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Know Your Ingredients And Terms



Have you ever run into an ingredient in a recipe and wondered, "What's that?" Then this page is for you. As we add recipes to our home page, we'll add more ingredients to this page.
  • Many recipes at Sourdoughhome call for Active Sourdough Starter - so, what's an active sourdough starter? An active starter is one that has fed within the past 12 hours, and that is active enough that it was able to double in size after that feeding. If you fed your starter and it didn't double, you should feed it a few more times. I also suggest you check out the pages on maintaining or caring for your starter. The best time to use the starter is somewhere between the time it reaches its peak and before it starts to fall. When that will be depends on your starter and the temperature at which it is being stored. If you keep your starter thinner (that is, you feed more water and less flour) than I suggest, it may not double at all. Thinner starters don't have enough gluten in them to rise. For many reasons, I don't suggest thinner starters.

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  • Altus according to George Greenstein's "Secrets of a Jewish Baker", altus is the secret of good rye bread. Altus is left-over ground-up rye bread, soaked in water. To make altus, cut the crusts from a loaf of bread, soak it in water for several hours, or overnight, under refrigeration. It will keep several weeks under refrigeration. Use small amounts in bread dough, pressing water out of it. This will intensify the taste of the rye bread, make it a moister bread. You will have to adjust the hydration of your dough when you use altus, probably adding a bit more flour.

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  • Bakers Percentage

    Baker's percentage is one of the most powerful tools bakers have in their aresenal to help them understand how dough works. In bakers percentages all the flour in a formula, or recipe, is arbitrarily defined as being 100%, and all the other ingredients are expressed as a percentage of that. If there are 1,000 grams of flour in a batch of bread and 650 grams of water, we say there is 100% flour and 65% water. This immediately seems wrong to many people as, by usual usage, 100% is everything. All of it. And we haven't looked at the salt, riser and other ingredients yet. Perhaps it should have been called baker's ratios. Still, it is what it is. There are two points worth making here. The percentage of water and oils are refered to as "dough hydration", which bakers pay a lot of attention to. (German bakers refer to the amount of water as "dough yield" and their texts make it plain that "dough yield" is where their profit margin lies. Water is, after all, cheaper than flour.) The other thing to note is that for most breads, the percentage of salt is about 2%. If you use much more, the salt taste is too obvious. If you use much less and the bread will be too bland for most tastes and yeast will tend to over rise.


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  • Baking Soda and Baking Powder - Where yeast and sourdough raise bread through biological action, baking soda and baking powder raise breads through chemical action. Baking powder and baking soda produce gas quickly, so no long rise is required. This produces a denser, moister and less open crumb structure than breads risen with yeast or sourdough. Breads risen with these chemicals are called "quick breads" because they require no rising period but can be baked immediately after they are mixed. Baking soda is most often bicarbonate of soda, or soda bicarbonate. When this is mixed with an acid, such as buttermilk, soured milk, orange juice, regular cocoa or sourdough starter, gas is produced.

    While quickbreads using sourdough and baking soda are historically significant, they are fairly rare today. They are a way of using up starter that has become too acidic. In this site there are recipes for sourdough English Muffins, a Carrot Pineapple Cake, and Blueberry muffins that are risen with baking soda and sourdough starter. The baking soda will also tend to reduce the characteristic sour taste of a sourdough.

    Many quick breads don't contain acids so they are risen with baking powder. Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda and a chemical that produces acid when heated. One of the most common of these chemicals is Alum, or sodium aluminum sulfate. When baking powders using this chemical are used, some people notice a metallic taste in the baked goods. This seems to be a genetic trait in that some people are very sensitive to the taste, and the sensitivity seems to run in families. Most people do not notice this taste.

    The acid caused by heating baking powder reacts with the baking soda to produce gas and raise the quick bread.

    A batter mixed with baking soda can typically be held 4 to 6 hours and still bake correctly. A batter mixed with baking powder can be held in a refrigerator for several days without loss of rise. Many bakeries mix enough muffin and cupcake batters at a time to fill several day's needs.


