Monday, 2 November 2015

Why wetter is better

I made a bread machine loaf today. Shock horror!

It's true: even bakers at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, occasionally use a bread machine. It's a very convenient device, and does a pretty fair job of making fresh bread with a minimum of effort. So why am I telling you this? Because today's loaf came out like a brick. This also happens.

Occasionally we forget the yeast, or the water, or the bread machine paddle. Very occasionally we use ingredients which are ever so slightly past their best before date. But none of the above applied this time. The yeast was fresh, the water was straight from the English Lake District, so nothing wrong there.

The flour was only a few weeks old. I know because I helped at the mill the day it was milled, and it is my handwriting on the bag where it says "Paragon Wheat. Best before 7/2/2016". Nothing wrong with the flour then - far from it. So what the Jiggins went wrong? And why does this happen once in a while?

It's our old friend hydration again.

Follow me closely now... I bought some excellent flour from the Woodbridge Tide Mill a couple of years ago, and the miller there told me that in his opinion home bakers were being given bad advice by TV food programmes. That's him on the right.

It was quite trendy at the time to make "no knead" or "low knead" bread, on the basis that you didn't really need to knead provided you gave the bread a bit longer to rise. Certainly it is possible to make ciabatta, for instance, with no kneading, masses of water and a 20 hour rise time. But you don't see many 100% wholemeal no knead ciabattas, do you?

The miller at Woodbridge felt that what "real flour" needs is in fact more kneading, not less. By all means use less yeast and give the bread longer to rise. But kneading is vital to develop the gluten, and well developed gluten is vital for well risen wholemeal bread.

So - my bread machine brick. What happened there? Well, judge for yourself - this is what it came out looking like -

The texture inside is dense to the point where it is barely cooked. And look at that top! Disaster! So how does this come down to hydration?

I have always followed the recipe that came with the bread machine. Basically, a measured cup of water, and 450 g of flour. This time I thought I would actually weigh the water in my measured cup. It held 270 g of water. So, applying the hydration equation, you get 270 / 450 = 0.6, or 60% hydration. This is spot on the basic baker's magic formula, and represents the accepted wisdom for a standard loaf.

But as you well know by now, I favour much higher hydration than this, and my experience with this loaf shows why. When we made my "mother-in-law" loaf at the mill, the recipe called for 80% hydration.

Back in the 1980s when I first made the mother-in-law bread, I was using flour from a supermarket somewhere. It was wholemeal, certainly, but probably not "real" in the sense that the Heron Corn Mill and Woodbridge Tide Mill flour is real: not stone ground, characterful, large-bran-flaked wholemeal. In those days, I found it completely impossible to knead the dough. It was simply too wet. So I just squelched it in the bowl for the "15 minutes with the radio" that the recipe calls for.

But this year, using real rustic flour, I was very surprised to find that even at 80% hydration, it was quite possible to knead the bread. The bran in proper stoneground wholemeal flour is capable of absorbing really quite surprising amounts of water.

And this, finally, explains the brick. The flour I used drank up the water I put in my 60% hydration bread machine loaf. It was probably still thirsty. It was certainly still very dry. Like Oliver Twist, it wanted some more. But it never came. All that happened was the bread machine started mixing.

I don't know if you have ever watched a bread machine "kneading" bread. I must be a bit sad, because I find it very interesting how little kneading it actually manages to do. It works on the same principle as the damsel at the mill, only inverted. Whereas the damsel has 4 protruding corners that bash the shoe to send grain into the stone, the bread machine has 2 protruding bumps on the inside of the tin, which the bread bashes as it turns round. In theory some of the dough catches on the bumps, and the paddle keeps turning, stretching the rest of the dough and mixing everything up. You can see one of the bumps at the top of the picture on the left -

In practice, what happens, especially if the dough is too dry, is that the dough just keeps turning and turning, like the picture on the right, and only very occasionally catches on the bumps. Even then it does not catch enough to cause the rest of the dough to be stretched. In fact it just keeps turning the ball of dough round and round on one axis all the time.

So when you have an exceptionally dry piece of dough, as I think my 60% hydrated wholemeal would have been, it gets an extremely small amount of working during the bread machine's kneading phase. That results, as the Woodbridge miller would certainly have realised, in a very poorly developed set of gluten. And poorly developed gluten means poorly risen bread, because it is the stretchy gluten network that traps the gas in the dough. The gas then stretches the gluten again, so you have a virtuous circle. Or you should have. If your dough is not sufficiently hydrated, you get into a vicious circle, where everything conspires to stop the dough rising at all. In short, you get a brick.

I didn't watch the bread machine working this time, because it was running overnight, but when I have watched in the past, I have often added some more water during the kneading phase. It softens the dough, which then gets caught much more easily on the bumps in the tin. And it gets a much better knead from the machine.

No bread machine will ever knead dough like yours truly of course. I am with the Woodbridge miller on this one: get that dough turned out onto a nice work surface in a warm kitchen, and give it a good pummelling. Now that's the way to handle proper stoneground wholemeal flour!