Artisan Breads Mixed Messages

Mixing is more than the simple combination of ingredients. It is a process that includes both physical and chemical changes responsible for dough formation. There are many factors in this process that can affect appearance, aroma, texture and tenacity of dough.

Historically, all mixing was completed by hand which exerted less physical force on the dough, creating an underdeveloped gluten structure. Hand kneading was combined with long first fermentation times in order to further develop the gluten, resulting in breads with great flavor and character.

As mechanical mixing was introduced to the baking industry, the gluten structure became more developed in the mixing stage which produced whiter breads with greater volumes — attributes that many considered better than hand-mixed breads. However, because more gluten development occurred in the mixer, fermentation times needed to be decreased, which diminished flavor. Today, in order to preserve the flavor and character of their breads, artisan bakers have adapted the use of mechanical mixing methods while maintaining adequate fermentation.

Over time, bakers have adjusted and evolved their methods to create breads best suited to meet various production needs and quality requirements. To best understand how these methods have evolved, let’s first develop an understanding of the two stages of the mixing process.
Incorporation Stage
The initial stage of mixing incorporates ingredients into a homogeneous mixture and determines dough consistency. Although there is no intentional development of dough at this point, the baker is setting the foundation for the gluten structure. For artisan breads, gluten strength is essentially a compromise between extensibility and elasticity. The amount of water added in the incorporation stage affects this balance (see figure 1).

Amount of Water Extensibility Elasticity   
Less Less More   
More More Less 
  Figure 1

The baker starts by adding a base amount of water to the total flour weight. While mixing on low speed, the baker gradually adds additional water to the mixture to hydrate the flour to the desired consistency before adding the balance of the ingredients. This stage of mixing is completed within 3 to 4 minutes on low speed and is not counted as part of the total mix time.
Development Stage
The objective of the second mixing stage is gluten formation and development. The energy created by the mixing action converts the hydrated proteins into the initial gluten building blocks which serve as the structural foundation of the bread.

Once the gluten strands have been established, they are ready to be developed. Whether hand kneading or mechanical mixing, the action is twofold — stretching the dough and folding it back onto itself. This action gradually organizes the gluten structure and increases gluten strength. The folding action incorporates air into the gluten mass, which becomes the nuclei for the crumb structure of the bread.
Pulling air into the dough mass also provides oxidation which strengthens and matures the gluten structure, gradually changing the appearance, aroma, texture and tenacity of the dough. Care must be taken, however, as excessive oxidation can have a dramatic whitening effect on the dough, which is typically not desired in most artisan style breads.
French and Modern Mixing Methods
Over time, two mixing methods have been prevalent — the classic French (a short mix method) and the modern (a high speed or intensive mix method).
The classic French mixing method is defined as the short mix and best represents hand mixing while still utilizing a mixer. This method uses a low speed mix and produces a soft dough with an underdeveloped gluten structure. This requires an extended first fermentation period to develop adequate gluten strength for adequate loaf volume. Short mix dough is very extensible, easy to shape and produces flavorful bread with an open, irregular and creamy crumb structure.
In contrast to the short mix is the modern standard of longer, higher speed mixing, often defined as the intensive mix. In this mixing style, the dough is mixed to full development, producing fairly stiff dough with noticeable elasticity, often requiring dough conditioners to make it more manageable for shaping. As a result of the extensive gluten development in the bowl, this dough will tolerate only limited time in first fermentation, yielding bread with limited flavor complexity. A benefit to the intensive mix is the ample loaf volume that the stronger gluten structure will yield.
A Compromise
In an attempt to find the best in both styles of mixing, artisan bakers have developed an improved mix methodology using a higher mix speed and shorter mix duration. This method provides adequate gluten development in the bowl to ensure dough strength for good loaf volume and symmetry.
Because the gluten structure is not fully developed, the dough is able to accept an ample first fermentation which delivers full flavor and crumb character to the finished loaf. The dough consistency is nicely balanced, allowing it to work well for hand forming techniques.
Figure 2 defines some of the effects attributed to these three different mix styles.

Attribute Short Mix Improved Mix Intensive Mix   
Mix Time Short
6 minutes Medium
5 minutes Long
8 minutes   
Mixer Speed 1st 2nd  2nd    
Gluten Structure Under Developed Developed Fully Developed   
Dough Consistency Soft Medium Medium-Stiff   
Extensibility Most Moderate Least   
Elasticity Least Moderate Most   
First Fermentation 2 to 4 hours 45 min to 1 hour 15 to 20 min   
Final Proof 45 min to 1 hour 1 to 1 ½ hours 1 ½ to 2 hours   
Loaf Volume Least Moderate Most   
Crumb Whiteness Least Moderate Most   
Crumb Structure Open Moderate Closed   
Flavor Most Moderate Least   
Figure 2    

The Bake Test
To illustrate the effects of these three mixing methods, the General Mills culinary center recently completed a bake test comparing these mixing styles using a basic baguette dough with a poolish as a preferment. Using the same 12% protein winter wheat bread flour we maintained a consistent hydration across the three batches and only adjusted the mixing procedures based on the times noted in figure 2. A picture of the finished breads is noted below.


As noted in the picture, the intensive mix produced a loaf with a very tight crumb and was lightest in crumb color of all three. The short mix yielded the creamiest crumb with a very open and irregular crumb structure. The improved mix produced a nice compromise between these two methods, delivering a loaf with a creamy crumb and nice irregularity to the structure.
For today’s artisan baker, the improved mixing style tends to be the one of choice. During mixing there is enough gluten development to allow for a reduction in the extended first fermentation required for the short mix method. This time reduction has been an important step for the efficient production of artisan style breads without dramatically affecting the quality and character of the bread. The baker still benefits from good first fermentation which will develop complex flavor notes absent with the intensive mix method. The real key in understanding the process of mixing dough is that the baker is able to choose the right mixing method to suit their production needs while maintaining the quality of their bread.