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  • Biga is an Italian yeasted pre-ferment. Unlike a poolish, a biga is usually very firm, around 57% hydration. The firmness gives the biga a nutty taste.

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  • Biga Naturale is the a biga made with sourdough rather than yeast.

  • Buttermilk was, at one time, the liquid left after butter had been made from milk. Unless you know someone at a dairy, this is no longer available. Today's buttermilk is a cultured milk product, where a bacteria similar to the bacteria used to make sourdough processes the milk, making it richer, giving it a deeper taste, and making it more acidic. Buttermilk is used in most quick breads because the acid in the buttermilk reacts with baking soda to produce gas and a rise. You can use powdered buttermilk or soured milk in place of buttermilk with acceptable, but inferior, results.

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  • Chef is a dough-like starter that is either an unrefreshed levain or a piece of dough saved from the previous day's bake.

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  • Elasticity is the ability of the dough to spring back and have tension. If dough has too much elasticity it is called bucky. It springs back into it's former shape as soon as you stop working it. If you roll a bread braid or Challah strip, it springs back. For dough to rise it has to have a balance of extensibility (see below) and elasticity so it can stretch to a larger size and be elastic enough to hold and trap the rising gases. If you have dough that is too elastic, this can be tamed by using active dry yeast instead of instant dry or fresh yeast, by using sourdough as a riser, or by letting the dough rest for 20 or 30 minutes.

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  • Extensibility is the ability of dough to be stretched, or extended. Dough has to be extensible to rise at all. Hand pulled noodles are at the extreme of extensibility - the dough has no elasticity and can be extended incredibly far. If your dough is too extensible, you might consider using fresher sourdough, making your dough somewhat firmer, using a higher protein flour, and/or using a firmer touch when handling your dough.

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  • Extraction is a miller's term that refers to how much of the original grain winds up in the flour. If all the grain winds up in the flour, the flour is said to be 100% extraction, or all of the grain has been extracted into the flour. Most American white flours are around 70 to 75% extraction flours.

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  • Flour is usually ground wheat, however, it may be almost any grain ground into a light powder. The most commonly used grains include wheat, rye, barley, rice, spelt (a primitive wheat), kamut (another primitive wheat), and oats. Wheat is the most commonly used bread flour at this time because it provides the best rise because of the quantity and type of gluten in the grain.

    If someone specifies "flour" in a recipe, without other qualifications, this is usually a white wheat flour. However, this has tremendous variation from one part of the United States to another, and even wider variation from one country to another. French and Italian breads are usually made with flours that have between 7 and 9% protein. Most all purpose flours in the United States have around 10% protein. And bread flours have around 14%. As a result, experimentation with a recipe may be necessary to get the results you want.


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  • Hydration

    Hydration is a measure, expressed as a baker's percentage of how wet a dough is. The hydration includes all the flours in the dough, including any in preferments, and all the liquids and fats in the dough, including any in the preferments.

    While hydration gives you an idea of what a dough will look like, it's not terribly useful all by itself. Whole grain and high protein flours absorb more moisture than lower protein and refined flours. So, you need to look at the kind of flour as well as the hydration. An 80% hydration white bread is pretty wet, where an 80% hydration whole wheat bread may be a bit too dry, depending, of course, on what sort of bread you are trying to make.

    Traditionally, bakers haven't included oils and fats in the hydration calculations. However, at Camp Bread 2007, Craig Ponsford stunned a few of us when he told us oils, eggs and water were largely interchangeable for hydration purposes. Despite initial skepticism, I've found he seems to be right.


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  • Levain is a chef that has been refreshed with flour and water.

