Sourdough Home

“Old bread is not hard, no bread, that is hard!”

— Old German saying

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Mike's (more or less) Weekly Baking Tips Logo2019-05-19 - The Epi Dysfunction - is it water?
Or is it not? Can I stay, or should I go now?

Two weeks ago, I did the unthinkable. I left the newsletter at a cliffhanger. And then I compounded that sin by posting an unrelated article the next week. Let's see if we can bring this ship into port today.

To summarize, after we moved from the mountains of Colorado to the lowlands of Texas, I had trouble making bread. The dough would slump. With lots of work, the dough could stiffen up, but as soon as we stopped sweet talking it, as soon as we stopped whispering sweet nothings in its ear, as soon as we stopped stroking it's fragile ego, it would slump. Boules? No way! Batards? Not on our watch! Baguettes? No, they also went to slump city. Pan breads? Yeah, but - the surface of the dough was not well developed. It was like I'd developed an epi dysfunction! A longer version of this saga is at our blog.

What changed when we moved? While altitude can be frustrating, that is usually for people who go from low to high altitudes. I've baked at low altitudes in the past - I have baked successfully in Austin, Beaumont, Dallas, Galveston, Houston, Huntsville, Pasadena (Tx) and San Francisco in the past.

Was it a matter of skill? I'm the same baker as before, and we ran a bakery that made darned good products, so it isn't a lack of skill. Or is it?

What about water? As mentioned in the blog post, our water is not what some call ideal. It is way soft and alkaline. Dough seems to prefer harder and acidic water, which our research suggests describes about 95% of the water in the United States of America. Further, breads made with milk worked well.

Someone suggested that we use bottled water to remove our tap water from the equation. We used a number of bottled waters and they seemed to help. Bakers, as a group, are the most generous people I know. If you need a sack of flour, chances are that another baker will just give you a 50 pound sack. If you need advice, or tutoring, they'll go out of their way to help you. But when it comes to the economics of running a bakery, no one is as cheap as a baker. (I talk about this a bit in our "Mastering Flavorful Breads" cookbook.) All of which is to say, I hated paying for bottled water. It rankled. And I wasn't happy about adding plastic to the recycling stream. (The best way to recycle is to not use stuff you don't need to use. Like plastic bottles and bags.)

I wrote to the American Institute of Baking and got some good advice about adding .25% gypsum to dough to make the water harder and stiffen the dough. This also let me stop using bottled water, which made me happy. Once again, a silver bullet seemed to help. It worked out to around 1/4 tsp per loaf. Gypsum has been used in brewing for hundreds of years and is generally regarded as safe. In one class all but one student were kneading some nice looking dough. That other student had a puddle of goo. I asked if she'd forgotten to add the gypsum. She had. She added it and the dough came together in about 2 more kneading strokes. (1) Still, two years on, the magic had leaked out and the loaves weren't what they should have been.

Still, when I was taking a class at Central Milling's Artisan Baking Center, world champion baker and all around good guy Craig Ponsford commented that almost any water could make good bread. I commented I thought we had nasty water, and he just smiled.

Beth, my long suffering and very wise wife, suggested that the loaves were better when I was using bottled water. Getting a bottle of water didn't really help. Another dive into bottled water didn't help.

And at that point, I decided to REALLY go down the rabbit hole, grab the furry varmint and beat the truth out of him. My early research showed that "the best bread making waters in America" bore no resemblance to the water that King Arthur suggested. Sadly, the local water department didn't have numbers for pH, hardness or mineral content. After early attempts to use spa or hot tub chemistry test kits didn't help. The spa test strips are more than good enough for our hot tub, but didn't have fine enough resolution to be useful. So, I bought a pH meter and a water hardness test kit.

Looking at natural waters, we saw most waters had both calcium and magnesium salts. Gypsum adds calcium, epsom salts add magnesium. My approach was to test the local water, and to adjust it with vinegar, gypsum and epsom salts until it reached the desired water standards from King Arthur. In the interest of having real standards, I prepared one batch of bread with local tap water and another with adjusted water. In the interest of consistency, I have been using stretch and fold techniques more than kneading.

So, what were the results?

Neither Beth nor I could tell any difference between the loaves. Rise, browning, crumb structure and taste were all but identical. And both doughs were quite nice to handle. It was a simple dough, similar to baguette dough - just flour, water, salt and yeast. No sourdough, I wanted to eliminate that as a variable. And the breads were quite nice. One neighbor said they were her favorites of all my breads. (Sometimes simplicity is a good thing.)

Somehow, this reminded me of a coworker from my computer jockey days. We'll call him Lennie. When Lennie was asked to write programs and they didn't work correctly, which was usually, he'd start by blaming the language compiler. When we pointed out other people had no problems, he'd blame the computer. When we pointed out there were 12 other people on that computer who were having no problems, he'd finally look at the program he had written. And then he'd find what he'd done wrong this time.

So, was I being a Lennie?

I'm obsessive about taking notes. And for a few months I've been trying different whole wheat flours to see how they handle and taste. Those loaves had also been mostly sucky. (That's a baker's technical term.)

The answer was probably in the notes.

Somewhere over the years, I read a science fiction book where the society had developed immortality for some. Not all, of course. In the end, it turned out the short lived people, called the mayflies, were the ones who got things done. The immortals just didn't feel any pressing urgency to get things done. After all, they had centuries at their disposal. The mayflies had decades to try to prepare for their retirement and to take care of their children. Urgency is an important thing.

When we were running a bakery, we had to get the bread on the truck by 5:45 to get it delivered for breakfast at the local restaurants. So, we had a sense of urgency.

Before I retired, baking had become something I did for enjoyment, especially since I wasn't facing production deadlines. And now that I am retired, I felt even less urgency.

Looking at the notes I saw that there was NO consistency in my timings. Sometimes it was an hour between stretch and folds. Sometimes 2 1/2. Sometimes 5. Not because I was trying to change the process, but just because I got side tracked. And this caused some real differences in now the dough turned out. I like to say, "it takes a consistent process to create a consistent product." Changing a process can be a good thing when you do it carefully and intentionally. Sloppiness is rarely a good thing.

While Father Dominick likes to say, "It's only dough, it will forgive you!" it seems there are times when it won't quite forgive you. It'll kinda forgive you. But not wholeheartedly. Luckily, bread has no memory and each loaf is a new chance at redemption!

Sorry, Craig, I shouldn't have doubted you! Craig has forgotten more about baking than I'll ever hope to know. It's usually a mistake to disagree with Craig. No, not because he'll get upset - he's one of the nicest and most laid back people I've ever met - but because the chances are you're wrong. I think he was right again. As an aside, if you're on the fence about taking Central Milling's classes, go ahead and do it! A great facility, and a great faculty. There are a number of top flight baking schools, and this is definitely one of them!

So, now our experiment is moving to a new phase. We're using timers and working on a sense of urgency to make sure things are done in a timely fashion. Hey, that dough won't develop itself!

I think the moral here is to not decide on the source, or cause, of problems too soon. Even it if it seems like the problem is as obvious as the nose on a clown's face. Our search and testing continues. I'm sure you'll hear more about it.

Until next time, may your dough always rise, no matter what foolish things you did to it!`


(1) But, what about the dough that came together magically in class when someone added 1/4 tsp of gypsum? Sometimes we make cause and effect connections that aren't really there. I spend a fair amount of time in each class teaching people how to knead. My kneading techniques are much more efficient than most I've seen. So, did the dough come together because of the gypsum, or because of kneading coaching that went along with it? Her form hadn't been all that good! Sometimes it's hard to know, and sometimes you shouldn't draw major conclusions with a single test!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *