Baking Experimentally: Part 1

In most hobbies, people are willing to experiment.  But, it seems as though baking has acquired a certain reverence, and experimenting is somehow sacrilegious or heretic.  The recipe is gospel, and not to be trifled with.  But, with a little understanding of how to put together a recipe and what the ingredients do, a new world of creations will open to you.

I must admit, I am at a little of a loss as to what to include in this post.  I put “Part 1” in the title in hopes that in the future, perhaps with ideas from the comments, that I could turn this into something of a series.  I’m pretty new to bread making myself, though I don’t use recipes for anything more than inspiration.  I’ve approached the whole endeavor as something of an experiment.  I’ll start with a few basics that helped me, and perhaps I can do more posts based on interest.  Just remember that you can make bread with flour, water, and yeast- its been happening for thousands of years.  Much like grain really wants to become beer, its also perfectly willing to become tasty bread.

baking ingredients

The first thing you’ll want to do is establish some way to be consistent in your baking, and take care to jot down good notes; for each batch, list all the amounts and ingredients, and a detailed procedure, preferably with each step time stamped.  Record the results each time, and the logic behind doing whatever you did in a short note.  I like to take notes in a different word document for each batch, just like my home brews, but perhaps a notebook is more your style.  Additionally, take some time to learn how to measure consistently, especially flour which can vary wildly when measured by volume.  If you really want to measure well, its best to invest about $25 in a gram scale and measure everything by weight.

The next thing you’ll want to master to make your own basic recipes is a little baking math.  The way I like best is by flour weight percentages; flour will be listed always as 100, and everything else will be listed as a percentage of this.  For example, a typical amount of salt in bread is 2%, so the recipe would list 100 flour and 2 salt, whatever the size of the recipe.  Its then elementary to see that a recipe calling for 100g of flour would require 2g of salt, 200g of flour would require 4g of salt, etc.

According to McGee’s On Food and Cooking (get this book), typical values for bread are flour: 100, water: 65, fat or oil: 3, milk solids: 3, eggs: 0, sugar: 5, salt: 2.  Thus for this typical loaf of bread, you might use 450g flour, 292.5g water, 13.5g fat or oil, 13.5g milk solids, no eggs, 22.5g sugar, and 9g salt (although I like egg whites in my bread).  You can find typical values for many other baked goods in his book as well.  Reinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice is an excellent resource for just about any type of bread as well.  With this as a starting point, you can change one thing at a time to see the effect it has.  You might be tempted to tweak this, that, and more each time you bake a loaf, but it’s important to see the effect of each change individually if you want to build your baking knowledge.

Perhaps you could add various spices; I like allspice, fresh rosemary, and especially cardamom.  Using different flours can also alter the bread: using bread flour can help the bread rise from additional glutenin protein, and  whole wheat makes a denser bread (and needs more water to get a dough of the same consistency) with a more pronounced grain flavor.  Replacing some of the flour with other grains or starches (potatoes come to mind) can also give a unique flavor.  I’ve found adding eggs or egg whites in place of some of the water (an egg is something like 50g, so I replaced 30 or 40g of water) can keep the bread moist for longer (though I don’t have any evidence as to why).  I’ve heard that if you want to use milk in your bread, it needs to be scalded to denature a whey protein to avoid an overly dense loaf, though I have never tested this.  I also use a reduced amount of salt (less than 1%) and instead use some calcium chloride.  And, oddly, using maltose (well, dried malt extract from brewing) in my sourdough starter seems to give me a more sour loaf than if I use standard table sugar (sucrose).  So go forth, experiment, and share your experiences here!

– Dennis
Life, Fermented

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About Dennis
Home brewer, home chef, garage tinkerer. Author of Life Fermented blog.

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