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Bread urban legend?

So last night I was out with a guy (originally from Philly) who operates a sandwich shop in the greater Seattle area, and he claims that the reason you cannot get bagels, hoagie rolls, etc. here (or anywhere west of the Mississippi) that taste like the ones back east is because of the alkaline levels in the water and how that works with the yeast.

Is this a load of crap or is there some truth to this?

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  1. It's certainly a commonly-held belief in Phillyland that there's something magic in the Schuylkill River water that makes the rolls special, but I have never seen anything remotely scientific to back that up.

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    1. you can check out this website and see that it is somewhat true. I just know that different types of water cause bread to react differently. I don't know what water types are found regionally though.


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      1. I've heard similar regional water supply claims in accounting for the singularity of NYC pizza dough.

        4 Replies
        1. re: equinoise

          I've also heard (and, I admit, perpetuated) this claim about NY bagels. It's gotta be something...

          1. re: seattledebs

            I've heard this a few places about particular food .. in Hoi An, Vietnam there is a dish called Kao Lao (sp) and it's noodles are made with water from a single well ..

            I guess cooking is a bunch of chemical reactions specific water qualities could impact the end result ..

            1. re: oliveoyl

              I really liked the hoi an kao lao. thick yellowish noodles. made only from well water in hoi an. and not too much broth of a full soup, just like a quarter bown to wet the noodles, and some dried pork or something on top, something crunchy, can't remember, but all very good.

            2. re: seattledebs

              I've also heard this about NY bagels. NYC has one of the best public water supplies in the country. That stuff tastes great, so I wouldn't be surprised if it is true.

          2. Since bread is made up of so few ingredients and water being a key one, I'm sure it does make a difference. As far as taste goes, there's plenty of things that don't taste the same east of the Mississippi and it has nothing to do with the water. Ask him about Chinese or Mexican food in Philly...things tend to even out.

            1. Many years ago, I knew someone who opened a second NJ pizzaria, and who found that the dough was not turning out properly at his new location. As an experiment, he brought a container of water from his first store, and used it to prepare the pizza dough at the new location. Sure enough, using the water from store #1 resulted in much better dough.

              As a result, he began transporting very large containers of water from Bayonne to Woodbridge every few days, and never had any more problems with his dough. The Bayonne water was undoubtedly not any more pure than the water in Woodbridge, but there was apparently a difference in the mineral composition/hardness that made a difference. In a similar fashion, I am sure that bread makers encounter variations in their dough from one location to another.

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              1. re: Ted in Central NJ

                Water and elevation are two culprits in the world of baking.............................

              2. As ML8000 says, breads have only a few ingredients so changing one of them (a big one, at that) will have a significant impact on th efinished product.

                That said, one of the other contributing factors is the yeast. Natural yeast is actually a whole series of airborne microorganisms. Different areas have different airborne life- San Francisco's yeast is known for great sourdough, New York is known for bagels. I like to think Chicago has a good mix for pizza crusts! Yeast's terroir is even more specific than Wine soils... a few degrees of temp, altitude, humidity level, etc- will change what exactly grows in your dough.

                2 Replies
                1. re: lunchbox

                  Lunchbox brings up a good point about yeast. As for San Francisco Sourdough, a microbiologist in Berkeley, CA named Henry Ng isolated the specific lactic acid bacterium in the "wild" yeast in San Francisco that gives "San Francisco Sourdough" it's specific taste. He named it "lactobacillus sanfrancisco."

                  You can take a "mother" or "sponge" of San Francisco Sourdough starter outside of the bay area and sucessfully make San Francisco Sourdough bread for a few weeks before the "wildl" yeasts of the area begin to take over the strain of lactobacillus sanfrancisco. After a month, none of the original strain will exist. Conversely, you can bring a starter from NYC or Montana or Seattle to San Francisco, and in a month (or less) it will be teeming with the San Francisco strain.

                  1. re: Non Cognomina

                    Close. It was two microbiologists working together -- T. F. Sugihara and Leo Klein -- who discovered the bacterium in the Bay Area’s air. The lactobacillus sanfrancisco does most of the work to make sourdough bread rise and taste sour. The bacteria eat maltose (a form of sugar) in the flour and give off carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise. But they also give off two kinds of acid: lactic acid (hence its name) and acetic acid (as in vinegar), which puts the sour in sourdough. But that's only part of the story.

                    A wild yeast, named candida milleri initially after the scientist who identified it -- Martin Miller -- and now named candida humilis, also contributes to making sourdough what it is. Candida humilis is unusual in that it can survive in an acidic environment, the very one the bacteria creates. The two are able to co-exist—an odd feat, really, in the microbiological world—and together they make sourdough, the wild yeast churning out its own carbon dioxide to further leaven the bread.

