Water and Flavor

Appears in


By Jeffrey Hamelman

Published 2004

In general, we don’t consider water to be an ingredient that imparts flavor to our breads, and in a technical sense it probably doesn’t. Nevertheless, water does have an important impact on flavor. It can, I believe, unlock the potential of the flour to provide flavor. It’s challenging to bring out the finest flavors in breads that are either very wet or very dry. With very wet doughs, the challenge is to ensure a full bake without the crust becoming either too dark or too thick—the great amount of internal moisture in doughs of this type often results in softening of the crust once the bread has cooled. Dry doughs present their own challenge: bringing out the intrinsic flavor potential of the flours used. By this I mean that in drier environments, the flour can barely “breathe.” Sometimes the simple addition of one or two further percentages of hydration can make all the difference between a sluggish dough that has limited flavor development and one that expands to its fullest flavor potential.

It is often difficult to mix wetter doughs to adequate gluten development when using a planetary-type mixer (such as a Hobart or KitchenAid). One tactic that is effective is the following: When mixing the final dough, hold back a portion of the liquid (hold back more or less liquid depending upon the total hydration of the dough). This technique (called bassinage in French) can also be used with spiral mixers for wet doughs. The gluten will develop more readily in this drier dough environment. When the dough has attained the degree of strength you seek, turn off the mixer. Make an opening at the place where the dough hook enters the body of the dough. Pour the rest of the liquid into this hole, turn the mixer back on, and mix just until the liquid is incorporated. I find this to be an effective technique when I mix at home, not just for notoriously wet doughs like ciabatta, but for many other doughs as well, especially those whose hydration is above about 70 percent.