Baking high quality products requires a solid combination of baking skill, a well-balanced formula, excellent ingredients, functionality and performance. Over the course of the years, great attention has been paid to the flour specifications, but water, this simple ingredient, is too often forgotten and taken for granted.
Water is the second larger ingredient of a dough system, making it as important as flour for the baker. Most of the time, we think that “water is water” and as soon as it is potable, it can be used in baking.
It is common to realize that bakers are not giving enough attention to its characteristics and how it can affect the quality of the final products. However, a deep understanding of the functionality of this ingredient in baking can reveal that water quality is as important as flour quality.
Water’s functions in baking are multiple; some of them are obvious, others sometimes underestimated by the bakers. The goal of this article will be to describe the several roles of the water during the baking process and to understand how a change in its quality or characteristics can affect the consistency of the final products, therefore the need to have water as consistent as possible.
Regardless of its origin, water must be drinkable to be used in baking. Most of the time, regular tap water can be used to elaborate dough. However, technically speaking, the quality of the water could have some effects on the dough characteristics, bread characteristics and on the proper function of certain pieces of equipment. Three factors must be taken into consideration when thinking about water quality: taste, chemicals content, and minerals content.
An unusual bad taste or bad smell identified in the water could alter the flavor of the final product. This could happen at some certain times of the year, for example after strong rains or during the change of seasons, where water supplies and treatments could vary. It is also common belief that water from certain parts of the world can have a direct impact on the flavor of the final products (New York water, for example).
Depending on the natural quality of the water, water companies are adding different level of chemicals to transform it into safe and drinkable water. Chlorine is one chemical that will have the more noticeable effect on the dough, particularly on the fermentation activity. Yeast, being a natural microorganism, is chlorine sensitive. Tests have shown that at a level of 10 PPM of chlorine in the water the yeast performance will be negatively affected in a dough system. A high level of chlorine could also affect the function of some flour components like enzymes. A slower enzymes activity will also affect the rheology of the dough as well as the fermentation activity.
The mineral content will determine the hardness and the softness of the water. The main ones being calcium, magnesium and sodium. Hard water contains a large amount of minerals, while soft water contains a more limited amount of minerals.
Dough characteristics could be affected by the mineral content of the water. Minerals will be used as nutrients by the yeast, therefore a change in mineral concentration in the water will affect the fermentation activity. Indirectly, a change in the fermentation will affect the dough characteristics, making it stronger or weaker.
Hard water will provide a faster fermentation and dough with a tendency to have an excess of strength, while soft water will generate slower fermentation activity and dough with a tendency of lacking in strength.
Some bakeries, concerned with water quality, choose to install a specific device for water treatment called a reverse osmosis system. This piece of equipment, using a natural process of hyper-filtration, reduces the chemical content and impurities still left in tap water and helps balance the mineral content. However, it is important to mention that reverse osmosis systems waste a large amount of water and, considering that water is getting a very precious resource, this type of technology is not very “ecofriendly” at all. Additionally, a reverse osmosis system strips water down, leaving it with no nutrients and no taste. Additional systems are then necessary to reinsert these characteristics, and it is difficult to maintain consistency.
Effects of the water in the baking process
Water will play many functions all along the baking process, starting from the mixing to the baking of the bread, and up to the shelf life of the bread. The most significant role of the water could be found in the mixing of the dough. During this first step of the baking process, the role of the water will be crucial in order to obtain the desired dough characteristics.
Hydration of the flour component and formation of the dough
The two main components of the flour are the starch and the protein. Water will first hydrate the particles of starch and start the formation of the dough. Then protein will start to absorb some water and begin to form the gluten of the dough. At this stage, it is interesting to note that protein will absorb water slower compared to the starch. Therefore, it is important for the baker to have enough incorporation time in first speed. This will ensure proper gluten formation and proper binding of the flour components.
Water will also dilute and ensure the proper diffusion into the dough of all the other ingredients like salt and yeast.
Control dough consistency
Depending on the desired final dough consistency (most of the time in direct relation with the mixing time, fermentation time and final product characteristics) the amount of water could be adjusted in the formula. A large amount of water will create dough with a soft consistency while a lower amount of water will generate dough with a stiffer consistency.
Softer dough will create a weaker gluten structure, more extensible and less elastic. This type of dough will benefit from long fermentation time and sometimes folds during the first fermentation. The final product will have a more open and chewier crumb structure and a more complex flavor.
Stiffer dough will create a stronger gluten structure, less extensible and more elastic. In this case, shorter fermentation time will be more appropriate to avoid an excess of strength during shaping. The final product will have a tighter cell structure and if no pre-fermentation is used a flavor a little bit blander.
Water triggers all the chemical reactions
Water is responsible for all the natural chemical reactions happening in a dough system. The two most important are enzyme activity and fermentation activity. Without water, these two crucial reactions would not be activated, making the baking process impossible to realize. More important, the quantity of the water in the dough will affect the rate of these reactions. Highly hydrated dough will ferment faster, while less hydrated dough will ferment slower. Concretely, a baker will have to take this fact into consideration when developing formulas. For example, the percentage of yeast should be lowered in wet dough and increased in stiffer dough.
Water controls the temperature of the dough
Specific final dough temperature is crucial in order to obtain good fermentation activity. Because water is the easiest ingredient to change in temperature (using a water chiller or a water heater), the baker uses it to control final dough temperature. Water temperature will have a direct effect on the final dough temperature. Logically, a cold water will generate cooler dough temperature, while warmer water will create warmer dough temperature.
The function of water is definitively very important during mixing. A dough with a good consistency will lead to good final products characteristics, while a dough too stiff or too soft will probably require some adjustments during the baking process.
I found a system called the New York WaterMaker, which is an all-in-one water filtration system that filters, disinfects, softens and descales water, and it utilizes 100% of the water that passes through the system, keeping cost down and preserving this precious resource. It is 100% chemical free and has proven to be extremely effective and consistent and can service multiple areas of a bakery such as dough mixers, steam for ovens, and ice machines.
In addition, this system is designed in such a way that it allows the baker to replicate water characteristics from any part of the world, or customize water to any characteristics a baker prefers, allowing bakeries with multiple centers of production to achieve the same products quality and consistency in every location. It can also help reduce expenses and increase productivity. As with flour, the quality and consistency of water are two key factors for the success in baking a wonderful loaf of bread.