                2. The bagel recipe I use is from www.thefreshloaf.com. In that recipe they tell you to add a tablespoon of baking soda to the boiling water because it is supposed to alkalize the water and help to replicate the traditional bagel shop flavour. So I suspect the alkalinity is a key and perhaps there are many places that do not use the baking soda. The product of this recipe is quite good, but its been so long since I've had an official NYC bagel I can't say if the flavour is replicated.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Jambalaya

                    Isn't the purpose to the baking soda to promote browning as much as aid in leavening?

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      Old topic by now, but the way I read Jambalaya's post, s/he is dissolving the baking soda in the water before mixing in other ingredients, which just changes the water chemistry, but any leavening ability is lost as the fizz bubbles out. Browning (maillard reactions) happens more easily in a less acidic dough or more basic dough.

                      In the land of home-brew, we buy packets of minerals to add to our brewing water if we want to replicate a specific beer from one area or another. Herve This also has a piece on cooking lentils with Parisian water versus elsewhere and I believe he concluded it had something to do with dissolved limestone (carbonate) in the water.

                  2. So does this mean that all locally made (in Cali) bread must be sourdough because you cant introduce a different species of yeast?

                    Fascinating topic.

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: tom porc

                      I had a great response, but hit the wrong button and erased the whole thing! To sum up:
                      if you make breads using a sour or a sponge, the microbes in your area will probably result in quite similar breads within a few mile radius.
                      if you use Packaged yeast= different
                      Chlorinated water= different
                      Bleached flour= different
                      "Out of town" ingredients (flours, seeds, nuts, eggs, fruits- in the bread or for the sour)= different
                      That help you, tom porc?
                      I'm a lousy baker (especially breads)- I'm working on it- but this kind of stuff utterly facinates me!

                      1. re: lunchbox

                        Thanks very much and appreciate the re-type.
                        So if a Cali baker buys yeast and flour from NYC then the bagels and pizza dough can be the same? Interesting. Probably too expensive to have flour shipped from the east coast. Are bagels rolls and pizza dough made from bleached flour?

                        1. re: tom porc

                          Many high-end bakers are pretty dead set-against using bleached flour.
                          I don't know where you're writing from, but here in Chicago, several grocers carry Labrea breads- the original bakery is in California. I know the franchise distributes the breads parbaked or sometimes just the dough- in that case, the product is virtually identical from the original to the outlet (think chain restaurants).
                          I suppose if a bakery in say, NY sent the flour, the packaged yeast, and the water to say, LA, you could trick the natural yeasts, but thats just kind of silly! Besides, I don't see to many amber waves of grain in NYC!
                          Though I guess if you really love NY bagels or SF sourdough, you could have a local send you a starter sour and use it as much as you could before the local yeasts took over (like Noncog mentioned above).

                          1. re: lunchbox

                            This explains many thing to me. Why pizza in SF bay area is made from sourdough and why I smelled vinegar in a bakery or the bakery dept of a foodstore. I'm in NJ so I didnt know what sourdough was until visiting friends there.
                            So the OP was correct. You cant get the same taste in a bagel or roll in different areas of the country. Incredible really. Is this the same in Europe? Could be why I didnt like the tomato pies in Italy.

                            1. re: lunchbox

                              Another wrinkle regarding sourdough:
                              Some, perhaps most, large-scale bread producers, even in San Francisco, use high-tech air filters that filter out *all* airborne microflora, and so they use no indigenous wild yeasts. The *sourdough* flavor comes from a developed levain, biga or starter, but not from the bacteria and yeast in the air. Sometimes vinegar is used to get the sourdough flavor -- after all the real sourdough bacteria give off acetic acid as a waste product.

                              1. re: maria lorraine

                                Just when I thought I had it all figured out. Maria comes along and ...

                                In any case, local bakeries will make products that locals want to eat. If noone wants a NYC bagel or pizza than why would they make them. It seems ppl on the west coast prefer sourdough so sourdough it is.

                                Give me a slice of focaccia with rosemary, olive oil and fresh ground pepper anytime, anywhere.

                                1. re: tom porc

                                  Peculiar, isn't it, Tom? Well, we do have amazingly wonderful bread out on the West Coast -- so much so my waistline could easily expand if I didn't ration
                                  my consumption. But then, there's nothing like NY bagels, and we crave the
                                  real thing out here, so if any bagel spot comes close to producing the NY-type
                                  bagel, it's a thriving business.

                                  1. re: maria lorraine

                                    Happy to hear you enjoy your breads :o)

                                    A small time bagel shop or bakery probably wouldnt have the resources to produce an authentic NY bagel/roll/pizza dough for reasons previous stated. The filtration system alone is a big expense.

                                    I suppose one could look for frozen NY bagels if necessary.

                        2. re: tom porc

                          The magic of San Francisco sourdough applies more to home bakers, than to commercial bakeries, unless it is an artisan company that has very carefully developed their wild yeast starter.

                        3. The water back east is typically more acid with a different set and balance of minerals, but the yeasts, bacteria, humidity, and just about everything else is different.