The Wood-Fired Blog

Water and Dough Structure

I have been experimenting with baguettes recently, including different approaches to fermentation time, better folding techniques, improved methods for loaf shaping, scoring, placement in the oven and steam.

Now I am going to start trying to hone in on the optimal hydration for my flour of choice and my oven—Trader Joe’s All Purpose Wheat flour and a Presto pizza oven.

As a general rule, wetter (higher hydration) doughs produce bread that is chewier and has a well developed, moist crumb with nice air holes. But reading various break cookbooks and web sites, there is not universal agreement on exactly what constitutes a high hydration dough, and what the proper hydration levels are for a traditional French baguette. Some experts say that 60% hydration is enough, while others will note that 60% might work in France, where the wheat is softer and has a lower gluten content and it absorbs less water, making that relatively low hydration level appropriate.

At the same time, I have been working at the other end of the spectrum—with a wetter 80% dough recipe recently, and the results have been very telling. Simply put, my baguettes are too flat. No matter how hard I try to develop the dough structure to enable my loaves to hold a round shape, and even though I am now using a couche to hold my loaves upright while they doing their final proofing (and a baguette flipping board)—my baguettes are just too flat. While the crumb is very good, I don’t like the shape. Equally, while crust is good, it veers toward chewy, rather than that light and airy crunch that I like in a baguette.

I was talking with our teenage daughter about the dynamic between water and dough strength, and we came up with an analogy of a thin water balloon with too much water—it just bulges out. Gravity tries to flatten the wetter, heavier dough, while the gluten network in the dough struggles to hold the loaf in shape. And with an 80% formula using AP flour, there just isn’t enough structure.

Put another way, 80-odd% hydration is the range typically seen in a ciabatta, a free-form Italian loaf with big holes and a chewy crust. With no hope of holding a formed loaf shape, the baker simply lays it out like a dog bone shaped puddle of dough.

So there we have it. I believe that 60% is too dry to give me the crumb development that I want, and I am convinced that I won’t be able to make the style of baguette that I want at 80%. I guess it’s time to learn what the sweet is for my conditions, my flour and my oven.

It sounds like fun.

Mixing High Hydration Dough

I made 80% hydration baguette’s, and was reminded just how much longer (and a little faster) you need mix the dough to build the strands of gluten and develop the bread’s structure. That statement marks roughly the end of my technical knowledge on the science of web dough—thought I want to do some more research in order to understand why this is true.

From this sequence of photos, you can see the dough go from being not much more than batter, to nice thin strands of gluten developing, to the entire mixtures pulling from the sides of the mixing bowl to shape a true dough ball with a wonderful, silky texture.

Here is the recipe:

1 kg of Trader Joe’s white all purpose flour
10 grams of yeast
20 grams of salt
800 grams of ice water

Mixing took 13-15 minutes, including 3-4 minutes in the middle with my KitchenAid stand mixer running at a high speed (4 or 5). I bulk fermented the dough for a couple of hours before pushing out all of the air bubbles and shaping baguettes.

I ended up making some nice baguettes in my Presto pizza oven.

One last note. The Forno Bravo “perfect pizza dough” by weight recipe that we use in all of our eBooks does not call for you to proof your yeast in any way—we don’t add sugar to get it started, we don’t add warm water, and we don’t mix it on the side. Modern yeast is simply good enough to work without any of these extra steps.

“Ah, but does it always work?” you might be asking be asking yourself. If fact, we get a reasonable number of questions by phone and email, asking us if that really works. The answer is a resounding yes!

Think of it this way. In this recipe, I added the yeast directly to the flour (with no sugar or honey, and no separate proofing), and then I proceeded to dump ice water on top of it. Ice water, which is pretty much the opposite of proofing the yeast in warm water. And it worked great.

So my advice is to skip the yeast proofing step, and invest that time is very accurate weighing of your ingredients. You will come out ahead on time, and your bread and pizza dough will be much better!