a handful of hand-picked seasoned salt; pour oil in a medium-small stream for half of the time to say Our Father, mix and bake. Don’t get me wrong. These are often some awesome recipes, I even use them sometimes, but I cannot function like that. The first time I make it, I weigh all the ingredients and take notes. It all has to be precise.
Well, it doesn’t. I need it this way. Small deviation won’t break anything, it will just be different than what the recipe says.
And we start trying to guess everything. Suddenly it turns out potato flour was used as wheat flour was not available, a pipe burst so a third of required water was used, 7 grams of dried yeast were used because one had no way to weigh 2 grams (and the small detail of using fresh yeast was ignored).
Baking bread is a process happening on many layers in parallel:
- handling the dough
- chemical reactions
- biological processes
- thermal processing
Many of them overlap and influence each other. Water binds with glutenin and gliadin to form gluten, and the rest gets soaked up by starch and grains. Amylase decomposes starch into glucose which then gets eaten by yeast and lactic/vinegar bacteria. The salt takes part in the chemical reactions - if you forget about it, the crust will be rough and salted butter will not fix the flavour. While baking, gluten coagulates and forms the structure of the loaf. Before this happens, the microbes have their last, most aggressive metabolism phase. Scores give a direction to loaf’s expansion. Alcohol evaporates. Lastly, the crust is formed and gets brown because sugars turn into caramel. When cooling down, the moisture is escaping, stabilising the crumb and softening the crust which got a bit hard in the last phase of baking.
There is a lot of it. Can you imagine a shift manager in a chemical factory that tells his employees to use five handfuls of an ingredient for a chemical reaction? Or a steel mill where the furnace is heated up based on an engineers gut feeling? Or a doctor that inject a more or less right amount of a medicine into your vain? Similar goes for baking.
Every element matters when making bread. First we’ll talk about
Type of flour
Let’s take 100 kg of flour and inject it into a combustion chamber at a lab. Yes, flour is highly flammable.
I wouldn’t mind seeing someone sift 100 kg of flour onto a flame.
German classification of flour types states how many grams of ashes one gets from burning the mentioned 100 kg of flour. It’s also used in Poland.
Flour is mainly carbs. They burn very well and form water and carbon dioxide. In reality we also get something more - the bran also contains a lot of minerals and they form ashes. This lets us classify the flour with a number from 450 to 2200 (there may be more, but these are the ones I remember).
The more bran flour contains, the more water is needed to get a nice dough. At the same time wet dough doesn’t hold structure that well, so you need to get it right.
To make sourdough it’s better to use a wholemeal flour as bran is what yeast and bacteria usually live on.
Other countries vary. There are some types in Italy based on how fine the flour is, there is something similar in France. In The United Kingdom (and potentially also Ireland) we get plain, strong and wholemeal wheat flour, and usually light and dark (and sometimes wholemeal) rye and spelt. I think it’s a bit similar in the USA, but they also get all purpose flour which is somewhere in between plain and strong in terms of gluten content. Some mills also sell super strong or Canadian which has an insane amount of gluten.
This isn’t however the only characteristic of flour. Depending on the grain variety and location of the land flour can have varying protein content and this means you may need a different amount of flour to get a similar result. Enter
Hydration is weight of water in relation to weight flour expressed as percentage.
Many bakers provide this information in their books. Why is it important? I’ve recently had a strong flour which would not let me make proper obwarzanki and our regular white bread had a dough like soup. If I added a teaspoon of gluten per 1.5 kilo flour, the dough properties improved significantly. Then I got Canadian grains strong flour (UK flours are usually a blend of British and Canadian grains). While I usually add 1.2 kg water to 1.5 kg flour, this dough got very dense and springy. It started winding on a dough hook. A huge change. My sourdough didn’t have enough strength to lift the dough before baking and then the bread would burst in the oven. I had to use 1.5 kg water and then the dough would cooperate again.