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  • Malted Barley Extract We wouldn't dream of making bagels or kaiser rolls without barley malt extract, and neither should you! Barley malt extract, improves the taste and texture of the breads it is used in. It goes by a number of names. barley malt extract and malt extract among them. If a malt extract doesn't specify what grain it is made from, chances are pretty good it was made from barley. Barley is a grain used mostly in brewing beer and making Scotch Whisky. Barley malt extract adds a nice taste to breads where it is used.

    For our recipes, use as light a malt as you can find, either liquid or dry, diastatic or non-diastatic and you won't have to worry about changing the recipe. Any combination of these characteristics will work just fine. The important things to avoid are hopped malt extract which is really only useful for making beer, darker malt extracts which could overwhelm our recipes, and the malted milk powder sold in many grocery stores as a milk flavor enhancer which has too little malt in it and too much sugar. The best places to purchase barley malt extract are health food stores and brewing supply houses.

    Because of differences in brands, I am not recommending a specific malt, such as light or amber. If you are confused, the staff at a brewing supply house can give you good advice. Just tell them you want a light un-hopped malt extract, and it doesn't matter if it's diastatic or non-diastatic. Tell them you're using it to make bread, not beer. They'll take it from there.


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  • Milk has many uses in making bread. It provides liquid to the dough, just as water would. It adds flavor to the bread. If you are using any milk but skimmed milk, it adds fat to the dough, which extends the bread's shelf life. It also adds lactose, a milk sugar, to the dough. Lactose can not be digested by yeast or sourdough bacteria, so the sugar remains in the dough. This adds some sweetness to the bread that will not be fermented out. It also insures that there will be enough sugar in the bread that it will turn color when it is toasted. Many lean breads (bread with no added sugars or fats) do not change color when toasted, at least not until they are burned.

    Milk also contains some enzymes which can interfere with a dough's rise. If you find a dough with milk doesn't rise as much as you'd like, you might try gently boiling the milk for a few minutes. Pasteurization does not damage these enzymes, so a slightly longer boil is needed. King Arthur, among others, sells a special powdered milk that does not have the enzymes.

    Whether milk is beneficial to a bread depends on the style of the bread. If the milk is called for by the bread's style, including the milk is a very good thing.


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  • Mother is is a batter like starter of flour and water that is unrefreshed.

  • Oil - is important enough that it should perhaps have its own page. Oil is a loose term used to refer to a wide variety of fats. More correctly, they are referred to as lipids. These terms can include solid fats (such as butter, lard or shortening) or liquid oils (such as a host of oils including Olive Oil, Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Hazelnut Oil, Sesame Oil and on and on and on). Some oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, almond oil, sesame oil and hazelnut oil are used largely for the tastes they add to breads and other foods and are beyond the scope of this discussion. Enjoy 'em, they can be lots of fun whether they are incorporated into the dough, used in or as bread toppings, or used to dip bread in.

    I choose my oils carefully and for a number of reasons. Are they healthy? Do they enhance the taste, quality, and/or keeping characteristics of the foods I prepare with them? Overall, I feel that we're omnivores, and that we are designed to eat anything that isn't quick enough to get away from us. I believe moderation is the saving of us. If we don't eat too much of any one thing - or too much at all - it's better for us and the environment. Still, I am suspicious of overly processed foods. Solidified liquid oils, such as partially hydrogenated oils, aka shortening, have long been suspect for me. The recent revelations of the dangers of trans-fatty acids confirmed my prejudices in this area. I find it easier to avoid suspect foods. So, overall, I like foods that people have been eating for hundreds - or better yet, thousands - of years. Are the newer ways of solidifying liquid oils better than hydrogenation? I'm content to avoid these new foods and wait for more research to be done. None of this means I'm a neo-Luddite. I keep up on trends and research, at least at a layman level.

    Getting back to baking, oils are added to bread to improve the crumb structure, the rise, and the storage qualities of the bread. Dr. Emily Buehler is a baker who first trained first as a chemist. She talks about oils at some length in her marvelous book, "Bread Science" which available through her web page twobluebooks.com. Dr. Buehler cites a number of studies which examine how the chemistry of dough and dough development work. The current theory is that lipids strengthen the bubble walls in dough. Interestingly, one study which showed solid oils did more to improve rise than liquid oils. Further, it was the state of the oil that mattered. One of the tests in that study used the same oil in liquid and solid states and the solid oil helped the dough more.

