JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Salt in bread dough

I bake all the bread we eat in this house, and yet it's still a little hit or miss. So I signed up as a recipe tester for Peter Reinhart's forthcoming book on artisan baking. I'm right in the middle of the first test - obviously, I can't give you the recipe. Straight away, I'm thinking harder about exactly what I'm doing, and that's because I'm (for once) doing exactly what the recipe says.

It's one of those slow-ferment recipes, the sort you barely have to knead, the sort you can keep in the fridge for more or less instant bread all week. But when I found myself putting in about twice my normal quantity of salt, I started fretting. What does salt in bread dough DO - apart from make it taste better, and raise some people's blood pressure?

Dan Lepard is pragmatic: My view is that, for the majority of bread recipes, the salt is an integral part of the loaf, and that bread usually needs to be considered a sodium-rich foodstuff, almost like salt-cured fish. Salt is part of the taste and enhances the flavour of the grain. But we eat to live, or should do if we respect the body that carries us, and it is right and proper that we vary our diet according to what our needs are. Please do vary or omit the salt used in the recipes here. We are told that even a small reduction in our dietary sodium intake will benefit us, and many of our processed foods have a hidden sodium (salt) content where you wouldn't expect it to be - in breakfast cereals, for example. For children, two slices of bread can sometimes equal their recommended daily sodium requirement (which is surprisingly small). So use salt respectfully.

Now that seems to me to be sensible advice, especially coming from a master baker, and one who has travelled all over Europe to watch artisan bakers at work (resulting in The Handmade Loaf, a wonderful and practical book).

All the same, it didn't quite answer the question. Why do bakers use salt? After all, we know it's not strictly necessary from the traditional Tuscan saltless loaf. What effect does the salt have? Most baking books are silent on this, they just exhort you to go out and buy the most expensive salt you can find (those books are going into the charity shop box). Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno hint at what's going on in their Dorling Kindersley illustrated-as-if-for-a-child book Bread:

Salt is used in most bread recipes to control the rate of fermentation and to give flavour. The presence of salt in a dough inhibits fermentation, which strengthens the developing gluten. This results in a bread with a stable crumb, a long shelf-life and more taste than breads without it.

I consulted Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery, and found a more thorough answer:

It is not only because it gives the necessary flavour, or rather corrects insipidity, that salt is so important to bread. It is also in the context of its action on the yeast and the dough during the fermentation or rising period, and for its ultimate effect on the baked loaf, particularly the crust, that salt has to be considered.

First, the flavour. Those early bakers started putting salt in their bread to improve its flavour, then slowly began to appreciate, through observation, that varying amounts of salt made the dough behave differently and affected the quality as well as the taste of the loaves.

So although the amount of salt we put in our bread should, ultimately, depend on taste, individual or collective, practical application of this theory is not so straightforward a matter.

Quite apart from the widely differing salt-toleration, or salt requirements, of each individual, the strength of the ultimate salt flavour in any batch of bread will depend to some extent on the flour used - new flour absorbs more than old flour - on the kind of dough made and on the length of time it is left to ferment.

Broadly speaking, the shorter the rising time the more yeast and less salt are needed, but this is an over-simplification because proportions of both are determined by the volume of dough concerned. The larger the batch, the relatively smaller the proportion of yeast, so the balance of salt must be adjusted, at any rate in theory, to the time calculated for the fermenting or rising of the dough.

I say in theory because when it comes down to a small batch of home-baked bread, it really is not necessary to make elaborate calculations. A few experiments will surely show what is the proper quantity of all the ingredients, their relation to rising times, and to the ultimate flavour and texture of the bread. When it comes to finding out what went wrong with a loaf or a batch of bread, made apparently in every respect identically with your last successful one, then is the moment to try to remember whether perhaps your salt was carelessly measured, or if you guessed at the quantity instead of weighing it as usual.

...To me, bread with a very low salt content is virtually uneatable, and in my calculations for the rising time of the dough the extra salt I put in is allowed for. It is worth remembering that a proper proportion of salt helps the retention of moisture in the baked loaf, and that too much makes for a hard crust.