When the grain doesn’t have enough sun, not much protein is created and the flour is weak, the ones grown in Canada are usually summer varieties (sown in Spring, reaped in Summer). Mixing them can give a desired result but in my first case something did not work.
Usually you won’t find recipes below 60% hydration and above 80% is usually only ciabattas and other shapeless marvels or seedy and wholemeal breads.
Hydration is not the only measure expressed in percents. I present to you
Two of the books I know provide percentages: „Bread“ by J. Hamelman and „Flour Water Yeast Salt“ by K. Forkish. I would recommend both.
If you calculate the total amount of flour in the recipe, this makes 100%. All other ingredients are calculated as percentage of the total flour weight. You get the hydration, salt (usually 2-2.5%) and so on.
One one hand it may sound strange, but then each bakery decides how much dough to prepare. Therefore percentage is simpler way to calculate amount of ingredients. We also see certain details about the dough:
- salt is usually 2%. You can increase slightly on the hot days (up to 2.5%) to slow down the yeast
- you know the hydration and knowing the expected properties of dough you can adjust the recipe to your flour - it can have much more or much less protein in it. You will roughly know what to prepare for
Interestingly, bakers' percentages can sometimes be used on a
There's one I'm after:: MyWeigh KD8000(Manufacturer's website). It costs around £40 and can calculate percentages. It looks nice and is a professional product. Sadly, it's also a bit too big, so I got myself a Double scale by Salter from a Heston Blumethal's products line (manufacturer's website; if you want one, do some googling as there are cheaper offers online). I have a scale that can measure up to 10 kg of dough and also measure as little as 0.1 g. It's quite important as usually one doesn't prepare large quantities of bread at home and I often end up requiring 0.5 g of yeast or 5 g seeds. Once I already have two kilograms of dough on the big scale, getting such small measurements in there isn't easy and I can measure them separately. Another advantage is that the scale is reasonably small and can fit in the cupboard.
I remember that in one of my recipes I also suggested that instead of measuring 5 grams of seeds, one could bake 200 loaves and just add 1 kilogram of them. As funny as it may sound, bakers usually do that - when you prepare tens of kilograms of dough it's easier to get precise quantities of ingredients. On a home scale it's much more probable to for instance add 15 and not 10 grams of salt and this makes a huge difference. So yes, bakers often measure ingredients in
You get a 16 or 25 kg bag of flour and measure the rest to match it. If you make big orders, you could ask your source to prepare packagings matching your needs.
In my case recipes are often based on the volume of the mixer's bowl - 6.7 litre. I get three loaves in Ikea bread pans from this. If I'm to make two, it's easier to make three - I'll always find someone to give the third one to and I use the "standard" quantities of ingredients. Not having to recalculate and remember is an extra bonus.
If one can use a scale, if I use the size of a bowl as the base input, maybe we could also measure by
A cup means something slightly different in different countries, a flat tablespoon will be different than a heaped one. And how heaped is just a tablespoon? Many households in Poland don't even have a standard measuring cup at home.
I know it's slightly different in the recipes in the US, but still not perfect.
How much does a cup of sugar weight? Regular one? Caster sugar? Icing sugar? What about salt? Coarse, fine or flakes? What about flour?
I've made a small experiment: I weighed 250 ml of flour. The results include the weight of the measuring cup which is 25 g.
Sifted strong (bread) flour:
Packed strong (bread) flour:
130 g vs 200 g of the same type of flour in 250 ml cup. One may say I'm trying to manipulate a bit, but if you think so, try this: Do you have a bag of flour at home? Better one just opened. Take something to measure, for instance a boiled egg cup and take some flour from the top, no packing, no sifting. Weigh it. Then take all the flour out except for a bit at the bottom, take the same amount out and weigh it. Is there a difference? Maybe not 50%, but you should get some 10%. Next time you follow a recipe think: what did the author do? Pack or sift?
If I decide to go for a such recipe, I use given units and then weigh the ingredients and note it. Sometimes I ignore that much detail, but not often.
