The Wet Dough Advantage

Very wet bread doughs (up to about 80% hydration, or in other words, quite sticky) are very, very popular these days. Why? Well there are two reasons for that. The first is that wet bread doughs create big holes — or “open crumb”, a thing that is very much desired in bread baking circles, since an open crumb is typically accompanied by a springy texture and a light, non-pasty mouthfeel. How does the extra moisture create an open crumb? In part because the wetter dough allows the CO2 bubbles to combine with one another like soap bubbles on the surface of dish water. Also, (and this gets into reason number two) moisture activates gluten.

But I thought you’ve always said flour + water + AGITATION = gluten! Yes that’s true, and it IS true. However very recently, more than a few leading bakers and food science types have been experimenting with very wet, minimal and/or no-knead breads (anyone remember the New York Times‘ no-knead bread from last year?). How and why do they work so well? Apparently because the extra moisture and slack dough gives gluten molecules extra “wiggle room” to come into alignment with one another. Stiffer doughs require more working to accomplish the same thing.

All of which has led some bread experts to argue that wet, slack bread doughs are more “authentic” than stiffer doughs. How do they know? Well, they don’t. However they claim that since bakers of old didn’t have the heavy duty mixers we have now, they would have gravitated toward techniques that were less strenuous. I consider that to be extremely dubious reasoning. For one, because it’s entirely speculative. Second, because it’s hardly fair to try to judge pre-industrial bakers by our modern, lily-livered standards. Sure, commercial baking is a physical job. You have to be strong. But before about a hundred years ago you had to be a positive brute to do it. I doubt those big fellows — who chopped the wood, toted the water, and hefted the massive sacks of grain that were required for running a bakery back then — would have been afraid of a little (or a lot of) kneading. Though apparently these “experts” would have. Wimps!

8 thoughts on “The Wet Dough Advantage”

  1. I also trend towards laziness, but in a world more bleak than our own I have no doubt cooks, bakers, and artisans of all kind held immense pride and dedication in their work. I mean… what else was there? So much more was at stake in the distant past than we comprehend today. Plus, using a drier dough to ultimately produce a silky, tight, and easily manageable dough ball could be considered the path of least resistance in terms of the whole bread process.

    Either way, interesting piece!

    1. Great insight. Probably very true. Wet doughs are notoriously hard to handle, and would certainly have made for a sloppier bakery at the very least. More forms would likely have been required as well. You’ve given me something to think about, Robert! I thank you.

      Cheers,

      Joe

      1. Wet doughs are definitely harder, but could it also be that flour is more expensive than water, even with the quality of water 200 years ago? Or that tastes change? Or 100 other reasons? My theory is that like most things, there are a number of reasons, some completely logical, some pure happenstance.

        1. A very reasonable stance, SF! I’m in broad agreement with it, which I suppose is why I tend to buck when so-called experts expound facile theories like these. Especially with no evidence whatsoever!

          Many thanks for a thoughtful comment!

          Joe

  2. my mother baked a very slack dough (waxed paper required to fold dough) jelly filled cookie that she cut to look like a large biscotti. She didn’t using a biscotti dough. They were pale in color, not doubled baked. Any idea what her dough would be using. Thanks

    1. Hey Mike!

      There are sourdough versions of biscotti that sound a bit like that. The dough is rather wet, but I’m not sure about fillings. Is it a German or Polish recipe do you know?

      – Joe

  3. There’s a 10th century Baghdadi bread recipe which specifies that the dough was so stiff that the bakers had to knead it with their feet (!). Going by the surviving recipes, the aesthetic of a good loaf of bread in that time and place seems to have been very chewy, which implies a stiff, well-kneaded dough; it certainly sounds like the bakers of the time weren’t afraid of the labour involved in kneading big batches of stiff bread dough. Interestingly, the same source also makes a distinction between the strong flour good for this kind of baking and the soft flour better suited to pastry and short dough.

    1. Very interesting Jane! I can’t help but wonder if this sort of bread was more akin to hard tack. Until very recently in human history, most breads weren’t made to eat fresh, but were for long keeping. Once can only speculate how this was used!

      Cheers,

      Joe

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