She goes on to write about the problems in re-scaling quantities of salt and yeast when altering recipes. And she throws light on the recipe I'm currently testing:

For an overnight or eight-hour rising the yeast can again be decreased without reducing the salt content It would be the high proportion of salt which would slow up the action of the yeast, and prevent the dough over-fermenting or developing a sour taste The very short rising and proving times, often as little as 40 minutes all told, sometimes given on flour-packet recipes, can only be explained by the minimal salt content of the dough.

And, for the record, she used Cheshire rock salt, bought in 6lb jars.

Links to related posts

Yeast starter for bread - and the bread
make your own sourdough starter

No-knead bread the famous NY Times recipe
Speeded-up no-knead bread and a different take on it

Yoghurt bread fabulous, easy, TRY IT
Quick oat loaf
Spelt bread - it's getting easier to buy this highly-flavoured flour

Fresh corn bread - now is the perfect autumnal moment for this
Late summer hearth bread - another perfect autumn bread, this one with grapes

Anti-oxidant tea bread - I made this for my husband for a pre-surgery boost - delicious, too!

Yeast conversion - fresh/dried/quick

Things to do with stale or leftover bread

Herb stuffing for roast chicken
Grilled trout with rosemary stuffing
Baked scallops
Anchovy toasts

Links to the best blogging bakers I know

Tanna at My Kitchen in Half Cups
A Year in Bread
Susan at Farmgirl Fare

this list is not exhaustive, there are dozens of wonderful blogging bakers


Jules said...

Thank you for a really interesting article. I've always wondered about the salt in bread recipes.

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

You've really been doing some reading and thinking on this one. It really is a super fascinating subject and though very small ingredient in bread seems to have profound effects.
Many thanks for the kind mention. You make me blush, I'm really just learning. But I think maybe with bread one is always learning.

Nan said...

I use a scant Tablespoon for two loaves.

Ilva said...

well, living here in Tuscany where they make a bread without any salt (there are several historical explanations to why, like war between Tuscany and the surrounding Italian states etc) so I can just tell you what I have heard and noticed. One thing is that bread without salt is less humid and therefore keeps better and supposedly is not going to mould as fast as a salty bread. Another thing that I have noticed is that it is impossible to make a good Pappa al pomodoro with salt bread as it gets a slimy texture, something you might not notice unless you had the real stuff made with unsalted bread. I always wondered why this is.
Although I personally refer salted bread, I do not agree that bread without salt would make a less tasty bread, I have had wonderful Tuscan breads where you feel the flavour of the grain so well!

Joanna said...

Ilva this is SO interesting ... and since writing this post I have found that the salting of bread is relatively recent, because salt was such an expensive commodity - bread was unsalted in the Middle Ages for that reason. It seems to me the likeliest explanation for the Tuscan survival is twofold: people's innate dislike of change, particularly in dietary matters; and local expense. And your experience with pappa al pomodoro and with humidity - well, they're part of the reason people don't like change, better the devil you know, and all that.

Thank you so much for this ... really interesting.

Joanna said...

Nan ... thanks for you comment. The recipe I'm using at the moment uses 2 tablespoons for 1.2kg flour, which is probably twice my normal rate. We ate the first loaf last night, and although there were some problems with it, you couldn't fault it for taste, that was what everyone commented on.

I suspect that your rate of salting is the average, not too high, not too low. I have deliberately cut some salt out, as one of the benefits of baking our bread ... but now that I'm investigating the role of salt in breadmaking, I will have to re-examine this decision.


Farmgirl Susan said...

What a great post, Joanna. Thanks for sharing all that interesting info with us! I know that personally I do like my bread on the salty side - and Joe would prefer that every loaf no matter what kind had coarse salt sprinkled on top, but I draw the line with sandwich pan loaves and a few others! ; )

Bob LaGatta said...

