Water is an essential ingredient in baking bread. Although it’s not the most exciting topic, the type of water that you use for bread can really make a difference! The quality of bread water affects how dough performs during mixing and fermentation. For some, the difference will be negligible. Yet for others, it can be the difference between a perfect loaf and a pancake. So if you’re wondering what is the best water for baking bread keep reading to find out.
Any type of drinkable water can be used to make bread. Best results can be found when using slightly acidic water that’s medium-hard. Ionized and reverse osmosis water are not good for yeast fermentation. Heavily chlorinated tap water can be used, but it will need to be poured and left on a counter a few hours before use.
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What does water do in bread baking?
1. Hydrates the flour
For flour to turn into a dough, it needs water. The moisture softens the protein molecules so they can unwind and stretch into gluten. It also hydrates the starch particles which allow them to “flow” and gelatinize.
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If there is more water present, flour proteins are more hydrated. This means the gluten structure becomes more flexible to entrap the gas produced.
2. Triggers enzymes
Enzymes are chemical compounds that break down the starch molecules in flour. Handily, they are already present in the flour! Once water is introduced, they become active. The process is called autolysis (self-digestion).
We want the starch to break down into simple sugars so they are able to penetrate the cell walls of the yeast. Simple sugars, also referred to as monosaccharides are also used in the production of organic acids.
3. Activates and aids the yeast
Water is initially necessary to activate dried yeast. Blooming active dried yeast in warm water allows the yeast to be most prolific.
Water also aids in yeast fermentation and reproduction. It allows the yeast to pass through the starch and proteins to conduct its leavening activity. It may also play a part in carrying dissolved C02 through the dough.
4. Acts as a solvent
Water acts as a solvent for salt and sugars. It makes sure that the molecules are carried and able to penetrate into the gluten network. Water is necessary for the ingredients of dough to operate. It allows them to enhance structure, crumb texture, flavour and regulates fermentation.
5. Supplies the dough with minerals
The mineral content of the water used for baking bread will affect how well the bread rises. The mineral content is determined by the hardness of the water supply. More on this later on.
6. Provides adicity
By altering the acidity of dough we can lower or increase the number of hydrogen ions available to bond with the protein. This determines the strength of the gluten. Acidity also affects the flavour of the bread.
If you prefer chewier, tangy, and crispier crusts, then water with a higher pH level is preferred. On the other hand, dough made with water with a low pH level will rise faster and is preferred for bread making.
The dough becomes slightly acidic (sourdough is more acidic) as it ferments. Thus, the traditional “bread” flavour utilises acidity. Making bread with more acidic water can speed up the process and still taste natural.
7. Adjusts the temperature of fermentation
You may have come across the phrase used by bread bakers “treat temperature as an ingredient”. The temperature of the dough can be adjusted to provide different flavours in the bread. For yeasted bread, a warmer dough will rise quicker, making it lighter tasting. Whereas cool proofed bread will rise slower and have more flavour.
The best way to control the temperature of fermentation is to adjust the temperature of the water used to prepare the dough.
Further reading: How temperature affects the flavour of a sourdough starter.
8. Reacts with salt
Salt ions protect the positively charged amino acid ions which tighten the gluten structure. They also reduce the mobility of water molecules to pass cells walls in osmosis. The presence of salt increases the hydration requirements of a dough.
Can I use tap water for bread water?
In most regions, yes! Any drinkable water can be used for baking bread. Many bakers prefer to use filtered tap water, but unless the hard is particularly hard there is no need to. Filtered water will reduce the number of minerals available to the yeast. Thus slowing down the rise and diminishing flavour.
Using tap water for your bread depends on its quality in your area. While most tap water is clean and filtered, some areas don’t have access to that kind of water quality. This kind of water can have contaminants that may affect the taste and quality of your bread.
One factor that you should be mindful of is the presence of chlorine in the water. In making bread, water with chlorine can cause the bacteria to die. As bottled water is chlorine-free many bakers get better results when they use it.
Hard water vs soft water for bread dough?
Hard water contains more dissolved minerals than soft water. These make the dough stronger. However, if the presence of these minerals is too potent, it can hinder the formation of gluten.