It all has a purpose - it influences
The properties of dough
Let me invite you to one of many discussions on a bakers discussion board. Some people took an effort to compare flours available in the US and there are quite some differences. As I've mentioned, I used to be happy with the flour I was ordering and than then same bread could give me non-satisfactory results. Then I got Canadian flour and in one of my recipes I head to increase hydration from 73% to 90% just to get dough with similar properties. That's some business - 100 g more of a product just by adding water :P
Less sun is enough to make the flour weaker (less protein). Some rain during the harvest time and the grain can start sprouting and give a weaker flour. Mills can try to standardize their products, but sometimes it's not that easy. In the UK it's usually achieved by mixing British grains with Canadian - the difference in protein content can be huge and if the whole water goes into gluten bindings, the dough will not have enough flexibility to expand and will become very dense.
Such differences can be detected rather easily when you always follow the same recipe. The bakeries (from what I've once read) it is common to make some test dough to specify required modifications. Using technology is also an option. There is a device called farinograph. Just be aware I'm an amateur and don't have any experience with such things. I have found an article in the specialist magazine in Poland. I'm not going to translate it, sorry, but you can go to the bottom to se a graph with comparison of different flours of the same type. Also you can view a video from a mill in Krakow to have a look at what tests can be done in a laboratory. ADD A LINK PLEASE
So yes, it does matter what type of flour you use at home.
Of course everyone know a proper temperature is needed to bake and for bread it should be rather high (but not always) and it's best when the bottom of the oven is heated and when it stably releases the heat to the loaf. Everyone also knows that the heating elements in the oven always heat 100% power, so even if the temperature estimation mechanism is quite efficient, if the heater goes on and off, the bread could be baked more than the temperature would ensure. To compensate for that when baking at home, one can use a baking stone or cast iron pots. Or at least cover the loaf with a dome made with aluminium foil and such.
But it's not only that. What also matters is temperature of the dough. In hot weather your dough will rise faster, in cold one - slower. Warm dough will rise faster than a cold one. J. Hamelman provides expected temperature of the dough after mixing to know what conditions should be expected. Do you remember that when you extend or shorten the proofing time, the enzymes can do something different than expected?
The same Hamelman provides formulas to calculate the temperature of dough. The take friction into account. Yes, your kitchen robot heats your dough up. The friction factor is measured through a test on the machine and then used in baking.
A baker needs to measure time. Making bread is mostly waiting. Of course when you do it for a living, you don't just wait, you prepare something else. K. Forkish described the whole day in his book. He even included time for a coffee, clean-up, warming the flour. There is no time to waste.
What is it like at home? You prepare a levain, wait 12-16 hours, mix dough, leave it to rise for about two hours (this usually involves stretching and folding. Next shaping, two more hours proofing. Or maybe cold proofing overnight in a fridge? I just wait and wait.
When I prepare a new recipe, I use some help from a spreadsheet. I prepare proportions, amounts of ingredients, try things out, adjust what hasn't worked out and repeat. It's worth running a diary or at least remember what got changed compare to the original recipe (both in the recipe itself and in the surrounding conditions) and how it influenced the result. This helps you plan the next approach.
There are also apps for storing bread recipes such as BreadStorm. Sadly to use it I would have to buy an Apple products. I'd love to write something on my own and release it as Open Source/Public domain. Maybe one day.
So why doesn't my stone look like a bread?
I can make bread, but not necessarily talk to a magic ball. Some things can be spotted, but some I cannot. For instance when a loaf has a weirdly white crust - I don't know why this happens. I don't know what went wrong in the recipe if the only information is "I've done everything as the recipe said". I could have been not precise enough in the instructions, sure, but I do need more data. You need more data. Take your recipe and calculate it with bakers percentage. Not down what ingredients you're using. Describe the process. IF by now you still don't know what didn't work out, change one thing, note it down, note the result. And again. And again, till it works.
Because a baker needs to measure everything folks!