Baking High Hydration Bread

cropped-basic-bread-copy.jpg I promised I would write about high hydration bread when I had the pix, so here we go.  If you want to skip all the description, the recipe is at the bottom of the post. Hydration refers to the amount of water in the bread as a ratio to the amount of flour, by weight. So 75% hydration dough has 3/4 as much water as flour. That’s what I am making, based on a recipe from my new fave bread book, “Flour Water Salt Yeast” by Ken Forkish. Why high-hydration? It’s what creates that amazing open texture because the dough is so wet, the yeast can blow it up into bubbles with CO2. Also, you can do the whole mixing process by hand without serious exertion. There is no way to knead this dough. The process starts with a pre-ferment, meaning we mix some water flour and yeast and let it ferment for a while before we make the dough. This gets you a lot of the complexity of sourdough without the hassle of keeping a culture alive. Half the weight of this bread comes from the pre-ferment, so even though the terminology talks about pre-ferment and dough, it’s really just a 2-3 day process to make the bread. Because the pre-ferment is wet, it’s called a poolish. (I would call a dry pre-ferment a biga, though the words are used loosely.) The poolish is made from 500g bread flour (I use King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill), 500g warm water(about 85F) and 1/8 tsp instant yeast. I don’t weigh the yeast because my scale is not accurate for such a small amount. Mix this by hand in a plastic tub at dinner time and leave overnight. Here is is next morning, risen to about triple its original size. 2014-09-05 08.09.02By about 9:00am next day it’s time to make the bread dough. We start with another 500g of flour. The original recipe was for all bread flour, but lately I’ve been adding durum flour to make it a more creamy color, spelt flour for additional taste and whole wheat flour for texture and color. The proportions are flexible. Last time I used 250g bread flour, 100g wholemeal flour, 100g of King Arthur Flour Ancient Grains (30% each amaranth, millet and sorghum plus 10% quinoa) and 50g spelt flour. To this we add 21 g salt, another 2/4 tsp yeast. The easiest way to get the poolish out is to pour the 275g quite warm water at 104F around the edge of the poolish then pour the whole mess into the flour.

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Now mix by hand until no longer lumpy. The technique is a mixture of scooping from underneath and folding, combined with pinching into lumps by clenching part of the fist. Its very messy. Forkin says you can wet your hand to stop it sticking, but you have to get so down and dirty with the mixing that I don’t find this helps much. I mix with my right hand and periodically use my left hand as a squeegee to get the dough off the right. The great thing about mixing by hand is that you can feel when you have achieve a well mixed dough. It will be pretty shaggy and stickily unmanageable still but it won’t be lumpy. The downside is that with hairy hands and arms like mine, I am finding little pieces of dough stuck to myself for hours. 2014-09-05 08.18.22 Use a dough scraper to clean up the sides of the tub, label a point that represents a tripling in volume, and put the tub in a warm place.

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During the first hour and half, you need to do 3 – 4 turns. To do a turn, you wet your hand, reach under the dough, grab a section and lift it up as far as it will go without tearing, then slap it down across the dough mass. I find it works better to dig into the dough with the side of the hand rather than the fingertips. Rotate the tub, wet your hand again, and repeat this half a dozen times to create a good mixing. As the dough matures you can feel and see it becoming much more elastic. I stop folding once the dough feels like proper bread dough – smooth and elastic. Then it just sits, and yeast works its magic for about 3-4 hours. Time to form the loaves. This dough is really wet. Once you coax it out of the tub onto a floured counter, it sits like a quivering blob.

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Make a line of flour across it and cut it in half with a bench knife. Taking each half in turn, flour the top and encourage into a ball shape. Forkin’s technique is to surround it with both hand and drag it towards you over a relatively flourless part of the board, rotate and repeat until the surface has a little tautness and the seams have sealed up.

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I proof the bread in baskets lined with cotton and dusted with rice flour, bread pretty side down, covered with oiled plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can put them in the fridge in a plastic bag sprayed inside with oil, and bake them the next day, straight from the fridge. This gives you more schedule flexibility and adds even more flavor. I let them proof until they just overfill the baskets about 1 1/2 – 2 hours, depending on the air temperature. Once this happens, put one in the fridge to retard it while you bake the other. You need to preheat the oven to 475F about an hour before this, so you have to pay some attention.

I bake the loaves in an iron pot. Forkin recommends a Le Crueset, but I think he’s crazy – it requires too much handling of the dough, and I’m sure I would burn my hands on the side of the pot while placing the dough. Cast iron at 475F is pretty unforgiving on human flesh. The iron pot is like an iron casserole with an iron frypan for a lid. You put the loaf in the lid and put the pot over the top. That way you have a low-rim container to deal with, not a tall casserole pot.

To transfer the loaves to the pot, cut a circle of parchment paper the size of a dinner plate Leave a big tab in one place. Put the paper on the plate and invert it onto the loaf. Pick up the loaf in its basket, plate and paper and invert the while thing. Now you can carefully lift off the basket to leave the loaf sitting on the parchment on the plate. I dust off any excess flour at this point. Place the plate so the loaf is correctly placed relative to the pot, tilt the edge of the plate down, hold the loaf in place with the tab on the parchment paper, and gently slide the plate away, letting the loaf settle into the pot. Now put the pot together and place it in the 475F oven.

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Beware: most oven mitts start to break down over 400F. Silicon will melt onto your fingers, transferring a lot of heat to your hand. I got kevlar gloves from amazon that I use only for bread. Welding gloves are another option.

After 5 minutes turn the oven down to 450, and after another 15 minutes take the lid off the pot. Leave the lid in the oven do it doesn’t cool down. Bake another 15 minutes, then crack the oven door open with a wooden spoon and bake another 5 minutes until well browned.

You need to reheat the oven and pot before doing the other loaf.

basic bread   I usually cut the loaves in half and freeze them that way. Thawed, they make spectacular crunchy toast. Putting more than just butter on them seems a shame, as they have a tremendous depth of flavor.

The Recipe


Make this at 6:00 pm to be ready for the following 9:00am.

500g bread flour
500 g water at 80F
1/8 tsp yeast


Mix. Turn 3-4 times in the first 90 minutes. Stand until tripled. Form into loaves. Proof at room temperature or overnight in the fridge. Bake at 475F for 5 minutes, 450F for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and bake 15 minutes. Crack the oven door and bake for 5 minutes.

250g bread flour
250g other flours
275g water at 104F
21g salt
3/4 tsp yeast


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Baking High Hydration Bread

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