Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had a look at two of the four main ingredients in bread – flour and yeast – and today I’d like to have a think about a third, water.
Now you may not think that there is much to say about water and you might be right. I mentioned the other day that I don’t think using bottled water is worth the cost and although we’ve recently started using a water filter jug I haven’t noticed any difference in the bread using filtered water. I thought instead I’d look at it from two different angles – how much to use (hydration), and what you could substitute it with.
How much water you should put in your dough is one of those questions that doesn’t ever have a straight answer. Different flours absorb different amounts (e.g. Wholewheat flour needs more water because the larger bits of wheat are able to absorb more than finer white flour). Equally some breads require different hydration levels because their particular characteristics demand it (e.g. Ciabatta gets its soft, open structure in part from its high water content).
A general rule is to use as much water as you can handle – remember that wetter is better! If you haven’t baked much before you’ll probably want to start with a slightly drier dough, maybe around 60% hydration (we looked at baker’s percentages a few weeks ago so feel free to refer back if that doesn’t make sense). As you get more used to handling dough (with help from your trusty dough scraper!) you can increase the hydration. I think the highest I have gone is about 80% but I have heard of sourdough loaves going as high as 100%. I tend to work somewhere around 70%.
You may be wondering why the water content is so important? Well what happens to make bread go stale? It dries out as the the starch bonds crystallise so it stands to reason that the more water there is to begin with the longer it will take to dry out.
Incidentally this is the same reason you shouldn’t cut it as soon as it comes out of the oven – all that lovely steam that comes out is really just the water escaping and means that the bread will go dry quicker.
The other reason is simply that more water makes for a softer, more open bread whereas less water makes for a drier, more dense bread.
One of the fun things about baking is that one you’ve got the hang of the basic recipe you can play around with it as much as you like. There are lots of alternative liquids you can use in place of the water in different types of bread and I’ll just share a few that I have used here. The important thing to remember is that the hydration level is the combined amount of liquids so don’t put 300g of water and 300g of milk into 500g flour!
I frequently add a bit of oil to my dough, this gives it a slightly silkier feel and slows down the staling process. If you use really good oil it can add an extra dimension to the flavour as well.
This is what I use most often. Swapping up to half the water for milk gives a softer, richer dough. I generally do this for pizza and sometimes put a bit in normal bread as well.
Substituting the water for a bottle of ale (minus a few sips obviously!) gives a great, rich bread. The darker the ale the better in my opinion (both for baking and drinking). Because the alcohol can inhibit the yeast it may need a slightly longer rise but it is well worth it.
Just like ale, cider is a great alternative to water. I once made a beautiful loaf of bread which used cider and had chunks of apple and cheese in it. Lovely stuff!
I make hot cross buns for our good Friday service at church each year and I use orange juice as the main liquid which complements the fruit and spices beautifully.