    While oils do improve the crumb and keeping qualities of breads, at times the improvement in those areas has a cost in others. Many breads are lean breads, and if oil is added the bread flavor changes. Some well meaning people add oil or milk to baguettes. The result is a different bread, and usually an inferior one. Baguettes should have layers of flavor - rich extravagant flavors from fermentation, caramelization flavors from the proper baking of the crust, and strong wheat flavors. Baguettes tend to lose these flavors when oils and/or milk are added and become long, skinny pieces of Wonder Bread. While the addition of oil can be beneficial, it is hardly a panacea and the use of oil has to be in keeping with the type of the bread.

    Oils cause lots of debate. Here are some common questions/issues.

    Should oils be added at the start of mixing dough, or at the end? If your bread is turning out right, you're doing it right. If not, try switching what you're doing. I've had it make a big difference in the results, but what works "best" seems to vary from bread to bread.

    If I add oil to a recipe, how should I change the recipe? and What about switching from solid to liquid, or liquid to solid oils? In general, a good starting point is to substitute oils for water, on either a volume for volume or weight for weight basis. If you put in 1/4 cup of butter, use 1/4 cup less of water or milk. Liquid and solid oils are pretty much interchangeable in bread-baking as far as dough consistency goes. Again, if you add oil to a bread, you have substantially changed the bread, and not always for the better. You may find you prefer the bread without the added oil.

    What kind of oil should I use? Following my hundreds - or better yet thousands - of years test, my preference is for lard, butter, and olive oil. Sadly, it's hard to get good lard these days, so I have avoided it. Many pastry chefs say there is nothing that compares with lard, so I suppose I should work with it some more. Unsalted butter works very nicely in many breads, and gives pastries a nice richness. And then there's olive oil.

    Of all oils, olive oil is my favorite for all around cooking, although it is not a good choice for high temperature frying. Olive oil is recommended by many health experts because of its properties. It also gets me a fair number of upset emails. Olive oil? In Bread? Isn't it too strong? I've been told, "it's not appropriate" in a number of foods, such as Challah and granola. Now, please note I didn't say "extra virgin olive oil." I use EVOO (to use Rachel Ray's acronym) in some breads such as focaccia and ciabatta where I want the flavor that EVOO adds. However, there are a host of non-virgin olive oils that have most, if not all, the dietetic and culinary properties of EVOO without having an overwhelming taste. Many of these oils are quite reasonably priced. And they work just fine in Challah and granola. Or any place you want a mild oil. Some people ask why I use olive oil instead of Canola Oil. Canola Oil doesn't meet my hundreds of years test. And, from what I have read, it is much more processed than olive oil and some people are concerned about it. So, I prefer the late pressing, second pressing or even pomace olive oils for my daily oils. Check with me in a few hundred years. Maybe I'll have reconsidered oils by then.


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  • Old Dough is just what it sounds like. This is one of the quirkier pre-ferments. Usually this is dough that has matured to the point where it could have been baked but wasn't. Sometimes it's a day or two old. The old dough will have developed complex, rich and often funky flavors. The old dough is added to fresh dough to give the bread these characterisitics.

    While many bakers make this on purpose, using accidents and overruns as old dough is a good way to minimize waste. So, if you have a bit of dough left over after loafing your dough, when a batch of dough collapses before you have a chance to bake it, if you don't get around to baking a batch of dough, or if you make dough for the purpose, you can let the dough mature a bit, save it, and use it as old dough.

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  • Poolish is the French term for a pre-ferment made of flour and water and a little bakers yeast. A poolish is normally made at 100% hydration. The amount of yeast is normally very small. The actual amount of yeast is changed depending on the temperature where the poolish will be allowed to rise and how soon the poolish will be used.

