Where does the flavour come from?
Flours and Grains.
Yeast and Fermentation management.
Inclusions and other flours.
Crust Browning. (Maillard Reaction)
Nearly all of the flavour and flavour making potential is in the bran and the germ. Modern roller milling removes all of these when making low extraction white flours. They are sold on as animal feed. Lucky animals. Stone mills work differently, the germ is rubbed into the flour so even if the bran is bolted out the resulting white flour at least has that benefit in terms of nutrition and flavour.
Those who like light white breads could try adding a wholemeal, or whole grain flour at the rate of up to 20% of the total flour used. The resulting bread will still be light, but the flavour will be greatly improved. Another flour to add, at up to about 20%, is whole rye flour. This confers rye notes to the bread without having too much impact on the lightness of the resulting loaf.
People also add other grains such as oats and barley. I’ll be honest, barley flour doesn’t do much for me, even when I used some of the old flavourful heirloom varieties, but I have a friend who swears by it. He also took my Beremeal Barley. It has recently been re-introduced here. It’s an old Norse landrace. Theres plenty of room for experimentation here.
I am not decrying white breads. They have a place in the repertoire too. Could there ever be a substitute for a Ciabatta, a Baguette, or a soft doughy milk bread? These too can be flavour improved with the right treatment.
These are becoming more available in many countries now. They are made from the wheats which pre-date the Green Revolution of the 1960’s. In the ‘50’s and 60’s wheat breeders realised that the world population was increasing faster than farmers ability to grow more grains. A global effort began to breed varieties which cropped more heavily and which responded well to intense chemical based fertilisers. These varieties also happened to have poor flavour. These new wheats were much higher in glutenin and were more suitable for high-speed commercial bakeries too. These are the commodity wheats we have become accustomed to. For all of that they develop strong gluten and make light loaves, it’s not all bad.
The old varieties, we now call heritage wheats, are much lower in glutenin, the precursor of gluten, but many have tremendous flavour.
Again, it is easy to add these as a whole grain flour, or wholemeal, to your white bread recipes at 20% - 50% for a great flavour boost. I often use them at 70% – 80%, but I prefer more ‘whole’ breads.
Heritage wheats, with their lower glutenin levels, don’t absorb so much water. So do lower the water amount in your recipe when using them. As a guide 60% water as a percentage of all of the flour in the recipe, for a freeform loaf and 65% for a loaf baked in a tin, or pan. More water can always be added during the bake. If you're using a weak or heritage flour with your strong white bread flour try to aim low on the water. It can always be added later.
I do an initial mix of my flour water and leaven and then leave it half an hour to an hour. By that time the flour has hydrated and I add more water at about 5% of the flour weight at a time, until I have a good dough. Adding flour to an over-wet dough is to be avoided. You would be adding un-hydrated flour and you can only see if you got it correct after another 30-60 minutes.
A word about milling
Watch out for those roller mills. Make sure that with wholegrain flours all of the wheat is added back into the final flour. In some countries, such as the U.S., there are no regulations defining whole grain flours and it is not unusual for the mill to keep back some of the bran and germ for use in other products. Read the label and look for the miller saying that all of the components have been added back to the finished flour.
Yeast and fermentation
Fresh, or cake yeast, Active Yeast and Instant Yeast are pretty much the same thing. They are just different processes for storing the same yeast varieties from the breeding vats. There is no discernible difference in the flavour they impart to the bread.
Instant yeast stores for longer in the fridge and longer still in the freezer. I used to buy large commercial foil packs of instant yeast and kept in the fridge it was still good at the end of a year. I have unopened vacuum packs in the freezer and even four or five years’ time when I open one it will still give excellent results.
Baking is a brewing process. It is not solely about producing CO2 to make the bread rise. Whilst the yeast ferments it is also entering into a myriad of other chemical reactions with other components in the flour to produce different flavonoids. Flavonoids are the chemicals which we taste as flavours. If some bran is present the range and quantity of these increases.
The longer the yeast has to work this flavour magic the more flavour will be produced. To this end there are things we do not want to do.
1 Do not use a flour with fermentation enhancers (read accelerators) in it. Commonly these might include amylase enzymes which break starch down into sugars so that the yeast can ferment faster. Vitamin C is also often added to tighten the gluten for a lighter loaf. Vitamin C oxidises the flavonoids. It is a flavour killer.
