Saturday, 17 January 2015

Salt, yeast and aesthetics

Wake up and smell the bread 

Two people I used to work with had a significant coffee habit. Every morning, while their PCs were warming up, they used to huddle round a steaming coffee pot. We're talking proper strong coffee here, measured in tablespoons, not teaspoons. It takes time and practice to build up this level of caffeine tolerance. Not my scene: Angie and I average 5g of real coffee a week between us!


There's a parallel with salt, I think. We are so accustomed to the taste of salt behind virtually everything we eat that over time we need more to get the same hit in the taste buds. Simon at Staff of Life bakery in Kendal says he likes to use less salt because if you are not careful you finish up with bread which is really just "flour suspended in a wash of salty water", or words to that effect. When he was baking in France he was accused of using too little salt. His answer was that he could taste that the French bakers were using too much salt, and it was their problem if they could not taste that he was using enough.

Far be it from me to claim that I have superior taste buds. Angie says mine are "shot to bits". When Nell at the Heron Corn Mill gave me a sample of soup to taste, confidently expecting me to identify "burnt", I came up equally confidently with "tahini". My excuse is that salt is everywhere: it's a fact of life.

I started to worry about salt when I realised that quite a lot of Italian bread uses no salt at all, and I wasn't getting any taste out of it. Programmes like Master Chef don't help: time and again people are criticised for "not seasoning properly" which is code for "not putting enough salt in".

Rule of thumb for salt

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's bread book gives the following rule of thumb for salt (page 39) -

FlourSaltRatio of salt to flour

When I make a batch of 2 loaves, I use 10g salt for 900g flour - approximately 1.1% salt. I thought I'd better check what other people suggest for salt in their bread recipes.

Paul Hollywood uses exactly the recommended amount of salt - 2%.


The great Lionel Poilane, king of sourdough, goes higher (admittedly for a brioche). He uses 2.35% salt - but whatever he does is right: he is the master.

1.1 lbs wheat flour
0.11 lbs granulated sugar
0.42 oz. kosher salt
0.53 oz. fresh yeast or 0.26 dry yeast
5 eggs
7 oz. room temperature butter
7-8 branches of fresh mint
3-4 small brioche pans (optional)

Nigella is the least flamboyant of the bunch - at least as far as salt goes. I'm taking "½ tablespoon" to mean 1.5 teaspoons, or 7.5g of salt. That means Nigella is using a modest 1.25% salt.

approx. 600 grams plain flour
teaspoons rapid rise yeast or bread machine or other instant yeast
½ tablespoon salt
tablespoon caster sugar
375 ml milk
25 grams butter


    I use the same amount of dried yeast as salt - 10g for 900g flour to make 2 loaves, or 1.1% yeast.

    Hugh's book gives the following suggestion for yeast -

    FlourYeast (dried)Ratio of yeast to flour

    So whereas my 1.1% salt is quite low, my 1.1% yeast is slightly over the recommended amount. Some recipes suggest using much more yeast, so this is not set in stone.

    Jamie uses a pukka 2.1% yeast -

  • 1kg strong flour
  • 625 ml tepid water
  • 30 g fresh yeast, or 3 x 7g sachets dried yeast
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 level tablespoon fine sea salt
  • flour, for dusting

  • Paul Hollywood sloshes it around at 2.4% yeast -

    500g/1lb 1oz strong white bread flour, and a little extra flour for finishing
    • 40g/1½oz soft butter
    • 12g/2 sachets fast-action dried yeast
    • 2 tsp salt
    • about 300ml/10¾fl oz tepid water 
    • a little olive or sunflower oil

    Nigella has twice as much yeast as salt in her recipe: she uses 2.5% yeast -

    approx. 600 grams plain flour

    teaspoons rapid rise yeast or bread machine or other instant yeast
    ½ tablespoon salt
    tablespoon caster sugar
    375 ml milk
    25 grams butter

    I generally allow my dough about an hour to rise in the mixing bowl followed by an hour to rise in the tin or proving basket. But that is not set in stone. Nell's bread went in the oven after an hour rising in the mixing bowl and 40 minutes proving in the tin. 20 minutes one way or the other is no big deal when you are making bread, and several things may have contributed to it -

    • the amount of yeast used
    • the temperature of the place where the dough was left to prove
    • the different characteristics of the flour used
    • the effectiveness of the kneading
    At the end of the day, you tend to keep an eye on dough when it's proving, so it finishes up going in the oven when you can see that it is ready. Of course if you're making sourdough, you will probably be waiting for quite a lot longer than if you are using commercial yeast.

    The time to raise a given piece of dough is a function of the amount of yeast used, the temperature and "events, dear boy"

    When it comes to bread making, who's in a hurry? Elizabeth David had it right: use hardly any yeast, and let it rise until it's good and ready. There's always a good book and a glass of wine to be had somewhere.


    Would Dame Edna really care what a loaf looks like? Isn't it really just a matter of good taste?

    Programmes like Master Chef would have you believe that presentation is all, or at least non-negotiable.

    It's certainly true that you often get your first impression of food when it is put in front of you. With luck you might get the smell first, if it's coffee or bread for instance.

    And if you've made it yourself you will hopefully have pleasurable anticipation before anything else, because you know what has gone into it both in terms of ingredients and love.

    For me, taste is the only non-negotiable thing. It doesn't matter if it looks rough and ready, so long as it tastes good.

    The way I see it, bread - and food generally - is an everyday thing, and as such it shouldn't need to be proving itself (no pun intended) in a beauty competition every day. You should know it's going to taste good because you have a right to expect it to taste good, because you take the trouble to treat the ingredients with some respect.

    My bread is never going to win any prizes for presentation. I just don't have the skill to do it prettily. And bread is very forgiving. If you let it have a bit of space it will come out looking pretty good whatever kind of a mess you made of handling it.

    I admire the skill that can make bread look like this -

    (Woodbridge Cake Shop)

    But the important thing about a good loaf is that you should be quite confident that it is just going to be "right", whatever it looks like.

    One day I was having trouble deciding which loaf to buy at Staff of Life in Kendal. Simon suggested I take "the next loaf out of the oven" because it "had my name on it" and I was bound to like it anyway. This game of "Russian Baguette" appealed to me and I often remember that Deli Rye loaf with fondness.

    I agree very strongly with Mr Rockard in this favourite old advert from the early 1980s that what's important is for things not to be too chooooooooooey -

    In fact, some of the best tasting loaves around look like this -

    So please, love your bread for how it tastes, not what it looks like. It just wants a bit of loving, and maybe a nice bit of Wensleydale.