I had intended to include this post as part of my last post – in my customary ‘maximalist’ way – but soon realized that doing so would have created the longest post I’ve ever done, and caused pain to my readers. So, consider this post related to the last, but not necessarily part of the last.
I’m celebrating my last ten years as a sourdough baker, and sharing a few of the observations, mishaps, confusions, theories, and lessons learned during that period. And all that must start with the recognition that bread is among mankind’s simplest of foods, but I immediately must acknowledge that its simplicity masks a compexity that even causes scientific disagreement to this day – add sourdough to the picture, and you’ve just compounded the complexity.
One of the many wonders of bread is that basically, all that mankind calls bread is pretty much similar to any other bread – flour, water, a leavening, and sometimes salt. Yes, many other adornments can be added, but basic bread is always pretty damn similar.
What makes basic breads different? Type of flour used, amount of water used, type and amount of leavening used, and perhaps most significantly, the process of putting those base ingredients together, and then the baking of the loaf. This too sounds simple, but any novice baker with just a modicum of curiosity, and a few experimental loaves under his/her belt can tell you it is anything but simple to put it all together into a delicious loaf of bread. Somewhere in the process, the simple gets lost.
The heart of what makes bread, bread, has to be the liquid that is added to the flour – flour will always just be flour, until water is added – seemingly, nothing could be simpler. And yet, it is the beginning of the complexities of baking – especially for the beginning baker. For one of the first things a novice baker encounters is the concept of hydration, and its application in baking by way of what is known as ‘baker’s percentage’.
BTW, if you, as a baker, never had any problem with the concept of baker’s percentage, we congratulate you (no really, we do!) and suggest that you may find the rest of this post boring. But if baker’s percentage still gives you occasional pause, then the rest of this post may be of interest.
The problem with getting a good understanding of the concept of baker’s percentage is the fact -and I speak entirely from personal experience here- that on the surface, it seems like just another use of our old math friend, numerical percentage. You know, the percentage where the sum of all parts always equal 100% – but baker’s percentage is not like that, for the flour(s) always equals 100%, and all other ingredients are simply a percentage of the amount of flour in the recipe(or formula, as bakers say). Besides, you don’t really need to understand baker’s percentage to use the recipe, do you!
Baker’s percentage also brings immediate importance to the concept of ‘hydration’ as a component of a bread’s construction, and is the reason why the novice baker is confused when he/she reads that one bread is at 63% hydration, but another is at 70%. Neither one means 63%, or 70% of the total weight (bakers always weight everything – for precision!) of the bread is water, but 63%, or 70% of the total weight of the flour!
Somewhere in my web browsing, I came on this nice little chart showing the normal hydration levels of various bread doughs – and it was helpful to me in my understanding.
Simple Bread Dough Hydration Levels:
< 59% – Dry Dough
60 to 62% – Firm & Tight Dough
62 to 63% – Modestly Firm Dough
63 to 64% – Malleable Dough
64 to 65% – Soft Dough
>65% – Wet Dough
In the above chart, the descriptor terms apply to the dough, not the finished bread – for example, a bagel dough is quite dry to the touch, easy to work with and not at all sticky – it typically produces a bread with small holes and is very dense. Ciabatta dough, however, is very wet and sticky to the touch, and hard to work with – it typically produces bread with large holes throughout. In the middle of the chart, a modestly firm dough would produce a typical pan sandwich bread, similar to the most common bread in our grocery stores. Yes, there are even doughs dryer than 59% hydration, pretzels, for instance – and even wetter than 65% as well. But most breads fall within the ranges on this chart.
OK, once you get an understanding of baker’s percentage and hydration, how do you put it to use? Well, I’d like to share with you a simple home application of baker’s percentage that I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else, but I sincerely doubt that I’m the first to think of using it in this way – in fact, it may simply be such a basic application that it is immediately understood as a part of the process – Or it could be that I’ve just missed seeing it before, as I do so easily these days!
I begin by deciding what hydration level I want my next bread to be. This of course depends on what kind of bread I want – if I want a pan loaf, I’ll pick a middle hydration level, say 62 or 63%, but if I want a more rustic loaf, I may choose a higher hydration, knowing that the higher the hydration, the more difficult the dough will be to handle.
Once that’s decided, I need to determine how much flour to use, remembering that the total weight of a loaf is basically just the weight of the flour and water combined. If I only want one large loaf, I may start by weighing out 16 oz of flour – I then quickly multiply 16x.62 and learn that I need 9.9 oz of water to achieve my 62% hydration – this will give me a fairly large loaf, maybe even too big for my 1.5 lb pan. But I quickly determine that if I instead start with 15 oz of flour, I’d then only need 9.3 oz of water, which will give me almost exactly my 1.5 pound loaf.
It’s even easier if I want to do a rustic boule that will bake without a pan – I can just make a wild ass guess (see my latest ‘wild ass guess’ loaf above) as to how much flour I might need – then I’ll weigh it, and multiply by my chosen hydration level, say .64 this time, and I’m home free – and I’m also using baker’s percentage in a practical way in my home kitchen.
There’s one more trick I want to share today, and it involves using a scale for measurement. A novice home baker also learns early on that bakers always weigh their ingredients. Most of the good baking books today express their measurements by weight also, in an attempt to avoid volume mis-measurement via cups and teaspoons, etc. That’s all fine and good, but our novice home baker soon realizes that although his recipe calls for 3 grams of yeast, his home scale won’t measure an amount that small. The truth is that a cheap (any scale less than $50 or so) home scale is simply not made for precision weighing. However, I’ve found that if you add your tiny amounts on top of a larger amount (say, adding the yeast on top of the flour) then your scale will handle the tiniest amount of anything. So, don’t measure your salt and yeast first, but wait and add them last, and you’ll have no problem.