Now, Where Was I … ?

My Latest 'Wild Ass Guess" Boule

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!

I Love the Thin, Crisp Crust That the Cast Iron Pot Creates

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.

A Slice of 'Wild Ass Guess' Toast with 15 Minute Winter Pear Preserves (my next post)

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.

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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10 Responses to Now, Where Was I … ?

  1. Frances Quinn says:

    Wow! Who’da thunk? The next time I bake bread I intend using your method. I’ll let you know what happens. Thanks again for all the info.

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Frances, Yeah, I’m always looking for a simpler way to do these often complex processes – and I like this approach ’cause it goes together quickly and precisely. I think you’ll like it.

  2. I saw this post this morning but didn’t have the time to read it so came back while having my coffee break now and thought it would be perfect to get stuck in your post!

    I like you idea of “x” the amount of flour, makes it for a simple way to make your own recipes.

    I watched the video that Joanna posted on Dan’s forum of a baker handling I think it was nearly 70% hydration dough and now you mentioning the ciabatta makes me want to try a very wet dough just to see how I get on.

    This occurred to me some time back, when working out the hydration of a sourdough and how much water to add to it I’m assuming you have to take into account the water the sourdough starter has. My starter is always kept at the level of Dan’s basic white sourdough.

    Interestingly you like your crust thin and I love my crusts quite thick which is why I love the baguette shape as it’s more crust to crumb ratio! My middle daughter loves crumb and not crust so it’s perfect when we share bread!

    I’m keeping away from bagels as my last two attempts have looked as if they have chicken pox….taste fine…maybe i should try them out sourdough first before going back to baker’s yeast ones!

    thank you for your helpful information 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi azelia, Whenever I work with wet doughs, like ciabatta, I now use an oiled tub – actually a big oiled bowl works too – and do all my ‘stretching and folding’ in it. It makes working with wet doughs almost fun – and I love watching the dough gain body and strength over time. The trick is to only touch the dough when absolutely necessary, and only then with oiled hands.

      Yeah, I was toying with adding some thoughts here on working with sourdough and this approach, but in the end I thought it was already a tough read, so maybe another time. But, yes, in making your baker’s percentage calculations, you just add the amount of flour and water that you have in your starter (I keep mine at 100% hydration, so that makes it really easy).

  3. Spookily I have just been paddling in ciabatta dough in an oiled Ikea box 😉 The only trouble with the oil, if it is trouble, is that the crumb of my bread ends up darker than I would like. I watched someone stretching and folding the other day with water on their hands, or at least it looked like water… maybe I should ask…

    I also made a batch of soft rolls today, milk and yeast, about half a litre of warmed milk, a walnut of fresh yeast, then I weighed out 500 grams of flour, did 0.02 of the weight for the salt, added that, and then went out and weighed some more flour, as it didn’t look right, did the salt again and added that till the dough looked about how I wanted it. And ended up with a baker’s dozen of 100 gram rolls. So calculating backwards I reckon I had approx 800 grams of flour (wheat, wholewheat and a liitle cornflour) to 550 grams of milk. Worked out well!

  4. drfugawe says:

    Hey Jo, I did the Hamelman Poolish Ciabatta a few days ago, and pulled a dummy trick – I forgot to put in the 2nd shot of yeast, and then couldn’t figure out why it was taking so long to develop!!! Actually, it tastes fine, but of course it has a tight, dense crumb – so in all due respect to Hamelman, I’m going to do it again, and let the birds have the rest of trial #1.

    OK, here’s what’s good about oil and ciabatta – 1; How can olive oil and Italian bread be bad? 2; If you use water or flour when stretching and folding, you are invariably adding some to your bread – not good! 3; Oil helps keep the crust of the unbaked ciabatta flexible and able to stretch when oven spring occurs. 4; With oil, you almost never get any dough on your hands – at least less than with either water or flour.

    Sounds good, anyway!

    • You’re right, and I do always use oil for s and f. Sounds a little racey doesn’t it? When I joined up for ‘baking 1’ I arrived at the point in time when it was light minimal kneads and lots of rests and oil, so that’s kind of where I started. Bit like people learning to drive now, automatically wearing seat belts….

      I would love to read a post of yours on the subject of kneading though.
      There are so many different view points on that and I have yet to come across anything truly scientific on how it affects the final bread.

      . I would love to do a day with a bunch of home baking people who had the same sort of skill level viz shaping, , all starting at the same time with identical materials, creating the same dough but using different knead styles and see what difference a long intensive knead made as compared to the short frequent knead style…

      • drfugawe says:

        Won’t be me that does a kneading post – that remains one of the mysteries for me. When I first started baking bread, hand kneading was the badge of courage for home bakers and was sort of a sacred necessity. Then I discovered No-Knead and my bread baking changed forever. But every so often, I over-knead a batch of dough on my KA, and get that nasty alcohol smelling dough. Then I go back and try to figure out what happened. (Hamelman has a discussion early on in ‘Bread’ on Oxidation) But I still don’t understand it properly, and why sometimes it happens, and sometimes not!

  5. Tupper says:

    Alright Doc- no butter shot, but those preserves are a very close second- You continually make me salivate-sure you’re not a descendant of Pavlov? Me I’ve begun my annual meatpie marathon- a french-canadian tradition (tourtiere). A once a year pie making tour that goes back to french heritage. I’ll be doing a post on it soon.

  6. drfugawe says:

    Yeah, I know – they’re gonna kick me out of the club. By god, there are times when I don’t even put butter on my toast!

    Hey, are those meat pies a Christmas thing? Do you make your own crust, or cheat? If you put up a recipe, I promise to make one.

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