A tale of two breads

As explained in my previous post, I’ve been paying attention to the amount of gluten in bread doughs in my continuing quest for the Perfect Loaf.

Here in Argentina, the standard grocery-store bread flour (harina de trigo tipo 000) contains around 9-10% protein, whereas the standard for bread flour in the US is 12-13%. This protein in wheat is known as gluten, and plays a crucial role in developing bread’s characteristic texture and loft. The lower protein content means that recipes written for US-standard flour fail miserably here.

Last weekend I experimented with adjusting the levels of gluten in my bread doughs to see what effects it has on the resulting loaf. It’s clear that adding more gluten is essential when working with the low-protein local flours in order to achieve the same quality of loaf that I was used to making in the US. Fortunately, I found that I was able to get good results with purely local ingredients!

I started with an imported bag of Bob’s Red Mill vital wheat gluten, which contains 75% protein according to the label. I mixed enough of it together with grocery-store bread flour to get a mixture that was 19% protein — on the high side for artisan bread, but I wanted to see what would happen.

Two days later, I mixed up a different batch using locally-sourced harina glutinada. It claims to be 42% protein (21g in a 50g serving). I mixed it with the same grocery-store bread flour to get a 14% protein dough.

Both recipes were based on the basic bread recipe in Bread Science, which was a gift from my friend Phil (also an avid amateur baker) and a fantastic reference on the process of bread-making. The total weight of flour, and the weight of all other ingredients (water, yeast, salt), stayed the same for both doughs.*

The difference between the two doughs was striking:

19% dough

19% dough

14% dough

14% dough

The 19% dough is clearly drier than the 14% dough. The higher protein content absorbs more water and leaves the dough stiffer and much more elastic. [*At this point, the bread baker in me could not bear to continue the experiment as is; I added additional water to the 19% dough (bringing it from 70% to 75% hydration) because it looked so thirsty.]

Through kneading, rising, and shaping, the resulting doughs behaved differently as well. The 19% dough almost kneaded itself. The gluten developed very quickly, and the dough felt springy and alive. When I let it sit on the counter, I could see it visibly stretching itself back into a ball shape. The little strands of gluten were rearranging themselves as I watched!

Springy 19% protein dough

Springy 19% protein dough

The 14% dough had to be kneaded for about 15 minutes to come to the same consistency. Even after kneading, the resulting dough was less springy and flattened out more on the counter than the 19% dough.

On the other hand, the higher gluten dough was much harder to shape. Because the dough was so springy, it resisted being formed into anything other than a ball. I made two long baguettes out of each dough and the 19% dough just refused to stretch out. The 14% dough was much more relaxed and I could easily shape it into a baguette that filled my baguette pan. You can see from this comparison that the 19% dough looks more uptight and taut than its relaxed 14% cousin.

19% dough

19% dough

14% dough

14% dough

Both of them made great breads! ¬†I did vary the baking time across the two batches (the first batch was underbaked — I’m still learning how to consistently get a great crust in my unpredictable oven). As a result, the 19% dough had a very thin crust. The 14% dough, which I baked for five minutes longer, developed a lovely deep brown crust that was surprisingly full of flavor!

Mmm, bread!

Mmm, bread!

The higher-gluten bread was noticeably chewier than its lower-gluten counterpart. Both had a nice open crumb with a mixture of small-to-medium holes. I think that to get the large holes of artisan French baguettes I’ll need to go with an even higher hydration level (up to 80%), which with unmodified local flour has given me over-hydrated dough puddles. By adjusting the gluten level, I hope to get there someday!

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