Oil is commonly included in bread recipes. I'm pretty sure my mum used to routinely add a slosh to her dough mixture when I was young (did you mum?!).
When I first started to make bread, I often baked loaves that were dry and crumbly. I imagined that I needed to add something to my dough - something to make it richer, softer and silkier. One of the things that I imagined would work was oil.
I thought that for a smooth, elastic texture, I would add a few big glugs of olive oil.
It didn't work.
What Does Oil Do For Your Dough?
French baguette doesn't last. Obviously, that's because it is so delicious. If you do happen to leave some, it goes obstinately hard overnight. French bread is made without fat. This is the reason for both its airy texture* and its tendency to dry out. French baguette is the oft-cited example for why oil is helpful in bread dough. Oil, so I'm told, helps the bread to stay softer for longer.
*More on that in a moment.
Well, I'm not so sure. My bread is made without oil and it certainly doesn't dry out overnight. I can keep it for several days without it going dry and stale. My bread isn't baguette-shaped thought, it's usually a loaf.
Perhaps baguette, like bread-rolls, goes stale quicker than loaves due to its higher surface-area-to-volume ratio.
So, I'm a little undecided about the preserving effects of oil in bread, but that's the reason most often given for including it.
There's Something Else You Need To Know
The presence of oil in bread alters its texture.
Oils and fats are 'shortening' agents. It wasn't until I started my deep exploration into the ways of yeast and gluten that I really appreciated what 'shortening' might mean.
In order to achieve the required spongy texture, two things need to happen. One is that the yeast has to ferment, producing bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. The other is that the gluten in the flour has to absorb water and form long strands, that criss-cross into a kind of lattice to hold the aforementioned bubbles of gas in the dough.
Long strands, you see? Fats and oils interfere with this process, causing the gluten to form only shorter strands, making it less able to trap the gas, leading to a more crumbly texture.
So, for a spongy, open texture you want lengthening, not shortening. Fat definitely won't help.
So How Do You Get The Smooth, Elastic Texture?
To achieve the best possible texture for your bread, work with a flour that is 'strong' (high in protein). Combine it with the correct proportions of yeast, water and salt (see the Formula for Great Dough), and ensure that it is sufficiently kneaded.
Once I had been on a bread-making course and developed my Master Method, I saw dramatic improvements in the texture and appearance of my bread. It was nothing to do with oil and there was no missing ingredient.
It's simpler than I had first thought and it's my mission to help you achieve great results too. Let me know how it's going!
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