Bread Flour: Obsession with Hydration is Pointless


This is the first of other post I’ll make as I go along on the subject of bread flour.  I will do a post on protein; gliadin and glutenin the balance between the two.  And other posts on milling, different non-wheat flours, autolyse,  enzymes, and anything I came across/experience.  Remember though for those still waiting for my second post on bagels, I’m slow or rather I’m busy with other non-blogging things…it will take time.

I wanted to start with the subject often discussed, water in dough.  Shortly after entering the world of sourdough you’ll notice the frequently asked question by the veteran bakers “What’s the hydration of that loaf?”.  If you’re not in this conversation yet it simply means what’s the water content in the recipe and in the case of sourdough you have to add the water also in the levain (motherdough) to the total.  Now the question is not pointless but it’s incomplete and as such results in a pointless question.

I see photos of bakers showing their very open very holey crumb which are met with lots of “oohhhs” and “aahhhs” of astonished admirers and the conversation will involved discussing method as well as hydration percentages, and the oohhs and aahhs starts happening usually around 75% maybe even 80% hydration.  This is only half the story the other half missing is the flour.  

Along with how much water you have equally important but rarely discussed is the flour, the protein percentage of the flour.  High protein flours can absorb as much as 30% more water than lower protein flours, something noted in Harold McGee and baking textbooks.  I’ll mention below how not all protein in flour is equal but as a general rule an 11% protein flour which is typical of the French T55 flour will tolerate less water without the dough losing its shape than a strong Canadian style flour of 14-15% protein.

When someone talks of the hydration it’s important to know the flour protein and better still the type of flour although that’s less practical in a global blogger/forum world of varying flours, and the different treatment they’ve had by the different millers.

The experiment I carried out back in April showed how using the same flour but changing the water amounts resulted in a difference in the openness of the crumb, the more water the more open texture the crumb became.  I also showed how using varying protein flours also had the same effect, keeping the water the same the lower protein flours gave more open/holey crumb, very much in fashion with some sourdough bakers at the moment, and higher protein flour had a tighter crumb.  The detailed post is here.

This was a very simple crude test but easily demonstrated how as a baker it was easy to vary your crumb depending on the water and protein level of your flour, no need to do autolyse or any other special treatment.

Doughs Holding Shape – Low Protein Flours

What also came out of that test was how sticky the doughs with the lower protein flours were compared to the more absorbent hight protein flour doughs.  The very sticky lax low protein flours had trouble holding their shape on the baking sheet although some performed better than others with oven-spring.

Importantly for me with that experiment was how 2 different low protein flours, the Allison and the Wrights acted so differently both as a dough and during baking.  The Wrights flour held its shape better on the baking sheet (on last proving) and had a better oven-spring.  The Allison one gave you a ciabatta style loaf, spreading out on the baking sheet, making it an unpopular choice amongst some sourdough bakers.



Holding Their Shape – High Protein Flours

What I didn’t test in April was two very high protein flours next to each other but since then I’ve had the experienced of using a different brand of Canadian extra strong flour which gave me complete different results to my normal Canadian Extra Strong.

The Loaf below is made from my usual Waitrose Canadian 15% protein flour.  It’s my standard flour if I want to add extra ‘umph’ to my loaf perhaps if I’m using a flour I know has poor performance like 100% English stoneground spelt or I use it to make bagels.  What you’ll notice in the characteristics of this high protein flour is holding its shape (without using proving baskets) very tightly and giving you a pretty good shaped boule baked in domestic oven with a good oven spring.

If you use this strong Canadian flour in a yeast recipe like I have below it will give you a ‘football’ shape, quite extraordinary.

Not All Protein is Equal

The benefits of high protein flours are easy to use and handle, forgiving, you can over-prove them more than low protein flours, hold their shape better, good for lots of kneading, good for bagels giving them structure to support the malt (if using) as well contributing to their chewiness, and it’s good at coping with rich doughs and still perform in the oven.