2.Do not use more yeast than is necessary. The more yeast we add the faster the dough will ferment and the less flavour will be developed. Instant yeast, using the standard manufacturer’s dosage, is already fermenting a dough fairly rapidly. The rate manufacturers recommend is 1 Tsp / 500g of flour, or the total weight of the flour in grams x 0.0066, or 3.15g / 500g of flour. Reducing this so that the dough ferments more slowly is one way to get a slower and more flavourful bread. However, there are other ways of doing this which are covered below.
“Beware those recipes using tablespoons of instant yeast in a 2lb dough. They know not what they do.”
Too much yeast makes the dough produce CO2 faster and it does not get time to develop flavour. It also makes the bread stale faster.
Tip: If you want to get bread on the table fast increase the yeast by as much as double and ferment it at 28C, the temperature where yeast is fermenting at peak activity level. The whole process will be very much shortened. There are times for everything.
Yeast and retarding the dough.
Retarding dough is the correct term for cold bulk fermentation and cold proofing. In terms of flavour development both methods yield the same results.
The zymase enzyme inside of the yeast cells produces CO2, which makes the dough rise, alcohol and organic acids. The alcohol and organic acids react with each other to produce flavours. These reactions are much slower than the CO2 production. When cold fermentation is used we arrest the yeast fermentation and allow the organic acid - alcohol reactions to continue. Thus we get a more flavourful bread.
With cold bulk fermentation the dough is placed in the fridge fairly early on in the bulk fermentation process and 12 – 16 hours later it is removed and the dough allowed to warm up prior to dividing, shaping and proofing.
With cold proofing the dough is divided and shaped and placed in a proving basket, or tin and then placed in the fridge for 12-16 hours to proof. It is then removed and baked in a pre-heated oven. In both cases the dough should be covered to stop it drying out. I use a pretty floral shower cap for this. It is some five years old and still going strong.
During these extended cold fermentation times the yeast activity is slowed almost to a complete standstill, but other enzymatic processes continue and it is they that confer the flavour.
Some people do very long periods of retardation in the fridge two to three days even. This should be tried with caution as the protease enzymes in the dough weaken the gluten structure. The longer the dough spends in the fridge the more gluten network is broken down. For this reason cold fermentation is best carried out with stronger gluten doughs. Experiment and moderation are the watch words. When the dough has been cold fermented for too long a heavier bread will result, or the dough might even collapse in the oven because of the weakened gluten structure.
When using yeast alone these are made from yeast water and flour mixes which are allowed to ferment on the worktop prior to building the dough. They are used instead of adding yeast to the dough. Adding yeast directly into the dough is called Direct Baking.
Preferments use small quantities of yeast, they are mixed and left in a warm place to ferment until they are ripe. This is typically from 4-16 hours. Many people leave them overnight for the next days baking.
Preferments have the same flavour developing chemistry as long fermented doughs. That is the Organic acid - alcohol reactions take place in the preferment improving the final bread flavour profile. They were developed in commercial baking to get some of the flavour advantages of slow fermenting the whole dough without the issues that come from having to store large quantities of fermenting dough. Slow fermenting all of the dough, by using cold fermentation for example will produce a lot more flavour than using a preferment.
For a 2lb loaf, using 500g of flour, a typical preferment would be 1/8 teaspoon of instant yeast (or a pinch) to 200g of flour along with the same weight of water as used in the preferment flour.
The preferment is ready, or ripe when it is frothy. Three things are going on in a preferment. The yeast is multiplying and building up a population. Typically the yeast population doubles every hour. The flavours are being brewed into it too. The yeast develops a little acidity (acetic acid) which will also bring the flavour of the flour out.
The main difference between a Flying sponge, a biga and a poolish is the ratio of flour to water. The less water in the mix the slower the pre-ferment develops. Also, less acidity is produced. I use a fairly standard 50% water 50% flour. It works well. Just remember to subtract the weight of the preferments flour and water from the original recipe when making the dough up.
All, of the different preferments were adopted because they allowed commercial bakers to develop some slow fermented flavour whilst still having rapid fermentation during the dough development stage. They can be combined with retarding the dough too for even better flavour.
