Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bakers Percentage and Hydration: a lesson in bread baking

So I recently made Richard Miscovich's 75% hydrated Pain Au Levain and it got quite a bit of interest on facebook, most notably on a group called CHEF AT LARGE, which is hands down my favorite cooking group on facebook. First of all it is HUGE! And it has a lot of what I would consider ethnic dishes, but that is mainly because I am from the Western end of the world, so I find it very interesting to read and see these colorful and flavorful dishes on a daily basis.

There was much interest in regards to what hydration means in a bread, so I decided that it would be best to describe the bread baking process in a blog post so that other readers could read it as well.

I have been baking bread since 2006 and religiously since 2011, twice a week, if not more! I have baked through several books and for the most part am self taught, but I owe much thanks to my mentor Misky, for he gave me a strong dough foundation to build upon!

Generally speaking, bread is made using what is known as bakers percentages. This means that all of the ingredients are in a simple ratio to flour. There are two rules that make this system work. These rules can not be broken, otherwise your formula will not be consistent.

  1. Flour is always 100%. This could be one flour or many flours. For instance in a 75% whole grain bread, 3/4 of the flour will come from whole grain and 25% of the flour will come from white flour. In the bread which I baked most recently 25% of the flour comes from whole grain and the rest was unbleached bread flour 
  2. All other ingredients are represented in relationship to flour. Let us use water as an example. Lets say a formula calls for 1000g of flour, to keep it simple. A 75% hydrated bread will contain 750g pr water. That is to say that for every 100 units of flour you will have 100 units of water. For the purpose of explanation a typical Baguette is around 68%, Ciabbatta is 80%. So when you think about the texture of these two bread think about how much water is in them.

Follow these two rules and the rest is up to you. 

Just because the bread I baked is 75% hydrated in in the final dough, that does not mean that each part has to be in that ratio. For instance, the preferment (the mother dough, which ferments overnight prior to the mix) is in a 1:1 ratio of flour to water. (Note: the preferment develops flavor, helps release B vitamins and increases shelf life.) The hydration in this step will greatly impact the final taste of the bread. A poolish is a pre-ferment which contains equal parts flour and water, it is loose in nature and will be open once fermented. This preferment will provide a nutty and earthy taste. Another preferment is called a Biga, which is Italian, contains less water, and thus has less buffering capacity, which is provided by the Hydrogen atoms in the water, and is more sour and lends itself to more savory breads. Ciabatta are typically made with Biga's and Baguettes are typically made with Poolishes. 

There are also Levain builds which are made with a sourdough starter which is created by allowing flour to sit with water at room temperature in a closed environment, this allows the mass to acquire yeast from the air, thus creating its own micro-organism community which has been used to rise bread for thousands of years. I personally have two starters; a whole wheat liquid levain (100% hydrated) and a Rye levain which is also 100% hydrated. The rye levain give a more acidic kick, the wheat levain gives a more subtle nutty flavor, but still nice acidity.
So a sourdough takes about a week to create and it requires the baker to constantly remove some of the mass and replace it with flour and water. Once it is ripe it will have a fruity smell and almost burn the nose. It will be bubbly, aromatic and loose (assuming 100% hydration is used). Sourdoughs can also be made to be more dense. 

There were also a few questions in regards to the Dutch Oven Technique, which I have finally corrected to enhance the crust formation on my breads. Thy hearth baked has the advantage of an oven that can get very hot and can maintain its heat for a long time because of its increased thermal mass (the large hearth) the home baker does not have this tool in his back pocket. So a dutch oven can be used, with its thick and heavy cast iron (or ceramic) material it can stay hot and its tight fitting and heavy lid trap in steam which is one of the few things needed to create a crisp crust (along with high heat). By placing the bread in a hot combo cooker, slashing it and then covering it and baking at 450 degrees for 15 minutes and then removing the lid for the rest of the bake (25-30 minutes) and deep ruddy crisp crust is formed.

There are so many more things to add but I will start with this. 

Please keep asking questions! 

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