Now look below at another brand of Canadian extra strong flour this time from Sainsbury, it’s 14.9% protein.  When I used it I was expecting the performance of my usual Waitrose Canadian but as soon as I mixed the dough it was clear I had an usually sticky dough for a strong flour (using usual amount of water).  The dough then spread like a low protein flour on the baking sheet resulting in the flat ciabatta style bread I complained before.  Believe me I wasn’t aiming for this shape but it was the only thing I could do with it in the circumstances.  Made me cross because I couldn’t use the flour for the bagels, the reason I had bought it.  

It taught me the lesson I was already learning from the experiment in April and from studying, not all protein is equal.  This is something millers will say over and over again and why the miller’s job is so complex, it’s all about biology and chemistry trying to figure the performance of any particular wheat.

Why Bake with Low Protein Flours

Why bake with a low protein flour then…if a good high protein flour performs regardless of what you do to it?  

Comes down to results in taste, texture and things like crust.  The French generally use low protein flours like the T55 for baguettes which is 11% protein.  Having recently made baguettes with 12% protein and then making it with 11% protein, I can say I noticed the difference in the crust using the same recipe, same method, same oven.  Currently I’m using 12% protein flour generally but about to venture next week to using a 9% protein and other different low protein flours.  

Like anything you notice the difference when you stay away for a while and having stayed away from high protein flours when on occasion I go back to them I notice a denser and chewier bread and chewier crust which isn’t what I’m after.  There is a striking difference is in the crust when making a white loaf using a low protein flour, more noticeable than in the crumb, because of the browning effect I’m guessing. 

Variables in Flour – Adding High Protein Flours, Gluten, Ascorbic Acid 

There will be other variables in the flour you buy but that’s for another post.  The miller’s job is to make the bread flour perform and in this country usually means the tradition of the performance of high gluten flours for the baker’s harsh spiral machines or similar.  For this reason the miller may add a percentage of high protein flour like Canadian or Kazakhstan to mix with the lower protein flours in order for them to perform.  Or equally popular but more controversial he may add gluten.  

Some English flours may be extremely tasty to eat but very bad at performing as doughs, even if you treat and handle it gently, they may have poor extensibility in the gluten and for this reason there has to be some adjustments by the miller.

There may also be the addition of ascorbic acid which I’m yet to clarify what it does.  I’ve heard some say it’s like vitamin C and therefore harmless or others say it’s not like vitamin C and in fact the ascorbic acid used is generally manufactured by chemical means from glucose…glucose being sugar.  Now when I do get to the bottom of ascorbic acid I shall post more clearly about it.

In this country there are also the addition of vitamins which apparently have to be added but I have also heard of millers abstaining from this and forming a committee of millers to change the status quo.

Obviously here I’m trying to make the point the flour you use and the quality of it has everything to do with the performance of your bread as well as other factors like how much water you have in a recipe.  My advice is don’t beat yourself up when you think you can’t make a loaf perform…you may just be dealing with  ’biologically-challenged’ wheat varieties!

The other hidden factors we won’t know about is what adjustments a miller does because that will also vary performance.  For example I’m beginning to see a correlation between a fairly low protein flour like my 12% and a suspicious bouncy oven-spring with having added gluten.  It doesn’t bother me only it’s good to know as I’ve seen the same characteristics in similar flours.

Why Not All Protein is Equal

To clarify about the amount of protein in the packs you buy.  If it says it’s 14.9% or 15% protein but like me you’ve had bad experience of buying bad performing strong flour the amount protein stated on the packet will be correct or at least I have no reason to believed different.  

Having spoken to millers and having read some on the gluten, within that protein, the quality of gliadin and glutenin will vary greatly amongst different varieties of wheat and the balance between gliadins and glutenins will also vary in different varieties of wheat.  On top of this genetic differences there will be other factors like the quality of the harvest which will come down not only to environmental factors like weather but also what’s been grown in the field prior to that wheat being sown.  This is something I will explore further in coming posts.

The other most important variable in flour is the wheat itself.

Flour is a grass and as a natural ingredient just like wine it is all about biology, its genetic make-up, the climate it grows in, the quality of the soil, the storage conditions all have an effect well before the miller gets their hands on it and decides how to mill it, stoneground or modern method…and before any man-made adjustments the miller makes.

Flour like wine has individual characteristics and for that reason like wine I believe flour should be regarded with the same importance and seriousness…wine and flour are after all our most ancient symbols of civilization.