Monday, April 26, 2010

Baking Low Sodium Bread - Beginning Basics - Part 2

Here are some things I’ve learned while making low sodium breads in general and low sodium breads with a bread machine in particular:

First and foremost, always keep in mind the role salt plays in yeast breads. This is a foundational truth if you’re going to have success with low salt or no salt yeast breads. Unfortunately, most low sodium bread recipe resources barely if ever discuss the vital role salt plays in yeast breads. It’s not just for flavor. Salt is a yeast inhibitor, so it helps keep the yeast in check. Salt also strengthens the gluten, so it helps the bread achieve and keep its desired shape. Otherwise, the dough would rise too quickly and result in ballooning loaves that would expand so much they couldn’t maintain their integrity. They’d collapse in on themselves. You’d end up with sunken crater breads rather than nice tall loaves. You might find underdone doughy sections too. Although over-rising may not affect taste that much, it sure will negatively influence shape and texture.

Now, granted, misshapen loaves are not always a big problem. If you’re going to just tear hunks of bread to accompany a soup dinner, then it may not matter much to you what shape the bread is in. But if you want nice slices for toast or sandwiches, shape and texture are important.

When you reduce the salt in a bread recipe, you also need to reduce the yeast by the same percentage. For example, if you reduce the salt by 50%, then reduce the yeast by 50%. Obviously, if you’re making totally salt free bread, you need to reduce the yeast by at least half, possibly more, and you'll need to watch the dough carefully during rising. Salt-free bread probably should not have more than about 1 tsp. yeast per three cups of flour. Anything more is inviting possible disaster.

When you bake low sodium or no sodium bread manually, you have more control than when baking in a bread machine. At almost any point you can add a bit more flour or liquid if necessary. You can keep an eye on your shaped bread while it is rising in the pan and immediately pop it into the oven before it overproofs. If the dough expands too much, you can always re-shape it and start the rising process over again.

On the other hand, when you bake in the bread maker, the machine follows its pre-set schedule. Once the kneading is done, there is very little you can do to make adjustments. If you’re not careful, you not only run the risk of collapsed loaves but the dough can expand so much that it spills over the bread pan and onto the heating elements. (Some breadmakers allow you to program your own homemade steps. Once you become familiar with your breadmaker, creating your own custom program specifically for baking low or no salt breads would be a great advantage.) So all the lower sodium planning and adjusting and compensating must be done before letting the machine get to the bake cycle.

Always use bread flour. The extra gluten in bread flour helps the dough structure, making it less vulnerable to overproofing. Beth Hensperger in The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook adds vital wheat gluten to all her bread machine recipes. She recommends adding at least 1-2 teaspoons of vital wheat gluten to each cup of white bread flour and 1-1/2 to 3 teaspoons per cup of whole grain flour in bread machine recipes. If you can’t find this product at your local grocery or natural foods stores, both Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur Flour sell vital wheat gluten online. I add 1 tablespoon vital wheat gluten to all my breads that contain at least 50% whole wheat and/or rye flour, whether baked in the machine or not.

You don’t need to sift your flour before measuring, but it helps to give it a stir to loosen it up a bit. Also, spoon the flour lightly into your measuring cup and level off with a knife; don’t scoop. You don’t want to pack the flour into the measuring cup.

Adjust liquid and flour during the kneading process. If you're using a bread machine, always check your dough during the kneading cycle. About 5 minutes after the rapid kneading has started, open the lid and check the consistency of the dough. It should be pulling away from the sides and bottom, forming a dough ball. Poke it and squeeze a bit between your thumb and forefinger. It should be tacky to the touch, slightly sticky and springy. It should be soft and pliable, yet firm. If it is crumbly and dry or the machine seems to be struggling, add 1 tablespoon of water at a time allowing a couple minutes of kneading before checking it again. If the dough is too wet, sloshing around like a batter, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time allowing a couple minutes of kneading before checking it again. Let the machine thoroughly combine the addition before deciding to add more. Repeat this until the dough reaches the proper consistency. While checking the dough, scrape down the sides of the pan with a rubber spatula and pull flour out of the bottom corners if necessary. Avoid hitting the kneading paddle(s). My machine’s manual gives the length of time for each cycle, and the display has a count-down clock. So I just set my kitchen timer for about five minutes after the kneading process begins.