I don’t know on how I stumbled upon this cooking blog., All I know is that I’d better check out the archives for a good read. Ha-ha! Just droppin’ to say hi!
Oh. You might want to check this out: for uhm...a different "menu."

samantha winter said...

I always put salt in bread and have never questioned why.

Magic Cochin said...

I'm by no means a bread expert - but very occasionally have a go at baking a loaf (some good, some bricks!). When I do I tend to only add a smidge of salt, whatever the recipe says, because I'm consciously cutting back our salt consumption. So this is really interesting stuff - I hadn't thought through the chemistry/fermentation issues! I just remember returning from 2 weeks eating traditional fare in Japan and eating a slice of supermarket wholemeal and a bowl of tinned soup and retching at the over-powering saltiness of British food!


Joanna said...

Samantha, I've done exactly the same, put in a reduced amount without thinking about it. I'm still not quite sure what to do with this information ;)

Celia, I've had JUST the same reaction to oversalted food - which is a big part of why I cook most of what we eat. And I've baked my share of housebricks ... I am clearly going to have to think through the way I bake so that I get light bread, not too salted.


Anonymous said...

Stubmled onto your blog after a Google for "salting bread"... Well written post, good info.

I recently (I lie, a few months ago) bought Emily Beuhler's "Bread Science" book. Her recommendation is to wait with salt until the last possible moment. Since I only do "sourdough style" preferments, that means that I wait until the end of my hydration time before I salt the final dough. The salt (1.5% of flour weight, or 1.5%BP) goes in just when I start with the final kead. I do this precisely because of the retarding effect it has on fermentation. Since following Emily's recommendation, I think the flavour of my bread has started improving. I am also able to manipulate the rise time (not a easily predicted thing with sourdough) of the final rise a bit better.

Joanna said...

Anonymous, thanks so much for this - really interesting, and I'd be very interested to hear about your sourdough experiences, perhaps by email (joannacary AT ukonline DOT co DOT uk). And thanks for the book recommendation (as if I don't have enough books!)

I'm just about to make a second batch of this testing dough, with half the salt - about my normal amount - and will probably post about the effect this has on it. Slightly frustrating not to be able to post the recipe, but there are others like it, and I'll link to them so that it all makes a bit of sense


Jude said...

thanks for all the different takes on salt in dough. Some I've read before but some are new to me. Reading them all in one article helps me understand its role much better.

Pogo said...

Thank you! I've been trying to find out why the food industry adds so incredibly much salt to everything, and no one actually knows.
I can't eat any prepared foods at all, nor canned soup, nor store-bought bread. 150 mg Na in one slice of bread -- if I eat two slices with each meal, that's my whole daily allowance right there!
I've heard several medical types say that people should not have more milligrams of sodium in a day than they have calories, but it seems the food industry is trying to kill us. Nearly everything I know of tastes just fine, and like itself, with no salt added; adding salt makes everything taste alike, harsh and biting.
Let me assure you, having blood pressure approaching 300/200 leads to no fun at all. So read the labels and add them up -- never adding salt either at table or stove, before I started reading labels I was still getting over 5000 mg a day, four times my recommended maximum.

Joanna said...

Pogo thanks for this comment ... my take on it is that the food industry uses such poor quality ingredients that it needs plenty of salt and sugar to make nothing special taste of something. I find that buying decent ingredients and cooking them simply means you hardly need to use salt ... I put a little in the bread I bake, and hardly ever put it in anything else. Funnily enough, people don't seem to miss it when they eat my food. So I think some of it is habit, too.


ThermomixBlogger Helene said...

Thanks for such a responsible article. I was in the midst of developing a new bread recipe for the Thermomix machine and the same question occurred to me because my recipe has a lot of (salty) olives included -- I just HAD to know more before I could continue adding salt. I searched for this question on google and your answer provided me with a thorough and appropriate response that helped guide my recipe development. My "Mediterranean Infused Artisan Loaf" is not yet posted as I write you, but should be up in a few days. (After one more testing.)
Many thanks!