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Water/flour ratios for three flours, w/ pictures, and how to get the best ratio (3/26/06)
When I first moved to Boston I didn't have a car so I took the subway everyplace. I really enjoyed exploring the city but the one thing I knew I was missing was a sense of it's scale. Being at the top of the Pru can only go so far towards understanding it. Years later, armed with a car, I got a chance to drive around a bit. I was absolutely floored because a lot of the places were fairly close to each other. I'd never walked around enough to make the connections, thinking they were so far apart. It turns out Boston is pretty small compared to NYC. I think it adds to it's charm.
Anyway, baking is very similar to my days with the subway. We're given exact instructions on what to put in and how, so we just pop up, have a look, and then disappear until the next recipe comes along. Now I realized this during my early Alton Brown days, and Alton does a damn good job of explaining things properly. The one thing he stresses a lot is the separation of wet vs. dry baking ingredients. I never quite understood why until I started making bread every weekend, from scratch. I'd adapted recipes and, with a hell of a lot of help from Shauna, we had our own version of Pane Toscano, called Pane Welgano. The name is a long story, you'll understand in a few years. Anyway, the one thing I couldn't get right was the size of the bubble holes in the resulting bread. They were always really tiny.
As it turns out, hole size is due to the wet/dry ratio. I thought of mixing the water in slowly until just right so I could get it perfect every time. It doesn't sound all that far fetched when you consider the Etruscans and Italians have been doing this for centuries with oil and basil to create the perfect pesto. So off I went, and lo, suddenly everything fell into place. Everything. Doughs, batters, mixes... its all about the wet/dry ratio. Yes, ingredients matter but all of these things appear on a spectrum that can be defined by that wet/dry ratio. Presented below are pictures of three different flours at places in the wet/dry ratio. Drier mixes such as for old-style muffins appear towards the top (~.3:1 - .6:1 or so). Doughs are in the middle (~.5:1 - .75:1), and batters, such as for pancakes, appear towards the bottom (~1:1 - 1.25:1). Each step adds 1/4 cup of water to the flour.
Cooking the perfect loaf comes from, in part, adding water slowly to achieve the right ratio. The whole picture must be taken into account too. Pane Welgano uses autolysis (see here and scroll down), so we mix the water with the flour without adding the yeast, and let is sit for about 10 minutes so all the proteins can get to work. After that we add the yeast (proofed, so it is wet) and starter (also rather wet), meaning my autolysis step needs to be a bit dry, or I should plan on keeping a bit of flour back to add in with the starter. The ratio also explains another mystery: when dough was just a little too wet it took GOBS of flour to balance it out. Well, for every cup of water there is 1 and ¼ cups of flour, so lots of flour will be needed to correct a little extra water. About 1.25 times as much, actually.
Best of luck! My best advice it just to play around with this till you have a feel for it. Then it'll be second nature.
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