The Formula for Great Dough

Beautiful loaves
I've had some training. It was an Advanced Bread Baking course, with a professional baker. We learnt how to make three different types of bread. I came home with arm-fulls of fresh loaves, rolls and batards. Sure, I learnt three new recipes, but I learnt so much more than that.

One of the most important things I learnt was a formula for great dough.

Up until now, most of my bread has been tasty, if not particularly beautiful. The texture has been fine but a bit hit-and-miss. The method that I have been using up until now, the one that I described on this site, does what you expect: it makes hassle-free, tasty bread.

Now, we can go one step better.

Since The Course (capital letters on the strength of it having been so important to my bread baking experience) my bread has been much more 'hit' than 'miss'. The texture has been fabulous and the appearance greatly improved. I attribute my increased success rate to one, simple thing: the percentage of water in the dough.

I've said all along that you can alter the amount of water and/or flour in the bread recipe without doing any damage to the finished product. You can add more water if the dough is too dry, or work in more flour if the dough is too wet. That's ok, the bread turns out fine.

But if you want your bread to turn out amazing... the quantities are a lot more important.

The magic number is 63.

That is to say, for your everyday white loaf, you need to have 63% water. Thus, in a recipe for one white loaf, use 500g of strong, plain flour and 315g water. 315 is 63 percent of 500. If you decide to make more dough than that, weigh the flour first and then calculate the water accordingly.

While you're at it, you can calculate the amount of yeast (1%) and salt (2%) in the same manner. So, for your 500g of flour, you need to use 5g of yeast and 10g salt.

If you're adding a flavour to the bread, such as fruit or cheese, 15% is a good level to aim for. For your 500g of flour, that's 75g of cheese, for example.

Now, I had always heard that beginners tend to make their dough too dry. I was heartened to notice, on The Course, that the dough we were making felt just about the same as the dough I made at home. The difference was that this dough - this perfect formula dough - was clean.

There was no need to knead on a floured surface. It didn't get stuck to the bowl. It wasn't clagging up my fingers and attaching itself up my arm.

In fact, using this formula, there tends to be a moment where the dough seems as if it's going to be too dry. It looks as if it's not going to come together, but then it does. In the past, I'd have sloshed in some more water but now I know better.

It turns out that perfect dough is slightly drier than I would have expected.

So, I've gone back through this site and updated all my recipes, altering the percentage of water in each case to match the so-called 'perfect dough formula'.

There are other alterations that I have made to my method in the light of The Course and we'll come to those in the next articles.

For now, I'll leave you with a summary of the formula for white bread.

Perfect Dough Formula

500g strong, white flour (100%)
5g dried yeast (1%)
10g salt (2%)
315g water (63%)

We'll look at the method in more detail next time.

25 comments:

  1. Is it best to stick to white loaves to start off with? In the absence of wholemeal flour and being struck with an attack of the guilts I lobbed in a bit of oatbran (it was the only remotely healthy thing I could think of...) but I thought afterwards that it would probably effect the amount of water needed as I *think* I read somewhere that bran needs a bit more water.

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    1. I wouldn't necessarily start with white, if you prefer wholemeal. My preference is for 30% wholemeal; that is to say 350g white and 150g wholemeal with the percentages of water, salt and yeast as given above.

      You're right that different flours absorb water differently. Rye flour is very thirsty, for example. If you use a higher percentage of wholemeal, you'd need to increase the water a little bit, up to 70% for pure wholemeal.

      How did your loaf turn out, with the oatmeal? So pleased that you wanted to give it a go!

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  2. This is really useful. I don't always want to use 500g flour (or half) so this is great, many thanks.
    J x

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    1. This formula makes it easy to invent new bread recipes too! Thanks for your comment and for sharing the post too. I really appreciate it :)

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  3. Hello! I was wondering how you would adjust this for spelt flour? I have been using wholemeal but would be willing to try mixing in some white if it would make things a bit easier.

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    1. Hi Donagh! I believe it would work the same with spelt. Pls let me know how you get on!

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    2. So it looks pretty good on the outside, but the inside is still kind of dense. This was my first loaf without oil and that seems to have made it softer. How do you think I can make it even lighter?

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    3. I find that adding an egg helps to make the dough lighter. Worth a try?

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    4. Will it not be too cakey? I'm trying to replicate a spelt bloomer that I can get nearby. It's like a big sponge. Would extra yeast be bad?

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    5. I have excellent results with the egg and wholemeal (haven't tried it with spelt). Extra yeast tends to speed things up a bit but not necessarily improve the overall finish. No harm in trying though.

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    6. Thanks, I'll try it and let you know!

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    7. Haven't tried the egg yet but it seems 63% is a little too much for spelt - tried to make a bloomer (half and half white and whole, all spelt) and used barely 60% water. Proved outwards instead of up so it's really flat. Once I find a good water % I'll try adding the egg. Pictures will be on my instagram if you're interested, name's enanram.

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    8. That's interesting. I'll have to have a go myself with spelt sometime. Have you had success with ordinary wheat flour? I think, in some climates, people are finding 63% a little high. Maybe it depends on the humidity where you are? Much to learn!

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    9. WellI live in Scotland so maybe that's it. I haven't tried wheat as I have some digestion troubles (that's how I discovered spelt). Another strange thing with this loaf is that the bottom was quite soft even after nearly an hour. I preheated the tray and everything.

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    10. Just made a spelt bloomer, didn't fully rise after shaping but kept a dimple so I just baked it (maybe the yeast finished their dinner - I'll add sugar next time). But a very strange thing happened.I cut it open and the crumb was really nice, but there's a 1cm layer of very dense crumb just inside the crust all the way around. It just goes straight from that to lovely fluff. Any idea why that might have happened?

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    11. My initial thought is that maybe the crust dried out before it could properly prove. Covering the loaf during proving can prevent this. Other than that, I'm not sure. If you were to post this question on the forum, someone who is more expert could answer.

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    12. I sprayed water on the crust during the final rise for that very reason. Ok, I'll post there, thanks!

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    13. Curious. I'll be interested to know what others think.

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  4. When you give the measurement for water, it's in grams. Do you really weigh it or should that be ml instead?

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    1. Good question. I actually weigh mine as it seems simpler than bothering with a measuring jug. Since 1ml water weighs 1g, you can convert directly to ml and measure if you prefer.

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    2. Thanks. As I already have my scales out, I'll weigh. It's one less thing to get out.

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  5. I have to point out an error in maths.

    Yes 315g is 63% of 500g, but the whole mass of a single bread is 500+315+10+5=880g yet water mass remains 315g thus resulting in 315/880*100=36% water content not 63% as stated above.

    Correct proportions:
    500g (57%) flour
    315g (36%) water
    10g (1%) salt
    5g (0,6%) yeast
    Total: 880g (100%)

    In order to achieve 63% water content using 500g of flour you'd need 500/(100-63)*63=850g of water.

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    1. You're absolutely correct but, for some reason (simplicity maybe?) bakers calculate the percentages relative to the quantity of flour, rather than the ingredients as a whole. Now, if you know how much flour you have, you can work out how much water you need.

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  6. What about whole meal bread? What would the proportions be?

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    1. Same, though you do sometimes have to adjust the amount of water for different flours: wholemeal is often more thirsty than plain white.

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