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  • Preferment is a general term for something that is done before the final dough is mixed. The first preferment was sourdough. Later preferments include autolyse, bigas, old dough, sponges, and poolish. Preferments give many benefits to the baker. They build the taste in the bread, they make the dough easier to knead, they extend the life of the bread, and they reduce the amount of yeast needed to produce bread compared to a straight dough.

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  • Sour is a mother that has been refreshed with flour and water.

    A bit more discussion of starters and sponges. First, there are some equivalencies to be aware of:

    Mother = chef - it only depends on the consistency - a chef is dough-like, while a mother is batter-like. Most people in the USA ignore the subtleties and just call this starter.

    Sour = levain - again it depends on the consistency of the starter - a Sour batter-like, levain dough-like. The difference between these terms and the ones above is that they represent the term that indicates that the starter is activated.

    Chef, levain, biga natural, mother, and sour contain only natural yeast cultures.

    All of the above - biga, biga natural, chef, levain, mother, poolish, and sour are often referred to as either starters or sponges.


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  • Water To most visitors to this site (USA, Canada, northern Europe, Australia, Great Britain) water is something we take for granted. We turn on the tap and there it is. Water, clear, splashing, fresh, safe. We can turn the tap this way or that and change the temperature of the water. However, water, as I have recently discovered, isn't quite that simple.

    I had long thought that if your water is safe to drink, you could almost certainly make good bread, and even good sourdough bread, with it. However, as I learned, there are further issues.

    The first is chlorination. While chlorine can interfere with the growth of yeast and sourdough bacteria, in practice, this is a very unusual occurrence. I have started, maintained, fed and used sourdough starters with chlorinated water in a number of different cities and had no problems resulting from that use of chlorinated water. However, some water systems use chloramines which are a more persistent form of chlorine and I have received some emails suggest that chloramines are very hard on the micro-organisms bakers depend on. Your water supplier can tell you how they treat the water they supply you.

    Water hardness is a significant issue for some bakers. A friend commented that sometimes his dough is slacker than other days, and on those days he comments that "the water must be wetter than usual today." This is a sign of very soft water. Water hardness, or how much mineral content is dissolved in the water, is measured in parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per liter (mg/l). Both are, if my math is working, the same measure. You can call your water supplier and ask them about the hardness of the water. If they can't tell you, you can get inexpensive test kits from swimming pool supply companies. If your water is the 50 to 150 ppm range, your water is ideal for bread making. If your water has a lower level of hardness, it is soft water. If it has a higher level, it is hard water.

    If you have soft water, your dough will lack cohesiveness. If you find yourself following recipes from different sources and always finding the dough is too soft, too slack and won't hold shape there is a chance you have soft water. There are a number of solutions, and (after our last move) we are investigating the matter. The simplest is to use a bit more salt to toughen the gluten.

    If you have hard water, your dough will lack extensibility. There are a number of solutions for this, the easiest is to use softened, but not completely deminieralized, water.

    The last issue is pH, or the acidity/alkalinity of your water. Dough prefers to be made with water that is neutral to slightly acidic. Alkaline water causes dough to be very soft and unmanageable. You can use a hot tub or swimming pool test kit to determine the pH of your water.

    If it seems you are having water related problems, you might look into how your local water is treated, and try some bottled spring water and see if the problems go away. You do not want to use distilled or reverse osmosis treated water because these treatments remove all minerals from the water and you do need some mineral content in your water. If the problems go away, you might look at how the bottled water differs from your tap water and whether you can make your tap water more like the bottled water.

    In the end, we decided that the water from the tap varied with the seasons and where the local water company is getting its water. As a result, to adjust the water would require running some tests on the water. In the end, for home use we decided that just buying bottled spring water worked and worked well. We've had good results with Ozarka and Kroger's house brand. If you have good bread making water flowing from the tap in your house, thank your preferred deities and enjoy the water - and the bread!


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