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Carefully weighing and then adding flour "as needed"?

I just made Peter Reinhart's focaccia from the BBA, and used the book for the first time (vs internet recipes which aren't always as accurate). I carefully weighed all the ingredients, down to the yeast and salt. While mixing, it says to add flour "as needed." What is the purpose of measuring flour and water percentages so accurately if you're just going to add flour until it feels right? It's also hard to go be "feels right" because every bread has a different hydration and feel. When you first try a recipe, how do you know how much to add? I add heaping tablespoon of flour at a time but is there another way? The description is until it slightly pulls away from the side but not the bottom--there are many degrees of that. People always talk about how baking is a science but when you get to this point, it really is an art.

BTW, the focaccia turned out wonderfully. I was a little worried about it being over hydrated (still think it was, had some trouble dimpling) but it's still good. If you try this, watch the herbed oil--mine overflowed the baking pan and I have a mess to clean up in the oven.

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  1. Actually cooking is chemistry, baking is magic.

    1 Reply
    1. re: wolfe

      I want a t-shirt that says that.

    2. Grades of flour vary, sometimes dramatically. So they hydrate differently. Also, the level of hydration will vary depending on ambient temperature, relative humidity, etc. So most recipes for bread include a disclaimer "add flour as necessary" (sometimes they will also include "add water as necessary") to alert the baker that the texture of the dough may not be perfect with the weighed (measured) amounts specified. You'll always be much more successful by weighing the ingredients, even if you have to make some minor adjustments in flour/water, than if you just throw in approximate amounts and try to adjust from that plateau. The feel of the dough is something that you learn over time. When a dough is initially formed it will not be quite as firm as it will after its initial fermentation period. Kneading, resting and fermentation allows for more water to be absorbed by the flour, hence a firmer dough results. The difference can be subtle but it is, nevertheless, changed. Focaccia dough is (Reinhart describes it fairly well) "soft and sticky" and is best handled gently.
      When adding water to your dough, never add more than a tablespoon at a time; same with flour. It will give you better control. I agree with your comment "People always talk about how baking is a science but when you get to this point, it really is an art." At least to the extent that it is, IMO, both. The science is in the formula, the art is in the sense of understanding how the dough develops based upon how it is handled.
      The bread I made this morning (mixed yesterday afternoon) is "about" 4.5 ounces of AP flour, 4 ounces of water, 1/8 tsp instant yeast and 1/8 kosher salt. Baked in a super heated dutch oven, 10 minutes covered, 20 minutes uncovered 450 degrees. The science is in the formula, the art is in understanding how to adjust the formula, and the resulting minature loaf is fantastic.

      12 Replies
      1. re: todao

        Ditto everything todao said.

        Plus, don't forget that our body temps vary from individual to individual and by extension so will the temp of our hands. Some people have cold hands, others have hands not as cold. Thus, when kneading a dough by hand (which is the only way to do things, IMO), you've got to take into account this relatively overlooked aspect of things.

        1. re: ipsedixit

          What he said. The recipe is a good start but even the same ingredients will vary because of your kitchens climate and how they grew. Good baking is more about great technique and experience than it is about measuring exactly.

        2. re: todao

          A mini-me of Jim Lahey's no knead bread recipe.

          1. re: wolfe

            Well, close. My formula uses slightly less water, less yeast, less salt, and longer fermentation. I want to keep the sodium level as low as possible while still achieving the enhancement in flavor that the salt provides. It's sometimes tricky to balance.
            I've developed a real appreciation for the Lahey technique of using the "oven in an oven".
            I think it's ingenious.

            1. re: todao

              Actually you use relatively more yeast than Jim, much reduced salt and about 1 tsp less water than the original recipe. I have found that to be a most forgiving recipe and am thrilled to see your adaptation for the loaf for 2.

              1. re: wolfe

                By-golly, you're right - I thought he used 1/2 tsp of yeast. Thanks for the refresher. I'm working on a broader variation on the same theme, using the same reduced sodium approach. As you pointed out, the Lahey style is very forgiving so I expect to be successful. That being the case, I'll share it here and on the other forums I frequent. Thanks again for drawing my attention to the disparity in the comparative formula.

              2. re: todao

                Have you seen Bittman's new no knead book, My Bread? The hydration is much lower than it was in the original NY Times version, three cups flour to 1 1/3 cup water.

            2. re: todao

              Thanks, everyone. I guess my question is I'm so precise about using, say, exactly 4 1/2 oz of flour that if it bounces between 4 3/8 and 4 1/2, I make sure to add that sprinkling in so it stops bouncing. Maybe it's all those years of analytical chemistry where we titrated half drops to get the right results and I'm being pickier than I need to be. I was thinking that, as i haphazardly added a tablespoon of flour, unweighed just measured, to the mix. And, the dough, I think, was too hydrated. Overall, though, the focaccia was amazing--just got back from italian where everyone loves food and lives food and they thought it was great. Overall, I think I could spend years just working on focaccia alone to get it right.

              1. re: chowser

                I keep track of how much extra flour/water I add, so I have a guideline for the next time I make the same recipe, given that the weather is comparable, I'm using the same bag of flour, my aura is equally moist, etc.

                Definitely agree you could spend years perfecting one bread recipe. And PR's focaccia is relatively easy, just wait til you try his pain a l'ancienne, or the sourdoughs!

                1. re: yamalam

                  That's the problem--the consistency from ingredients, weather, etc. I'm in the DC area; it can be hot one day, cold the next; humidity affects the flour and how long ago I bought it; etc. Harder than forecasting the weather! I've done the Reinhart's bagels and loved them. I think a deep breath is needed for me because even overhydrated, the end product was fine.

                2. re: chowser

                  Maybe it's all those years of analytical chemistry
                  And we so screwed up the scales in the morning lab that the poor guys in the afternoon were way off so the late results were all unfortunately incorrect.

                  1. re: wolfe

                    Hmmm, that afternoon person might have been me...My results were never as accurate as they should have been and I thought I was really careful! ;-)