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2019-05-05 - In Which Mike Battles Classic Epi Dysfunction

When we moved from Colorado to Texas, my bread making success ratio plummeted. I'd knead the dough, I'd shape the dough, and instead of standing tall and proud, it slumped. The only real option for many breads was to make them in bread pans. While I have nothing against bread pans, I also want to make baguettes, batards, boules, epis and even a fougasse or two.

But, no matter how I teased the dough, it wouldn't stand up for me. I was looking, I often joked, for dough Viagra. And that just wasn't happening.

So, we began a multi year search for what the heck was going on with our dough. And (spoiler alert) we are still looking, though we have some answers.

Are we going down a rabbit hole? Or tilting at windmills? Either way, I hope you'll join us for the journey. Much of what we'll talk about can be covered by this quote: "It ain’t so much the things that people don’t know that makes trouble in this world, as it is the things that people know that ain’t so." — Mark Twain

There is some debate as to who first said this, but it seems to have a lot of truth in it, no matter who first said it.

This whole thing started when we moved from the mountains of Colorado to Sanger, a small town near Dallas, Texas. And, once we got here, my bread making just went to hell in a handbasket. I tried to make dough and just got hyper-extensible goo. I'd loaf the dough and it would just slump. Clearly, something was wrong, but what?

Sourdough starters can degrade proteins in dough if the starter isn't in good condition, which can make the dough very, very extensible. I didn't think that was an issue, but still, I had just moved and the starter hadn't gotten all the tender loving care it usually received, so it could have been the issue. To check this, I took the starter out of the picture by making breads with yeast and no sourdough - with the same results.

Again and again, we've heard that water is the big secret ingredient in bread. Bakers talk about the wonderful waters in New York City and San Freancisco. After flour, water is the largest ingredient in bread. I mean, really, without water, you don't have dough, just a pile of flour. I see someone in the back mumbling something about milk. Yes, you can make dough with milk, and we do that in our Panama Bread recipe, but milk is mostly water. And we'll talk more about milk in this article.

Still, my next experiment was to make eliminate the water in the dough by making the Panama Bread I mentioned above. And, it came out wonderfully. This suggested that the sourdough starter was probably innocent since the problem occurred with simple yeast bread, but that it might be the water since it did not occur when I used milk to make bread.

Someone suggested that we should use bottled water, such as Ozarka Spring Water. The water should be more consistent than what we get from the tap, and spring water should be fairly hard. We didn't really like how much this increased the cost of our bread, but even worse was that the results weren't consistent. We tried several brands, and found the same true of all of them.

I corresponded with some people at the American Institute of Baking and they suggested I add gypsum (Calcium Carbonate) to the water to make it harder and more acidic. Brewers have been using gypsum to adjust their water for brewing purposes for centuries. The amount of gypsum added was very small and it seemed to help, for a while. When it stopped working we began digging into the matter again.

This led to all sorts of speculation and Googling. King Arthur Flour said that the ideal water for bread making should be slighty acidic and somewhat hard, between 100 and 150 parts per million (ppm) of hardness. Water acidity is measured in pH units which go from 0 to 14. 7 is neutral, 0 is as acidic as possible and 14 is as alkaline as possible. King Arthur suggested a pH between 6 and 7 would be good. Looking at the water analyses for a number of cities, I found that the total hardness is made up of Calcium Carbonate and Magnesium. New York City, San Francisco and Ozarka have analyses of their waters on line, which was helpful. So, looking at a number of cities, we found...

Since we have a hot tub and we use test strips to measure the pH, hardness, and chlorine levels in the hot tub, it seemed a natural solution to use the test strips on our water samples. Sadly, the steps between colors on the test strips was too coarse. Our strips went from 80 to 250 ppm in one step, which was too coarse. We wound up buying two pH test meters (one of which was returned the vendor), and a hardness titration kit.

City pH Hardness (ppm) Calcium (CaCO3) Magnesium
King Arthur 6.0 - 7.0 100 - 150 ppm
New York City 6.8 - 8.9 17 - 118 ppm 5.1 - 30.2 1.1 - 10
San Francisco 8.6 - 9.8 7 - 82 ppm 2 - 31 2 - 11
Sanger, Tx (1) 9.0 0 - 17.4 ppm
Sanger, Tx with added gypsum (2) 9.0 22,000 ppm
Sanger, Tx with calibrated ajustments (3) 6.4 150 ppm
Ozarka Spring Water (3) 4.7 - 7.2 8.1 - 22 ppm 1.8 - 5.9 .88 - 1.9

(1) We used a pH test meter and water hardness test kit to measure Sanger water. Sanger water was so soft the test kit instructions indicated the reading was too low to be reliable. So somewhere between 0 and 17.4 ppm.
(2) The amount of gypsum we added made the water improbably hard. It didn't, in the end, seem to really help us. This made us decide to adjust the water, not the dough.
(3) We added a small amount of vinegar, gypsum and epsom salts to mimic the distribution of calcium and magnesium in New York and San Francisco waters
(4) It was suggested we use bottled spring water to insure that our water was consistent and what we needed.

There were a number of surprises in the numbers we found. Some of them were:

  • We were surprised how different the New York and San Francisco waters were from the King Arthur suggestions,
  • We were surprised at how inconsistent the New York, San Francisco, and Ozarka waters were, and
  • We were surprised that some of the numbers didn't seem to add up (total hardness, CaCo3 and Magnesium)

The remaining question is, what differences did all of this make in our breads?

Sorry folks, this is a cliff hanger. We'll let you know next time!