These adjustments are rarely if ever caused by machine malfunction. Nor are they usually the result of poorly written recipes. There are simply too many variables when baking bread. Weather alone plays an important part in bread making. Some days the humidity will affect the dough. Flours differ from brand to brand and even from batch to batch. A recipe that seemed to work perfectly a week ago may need an extra two tablespoons of liquid today. Or maybe a tablespoon more of flour. That’s why it’s important to always check the dough consistency. And that’s why I don’t use the delay function at all. I don’t want to wake up in the morning to a sunken, poorly baked loaf.

Follow the same general principles if kneading dough by hand, food processor, or stand mixer.

Avoid using too much yeast. With low or no salt breads, the amount of yeast must be cut dramatically. Most regular bread recipes call for about one packet of yeast (2 ¼ tsp) per three cups of flour to 1 ½ tsp salt. Remember to reduce the amount of yeast the same as the amount of salt is reduced. Again, as an example, if the salt content is reduced by half, then reduce the yeast by half. Obviously, if you’re making totally salt free bread, you need to reduce the yeast by at least half and watch the dough carefully during rising. Every bread machine troubleshooting guide lists too little salt as a possible cause for collapsed machine baked loaves. Remember that without the full complement of salt to regulate yeast activity, your bread already has a natural tendency toward collapsing. So don’t add too much yeast to the dough.

Experiment with using regular active dry yeast. From King Arthur Flour: “We don’t recommend rapid-rise yeast, as it goes against one of the tenets of good bread making: the longer the rise (and fermentation process), the better the flavor... In other words: unless you are in a tremendous hurry, ignore the ‘rapid-bake’ cycle on your machine.” The authors of Bread Machines for Dummies also use active dry yeast for their bread machine recipes. The same goes for my Zojirushi manual. Even though many bread machine cookbooks call for the faster yeasts, I use the slower acting active dry yeast and think it lessens the tendency toward overproofing when baking with less salt. I very rarely use the rapid bake cycle on my machine. However, there's an argument to be made for using the faster baking cycle with lower salt breads. Because of the possibility of overproofing, the thinking is that it's better to lessen the rising time.

I also always use active dry yeast when making hamburger/sandwich buns, dinner rolls, bagels, cinnamon rolls, and any loaf bread I bake in the oven. Because it works a little slower than the rapid-rise or bread machine yeast, I don’t have to worry as much about overproofing.

Avoid overly soft dough. Every bread machine troubleshooting guide also lists too much liquid as a possible cause for collapsed machine baked loaves. This applies to oven loaves too. Remember that without the full complement of salt to regulate yeast activity, your bread already has a natural tendency toward over-rising and collapsing. So don’t add too much liquid to the dough.(Note: I find soft doughs perfect for hamburger/sandwich buns, dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, and small, individually shaped breads. They don’t need to rise as high as panned loaves, and their smaller shape and shorter baking time allow for using a softer dough without any problems.)

Avoid over-risen dough. From King Arthur Flour: “For those of you who don’t want to use salt, remember that salt is a yeast inhibitor; salt-free bread will rise much more quickly and vigorously than bread with salt. When you eliminate salt from your recipe, you’ll need to reduce the amount of yeast, and perhaps even bake bread on the ‘rapid-bake’ cycle to keep it reined in sufficiently.” Beth Hensberger also suggests using the quick-bake cycle to avoid overproofed dough. Use rapid-rise or bread machine yeast if you use your quick bake cycle.

Just a precaution: If you’re baking in the bread machine, be sure to check the dough frequently during both kneading and rising. If the dough seems to be rising so quickly that it might overflow the pan, remove it and continue with rising, shaping, and baking manually.

One of the reasons I prefer baking in the oven is because I can pretty much avoid overproofing problems. The shaped and/or panned dough is sitting on the counter where I can see it at a glance. I’m not at the mercy of a pre-programmed schedule. Once I see that the dough has come close to doubling, I pop it into the oven. Most authoritative bread making sources now advise baking dough when it has not quite doubled in size. Oven spring, the term that describes the rapid increase in the volume of a bread during the first few minutes of baking, can be pretty strong in lower sodium breads. So letting the dough get to double or beyond may result in a sunken loaf. The dough will expand so much in the first minutes of baking that it collapses in on itself. For sandwiches, I find it easier to make hamburger buns than sandwich bread. The buns are less prone to overproofing and are super easy to keep in the freezer.

Next Post: Baking Low Sodium Bread - Getting Started - Part 3


Baking Low Sodium Bread Series:

Part 1 – Introduction  

Part 2 – Beginning Basics

Part 3 – Getting Started

Part 4 – Keeping It Fresh

Part 5 – Without a Bread Machine

Part 6 – Favorite Bread Recipes

Part 7 – Favorite Buns and Rolls
Low sodium Bread – Demystified

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