I know what you’re thinking: Can she really have written this much about water, the most boring of bread ingredients? This girl really needs to find something to do.
But wait: water’s function is much more interesting than simply that of the matchmaker that brings flour, yeast, and salt together. The quality of my bread really improved once I learned how to adjust the amount and temperature of the water to control some characteristics of the dough.
Principle #1: the amount of water controls the consistency of the dough.
We’ve probably all had the experience of using the exact amount of flour and water specified in a recipe, only to find that the dough is too wet or too dry. This makes sense, because flours vary in their capacity to absorb water. Many books tell you to add additional flour during mixing if the dough is too wet, or additional water if it’s too dry. The problem with adding flour is that it changes the ratio of the flour to the other ingredients, so the bread may taste and behave differently from what the recipe intended. I was taught to use only water to adjust the dough consistency.
Instead of adding all the water specified in the recipe right at the beginning, I hold back about 15%, which I then add (some or all of) during mixing if the dough seems too dry. I may also need more water beyond the original amount, if the flour is especially thirsty. (Of course, understanding when the dough is the right consistency is the really tricky part; hopefully the recipe gives some guidance on this, but even then, especially if it’s a new recipe that’s really different from anything else I’ve made, I may just have to wing it.)
Some recipes tell you to ferment the dough in a place that’s such-and-such temperature. That’s OK, but what’s equally important, for controlling how quickly the dough ferments, is the temperature of the dough. Some recipes specify the target dough temperature; if it isn’t given, 74-76F is a good range to shoot for in most cases. An instant-read thermometer is a good investment.
In Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, master baker Jeffrey Hamelman describes how to achieve the dough temperature you want by adjusting the water temperature. If you don’t have the book, I’ll do my best to summarize. But get the book. If you already have it, go ahead and jump to the end of this post to download my temperature calculator.
Dough temperature is affected by five main factors: water temperature, flour temperature, preferment temperature (if you’re using one), room temperature, and the heat generated by the friction of mixing. Of these, the easiest to control is the water temperature.
Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the question of how you know what the mixing friction is. The other things (flour temp, room temp, preferment temp) are easy enough to measure (with the right tools, of course).
To determine the water temperature you need for a dough with a preferment, the formula is:
water temp = (4 x desired dough temp) – room temp – flour temp – preferment temp – mixing friction
For example, if the desired dough temp = 76, room temp = 70, flour temp = 69, preferment temp = 71, and mixing friction = 40, we can calculate:
water temp = (4 x 76) – 70 – 69 – 71 – 40 = 54
For a recipe without a preferment, the formula is:
water temp = (3 x desired dough temp) – room temp – flour temp – mixing friction
OK, but what about this mixing friction? Unfortunately this is not a simple, single number. The type of mixer, the amount and consistency of the dough, and the length of mixing time all affect the mixing friction. So it’s a matter of experimentation for each recipe you make, but you can make an educated guess. If I’m using my KitchenAid mixer to mix about 3 pounds of dough of medium consistency (similar to a basic sourdough) for about 10 minutes, I’ll start with a guesstimate of 40 for the mixing friction, if I haven’t made that particular recipe before. If I’m going to mix it by hand, though, I’ll guess the number to be around 5, because hand mixing generates much less heat. So I plug my guesstimate into the formula along with the other variables to determine my water temperature. Then when I’m done mixing, I take the temperature of the dough; if it’s what I hoped for, then I know my guess as to mixing friction was correct, and I note this for the next time I make this recipe. If not, I adjust the mixing friction number up or down next time.
Clear as mud? That’s what I thought. Get the book. In the meantime, if you’re really stumped, just use a value of 5 for hand mixing, or 4 x the number of minutes you anticipate mixing for a stand mixer, and it should get you in the ballpark.
Now the arithmetic in the temperature formula itself is straightforward, but can be tedious. So I made a simple calculator, in the form of an Excel spreadhseet, which I invite you to download. Simply enter the desired dough temp and the known variables, and it calculates the water temperature you need.
The calculator also helps you figure out how to achieve the water temperature you’re after. If you use tap water you could just hold the instant-read thermometer under the running water until it’s right. But if you use bottled water, as I do, it’s a little trickier. I keep one bottle in the fridge (at about 40F) and one at room temperature. If I want, say, 55-degree water, I could just mix the two together by trial and error until I get to 55. But I don’t want to waste all that time and water, so I take the temp of my two waters, enter them into my calculator along with the amount and temperature of the final water I need, and it tells me how much water of each temperature is required. (I mix them together before adding it to the dough). If I need water that’s warmer than room temperature, I mix the room temp water with some that I heat in the microwave. I suppose it sounds complicated, but trust me, it’s not. Try the calculator.
Download water temperature calculator (Excel spreadsheet)