Having too many minerals will also have an effect on the yeasts fermentation process. When water has a high mineral content, the fermentation process slows down initially. This is not good for rising quickly-made bread and will also require more kneading.
For longer proofed artisan bread like sourdough, the minerals have time to break down and provide food for the levain. This improves the speed of the overall rise.
The hardness of water is determined by its calcium and magnesium content.
Water types classifications:
|Water type||PPM||Effect on bread|
|Hard||100>||Increased strength and rate of fermentation|
|Medium hard||50-100||Optimum for bread|
|Soft||<50||Slack, sticky dough that’s slow to rise|
Should I use filtered water for bread?
A lot of bakers don’t filter their water for bread or sourdough starters. They have great results without, so why bother? Yet filtering removes chlorine and other metals that don’t need to be there whilst keeping magnesium and calcium levels roughly the same. Many have found switching to filtered water a bit of a gamechanger. If you notice an improvement in the drinking quality of filtered water, it won’t do any harm to use it in bread. It will only do good things!
Can I use chlorinated tap water for bread?
Using water that contains high levels of chlorine can prevent the bread from rising. Chlorine kills the healthy microbes as well as the unwanted ones. This can destroy the fermentation process of your yeast or sourdough.
If your tap water is heavily chlorinated, leave the water to sit on the worktop for a couple of hours before using it. You can also boil the water for 15 minutes.
Chlorine is a weak acid that does a great job at removing unwanted bacteria. Whilst safe to drink in small quantities, high chlorine levels at a low pH level can cause issues. The bread can rise unevenly, have a pale crust colour and have a bitter taste.
Should you use warm water when making bread?
The right temperature can be a deal-breaker in making your bread. If your water is too hot, there is a risk of killing off the yeast or over-stimulating it to produce faster. Over-stimulating can lead to over-proofing and inconsistent rise in your bread. If you’re trying to dissolve dry yeast, the water temperature should be 34C (93F).
This is the optimum temperature and ensures that your yeast will activate properly. But this is too warm to proof bread. The yeast will be too active and produce gas before the gluten structure has matured. To combat this, bloom active dried yeast in three times its weight of 34C (93F) water. Deduct this water from the cooler water used for the recipe.
The temperature of the water should be determined by the desired dough temperature. This is based on the temperature of the flour and the room. In standard room temperature conditions of 24C (75F), the ideal water temperature for bread dough is around 16-20C (60-68F).
Will using cold water ruin my bread?
While water that’s too hot can kill the yeast, water that’s too cool will not activate the yeast properly. The yeast will still be able to produce gas, but it will happen at a slower rate so it’ll have a hard time rising. Yet since it’s going to take a longer period, it may also develop more flavour. This is one of the techniques that artisan bakers use to make superior tasting bread.
Can I use milk instead of water?
Yes! Milk contains around 87% water therefore it can be used to make bread. The milk fats provide emulsification and flavour which can be desirable. If you want to replace water with milk in a bread recipe, be sure to increase the amount of milk used by 13%.
What does water activity mean for bread?
Water activity is a measurement of food microbiology and food storage stability that is used to analyse bread once it’s baked. It displays the amount of water present in a product, compared to how much water could potentially be available for microorganisms or chemical changes.
A moist loaf of bread is going to have a higher water activity than a dry bread, or cracker. It’s also going to become stale quicker as the excess active water provides a better environment for microorganisms or chemical changes (as mentioned).
Water activity is a value between 0 and 1. Having a value of 0 denotes an absolute absence of water, which is extremely rare. Having a value of 1 means the product is pure water. A low water activity level means that there are fewer water molecules available, so it’s difficult for any microorganisms to grow.
Depending on the water activity of a product it will be stored differently. A low water activity product will generally want to retain its moisture so a sealed packet is used. Whilst a high activity product such as freshly made bread should be allowed to breathe and expel some moisture. If bread is sealed to lock in moisture it will harvest unwanted bacteria and mould early on. This method is used for bread such as soft rolls and sliced bread to keep them fresh for several days. To retain moisture and prevent spoilage additional stabilisers have to be added to the dough, such as calcium propionate.