Natural Leavens (A.K.A. Sourdough) and Old Dough
Natural leavens are cultured from the yeasts which occur naturally on the grain in the field. There can be quite a few hundred different yeasts in a natural leaven. The yeasts on a particular flour will vary from region to region and even farm to farm. They are the populations which have self-selected for that grain. This is very much what happens in wine making. A Beaujolais grape has Beaujolais yeasts on it and together they make a Beaujolais wine. For this reason buying some ‘ancient’ sourdough starter is a pointless exercise. The local yeasts on your flour will quite quickly displace the ones you have bought.
The other thing found in a natural leaven are Lactobacilli abbreviated to LABs. These are relatives of the bacteria which make yoghurt from milk. They move into a natural leaven over the first four weeks or so. They are introduced from the baker’s hands which pick them up from the local environment. Yes, it was researched. Now here is another myth. Californian sour dough has a reputation for being sweeter because of the local LABS. There is no point in buying it because your local LABS will replace the Californian ones fairly quickly. However, it has now been found that the same LABS crop up in other places too. Moving house is an option.
The big difference between a Natural and a Yeasted leaven are the Yeasts and LABs. The yeasts found in commercial yeast were selected for speed of fermentation. Wild yeasts ferment slightly slower, but they give a better flavour. Were back to Beaujolais again.
Yeast and LABs were made for each other. Essentially yeast uses some sugars and not others and LABS do the same. Each leaves the sugars and other goodies that the other uses. They collaborate a lot more than that too. Together they produce much more flavour in the dough than the yeast can alone. I am going to go into more detail on Natural Leavens in another article. By using refrigeration there is no need to do feeds and discards and you can freeze it when you are going away. Laboratories doing research on yeast freeze it at -80C, -112F. It comes to no harm.
There are many different names for old dough, Chef, Mother Dough, Madre, the list is long. The easy way to get into natural leavens is through using Old Dough. Each time you bake make some 200g of extra dough. When it comes to dividing and shaping remove 200g of the dough and pop it in a container in the fridge. This is sufficient for your next 2lb loaf bake. If you bake bigger batches just multiply it up. Old dough will take on the local yeasts and LABs (Lactobacilli) over time. It is a very easy way to get into natural leavens. Old Dough can be frozen for longer storage too. It will keep in the fridge for a week or longer.
Baking in your flavour
The next place to look for developing flavour in your bake is the oven. Browning the crust greatly increases the quantity of flavonoids in the crust and these infuse the whole loaf.
For those interested look up the Maillard Process. As the bread bakes there comes a point when it produces less steam which cools the crust. The crust temperature then rises rapidly. When the crust reaches 150-160oC reducing sugars and free amino acids and peptides (proteins) in the crust, react together to form a brown crust. As part of this chemistry a lot of flavour is also produced. To a degree these flavours permeate the loaf giving an overall improved flavour.
Just how much a baker browns the crust depends on the intensity of flavour and the crustiness they want. It is a balancing act. Adding sugars or malt to the dough makes the crust brown more quickly which can be problematic if the crust browns before the dough is fully baked. Adding less, or no, sugar to the dough and baking at lower temperatures controls this. It’s another balancing act.
Basting the crust, or topping it with seeds also adds some great flavours. The bastes can include anything from powdered nut, or seeds, to a simple salt baste. There are so many and they are worth experimenting with. They can change the whole personality of the loaf.
Baking long and low also allows some of the sugars in the dough itself to caramelise.
There’s nothing very technical with these, but they should be mentioned.
Firstly fats. Different fats will change the mouthfeel of the crumb. I don’t want to go into inclusions too much here, but a good olive oil in Italian breads is a must. Vegetable oils weaken the doughs ability to trap the CO2 so using too much will give you a heavier bread, Research has found that for ordinary use about 3% is a sweet spot. At 15% of the flour weight they give a heavier bread.
Butter will confer it’s flavour to a loaf. Especially a properly fermented butter. Animal fats, including butter, strengthen the vacuoles that trap the COP2 enabling them to hold more and so give a lighter loaf. This effect peaks at about 5% of butter to flour weight.
Then we have all of the seeds, nuts, dried fruit and herbs. Pleanty of room for experimentation.
Other flours from Oats, Barley, Rye and more can be added as well.
Here are some useful links to Charlie Chain Baker's You Tube:
I highly recommend that Baker's who use instant yeast consider trying a natural leaven if only once. Using Old Dough is very easy and if it is used over a few bakes it gives even more flavour to the bread.
It's also super simple.
Here's Charlie Chain Bakers video on how to do it.